In Rwanda, dogs and handlers train to track poachers

AKAGERA NATIONAL PARK, Rwanda (AP) — One dog being trained to track poachers in a Rwandan national park is nicknamed “Machine” because of his reputed stamina on a trail. Another dog is known as “Professor” because of his seemingly analytical approach when following a scent.

They are, respectively, a 4-year-old Belgian Malinois whose regular name is Bruno and a 3-year-old Dutch Shepherd called Duco. They are among eight dogs, along with some Kenyan handlers, who were transferred to Rwanda by the foundation of U.S. philanthropist Howard G. Buffett. Earlier, they were deployed in Central African Republic to sniff out captives and members of the Lord’s Resistance Army, whose leader Joseph Kony is wanted for war crimes.

In Rwanda, the dogs are staying in new kennels at Akagera National Park, where bushmeat poaching has traditionally been a problem. African Parks, a Johannesburg-based group that manages the park, re-introduced lions there this year, nearly two decades after they were wiped out by livestock herders. It also plans to bring in rhinos, whose horns are coveted by poachers.

“The dogs make a huge difference,” said Sean Kelly, a former South African military dog handler who trained the dogs in Central African Republic and has worked with anti-poaching canine units in South Africa, including at the Sabi Sands wildlife reserve.

A wildlife park can distract an inquisitive dog seeking to investigate every animal scent. The key, Kelly said, is to get the dog to focus on the aroma around a footprint or some other clue identifying the quarry.

“You’re teaching the dog to ignore each and every scent except for the scent that you as the handler gives him,” he said.

Bruno and Duco initially struggled in Central African Republic but did “extremely well” after a refresher course in “scent discrimination,” comfortably tracking scents up to 1.8 miles (three kilometers), Kelly said.

U.S.-backed Ugandan troops have been searching in Central African Republic for Lord’s Resistance Army members and captives.

In its 2013 annual report, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation said it funded “K9 tracking units to find and recover victims kidnapped by the LRA,” including young boys forced to join the rebels and young girls coerced into becoming sex slaves, as well as the children from those rapes.

The dogs operated in denser terrain in Central African Republic, but did not have to deal with the kind of varied wildlife living in Akagera.

During an exercise, Kelly monitored data from GPS collars as Bruno and Duco, both leashed, took turns zigzagging through dry grassland, pursuing a scent laid by park staff in camouflage uniforms.

“Find him! Find him!” urged Duco’s handler, Japhet Nshimiyimana.

Duco fared better than Bruno, who was not with his usual handler. The dogs in Akagera actually have more experience than the handlers, who must read a dog’s glance, head swivel and other body language while sometimes operating in heat that quickly dissipates scent, according to Kelly.

Earlier, Duco nipped Kelly on the ear, drawing blood and a gentle reprimand.

“You’re supposed to give kisses, not bites,” the trainer said.

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