Stefanie Reska – Zoologisch-Botanischer Garten Wilhelma/Stuttgart Zoo, Germany
Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is a UNESCO world heritage site and home to roughly a quarter of the remaining population of mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei). The species has made a comeback from less than 500 to an estimated 880 individuals in recent years, with most of the mountain gorillas in Virunga being habituated to visits by tourists, thus generating an important income for the park, its people and other national parks in the DRC.
The park used to have the highest density of large mammals anywhere in Africa, but decades of civil unrest and warfare as recent as 2013 have caused a drastic decline in elephants, hippos and other wildlife due to the presence of armed militia and the consequent poaching for bushmeat and ivory. Infant gorillas and chimpanzees also fall victim to the pet trade.
Due to continuous political instability, there is still a large number of rebel groups hiding inside the park, poaching wildlife and clearing rainforest for illegal charcoal production. The situation poses a grave security issue, as rangers are frequently killed during encounters in the field or armed attacks on ranger posts. 150 rangers lost their lives defending the park during the last 15 years, making it one of the most dangerous parks worldwide to work in as a wildlife guard.
To combat poaching, habitat destruction and giving the rangers an advantage in the field, the park's director Emanuel de Merode asked mantrailing specialist and veterinarian Dr Marlene Zähner in 2011 to establish a canine unit that would enable the rangers to track offenders back to their hiding places. The unit was founded the same year, starting with the selection of well-suited bloodhounds and talented rangers by Dr Zähner and the subsequent training of dogs and handlers in mantrailing techniques over the next three years.
It is now possible to track a poacher either from a snare or a poached animal over many kilometres, even if the incident has happened several days before and there was heavy rainfall. Identification by the dog is accepted proof to arrest and convict the person. The presence of the canine unit in and around the park on their routine training sessions is already showing a deterring effect on poachers.
In addition to the eight mantrailing bloodhounds, the canine unit also comprises two springer spaniels that are trained as sniffer dogs to detect ivory and ammunition. They are being used to check on suspicious vehicles entering or leaving the park as well as finding used bullets in the forest, which will in turn lead the bloodhounds to the offender.
While the training of dogs and additional dog handlers is to be continued, efforts are made to further increase the range in which the canine unit can be deployed. So far Stuttgart Zoo sponsored two vehicles to transport dogs and rangers from the park's headquarters, but additional vehicles in other sectors of the park will be needed. Additional kennels throughout the park also need to be established to allow for a faster response, while at the same time guaranteeing the safety of the dogs from fly-borne diseases.
Along with the support for the canine unit, Stuttgart Zoo and Dr Zähner's DodoBahati Foundation are also sponsoring education in situ, namely a pre-school, a primary school and an orphanage in Virunga, where local teachers are raising awareness about environmental issues. The social acceptance of the Congohound Project among the people living around the park is remarkably high, since villagers perceive them not only as stewards of wildlife but also as helping local families, many of whom are so impoverished that they do not have the means to pay the school fees for their children.