Elephant poaching continues to be a major problem in Africa's national parks. To combat this a new initiative is being tried out at the Virunga National Park. This involves the use of specially trained bloodhounds to help wardens to track down poachers.
Even though it is illegal to kill an elephant in Africa, poachers continue to slaughter the mammoth beasts . This is generally for ivory. The problem was considerable until the 1990s when more vigorous government campaigns, working with bodies like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), were put in place to reduce poaching. However, in recent years the trend has again been upwards.
A recent report by the international wildlife trade group Traffic indicated that more elephant tusks were seized in 2011 than in any year since 1989 (the year that the ivory trade was banned). In 2011 alone 23 tonnes of ivory seized (which represented at least 2,500 dead animals).
The increase has caused concerns amongst national governments in Africa and campaign organisations. One initiative, aimed at dealing with poachers, has been instigated at the Virunga National Park. The park is a United Nations world heritage site and it stretches from the Virunga Mountains in the South, to the Rwenzori Mountains in the North, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, bordering Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Rwenzori Mountains National Park and Queen Elisabeth National Park in Uganda. The park is home to many African Elephants (Loxodonta africana).
The new method for tracking down poachers that the park's authorities have adopted is to use bloodhounds. Bloodhounds are renowned for their extraordinary sense of smell (sometimes they are called scenthounds). The dogs can discern human odors even days later, over great distances, even across water. Bloodhounds are still used by police forces to track down crime suspects.
However, the use of bloodhounds to track poachers is a novel one and being undertaken on a trial basis, according to World News. The dogs are working with park rangers to examine sites after an elephant has been found killed and then to help track down the perpetrators. For the project a special trained ranger protection unit is in place.
According to YubaNet, the hounds were trained by Dr Marlene Zähner at a specialized Swiss centre, with assistance from the German police.
The man behind the initiative is Emmanuel de Merode, the chief warden. Merode runs a blog called Gorilla CD. Blogging about the use of the bloodhounds, Merode has posted:
"The poachers had left nothing, just a few broken branches. We decided to use carcass itself as a scent item that the hounds could use to track the poachers, but the tracks were blended in with the passage of every hyena and every lion in the neighbourhood. "
Despite the difficulties, the rangers with the help of the bloodhounds tracked down some suspects:
"They intercepted the suspects, who immediately opened fire. After a short exchange of fire, the suspects fled, leaving four rifles on the scene. The suspects were poaching, and may well have been the elephant poachers."
So far the use of the bloodhounds appears to be helping. The BBC notes that the use of hounds was partly funded by a European Union project grant.