Lindsey Parietti is a 2016 fellow with the International Women’s Media Foundation. Reporting for this Reuters story was made possible by the IWMF’s African Great Lakes Reporting Initiative.
RUMANGABO, DRC -- Poaching has nearly wiped out Virunga National Park’s hippo, gorilla and elephant populations and rangers are completely overwhelmed by the illegal activities of armed groups inside the vast protected area in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Congohounds, the first program of its kind in central Africa, is employing Bloodhounds and Springer Spaniels to sniff out bullet casings and ivory and track poachers.
With only 250 rangers to cover 7,800 square kilometers, the canine noses are giving rangers an advantage, particularly when it comes to sophisticated elephant hunters who can divide, divert and cover their tracks, according to Canine Section Chief Christian Shamavu Cinyunyi.
The dogs are also employed to track kidnappers who take advantage of the wild terrain to hide their victims from authorities.
Led by Chief Warden Emmanuel de Merode, the rangers who are tasked with guarding Africa’s oldest national park have one of the most dangerous jobs in conservation – more than 150 rangers have been killed over the past decade in the restive region, including two this week in an attack by rebel groups.
The dogs and their unarmed handlers are often the first to the scene, putting them at an acute risk.
Park Ranger David Twiringire Nezehose was working with Springer Spaniel “Tumaini” last month on a mission to find two kidnapped drivers when the team came under fire. A guard accompanying them was shot and died of his shoulder injuries, Nezehose said.
“Nature has to serve everyone. If we cut all the wood here, there would no longer be life. So, when we are willing to die for nature, it is not the end of the world. We sacrifice ourselves for others, and it is beautiful to die for someone else than just to die like that,” he said.
Nezehose has been working with the dogs since 2011 when the park started importing them from Australia, Canada and the U.S.
Swiss trainer Dr. Marlene Zähner created Congohounds after bringing man-trailing bloodhound and crime scene investigation programs to Europe. The park now has two springer spaniels and nine bloodhounds after breeding some of the original dogs, though only three dogs are operational.
“I was directly assigned to the special team of the canine section, and I became spellbound by the mission those dogs execute in the park— it really touched me, especially since I did not like dogs before,” Nezehose said.
Not only an anti-poaching tool, the dogs also provide companionship and fun for the small canine unit. The rangers reward their dogs with kisses and pâté in a tube when they find their targets during training.
When de Merode took over the park in 2008 he reformed a corrupt ranger corps, ensuring that new recruits did not have any ties to the army or militant groups and putting a rigorous recruitment and training program in place.
Since then, improved conservation efforts have controlled poaching near park headquarters in Rumangabo, including on the nearby volcano that is home to some of the world’s few remaining mountain gorillas.
“The mountain gorillas used to be a poaching issue; in 2007 we lost nine of the gorillas but since then there has only been one death, and it was probably indirect, a baby was caught in a snare,” de Merode said.
But in the more dangerous and less controlled Central Sector of the park, poachers continue to decimate hippo and elephant populations. Hunting culled hippo numbers from 27,000 in the 1970’s down to just 350 individuals, according to de Merode, upsetting the lake ecosystem. The hippos are slowly recovering and now number more than 2,400.
“The elephant population we haven’t been so successful,” said de Merode. “That one is continuing to decline. We’re trying very, very hard to address that but the price of ivory is an enormous challenge to overcome given the number of uncontrolled armed men in the park.”
Mai Mai militias killed two rangers in attacks in the Central Sector on March 12 and 13, and a third is missing. Park authorities said they believe a new coalition of the rebels is specifically targeting the rangers.