Guwahati/Kaziranga: In January, the forest guards of Kaziranga started having better luck in their attempts to capture poachers. Usually, the poachers would get away, their trail obscured by the tall elephant grass in the park, home to 70% of India’s endangered one-horned rhinoceros.
“Standing in the middle of the tall, thick grassland, it was very difficult to guess in which direction the poachers have scooted,” said a forest guard.
That was before Jorba joined the guards. Elephant grass doesn’t bother him, and he doesn’t lose the trail.
Jorba is a Belgian Malinois, a breed of sheep dog. The most famous member of the species is Cairo, a part of SEAL Team Six that killed Osama bin Laden.
Cairo created a buzz in the US, with the country’s President Barack Obama reportedly saying, “I want to meet the dog.” In the dense grasslands of Kaziranga National Park, Jorba is no less a hero. And he is at the vanguard of a movement that uses trained dogs to combat poachers.
Sniffer school: Training under the TRAFFIC India programme.
Poaching is a problem at India’s national parks, but nowhere is it as serious as in Kaziranga, where guards have been ordered to shoot poachers on sight—a first in the country.
India has around 2,500 one-horned rhinos. Poachers value these animals for their horns. According to experts, wildlife trafficking is the third largest illegal trade in the world, after arms and narcotics, and the value of the business runs into billions of dollars. There is regular demand for rhino horns, a key ingredient in Chinese traditional medicine, despite scientific analysis confirming they have no medicinal value. Still, a myth popular in China and Vietnam has pushed the five rhino species in the world towards extinction. According to Havocscope, a database that tracks black market economies, the value of a kilo of rhino horn sold on the black market was around $97,000 (Rs 48 lakh today) in August, nearly double the $57,000 it cost at the start of 2011.
The idea of using dogs to combat poachers in Assam is credited to Bibhab Kumar Talukdar, secretary general of Aaranyak, a non-governmental organization. On a visit to national parks in Kenya, Talukdar saw trained sniffer dogs being used by the Kenya Forest Service, which faces a similar problem in saving the African white and black rhinos from organized poaching cartels. “A friend of mine, a dog lover, advised me to get a Belgian Malinois, as this breed is extensively used by the United States Secret Service in search operations, sniffing out explosives and drugs,” he said.
Talukdar got the now 15-month-old Jorba and his sister Zerina to form a dog squad called K-9 with support from the UK-based David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation (DSWF).
Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint
Introduced in the Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary in Assam in August, Jorba helped track down a secret 2km trail used by poachers. He sniffed his way right up to the village where the poachers were sheltering, leading to their arrest. Soon after, Jorba joined an anti-poaching service along with forest guards in Kaziranga.
“Now poachers are aware that they cannot get away easily, and even people who provide shelter to these criminals are scared,” said Talukdar. Buoyed by the initial success with Jorba and Zerina, who is still waiting to be deployed in anti-poaching work, Melanie Shepherd, chief executive of DSWF, said her organization will try to “raise more funds to add to the dog squad”.
TRAFFIC India, a part of WWF-India’s wildlife trade monitoring programme, has also started running a successful sniffer dog training programme, the first of its kind in the country. The dogs are to be used for detecting illegal wildlife products such as tiger and leopard claws, bones, skins, whiskers, elephant tusks, mongoose hair, snakeskin, rhino horn, deer antlers, turtle shells, musk pods, bear bile, medicinal plants, timber, and caged birds such as parakeets, mynas and munias. To date, seven German Shepherds have been trained to sniff out wildlife contraband and are working in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand.
Earlier this year, one of the German Shepherds, Tracey, helped recover two elephant tusks from the forests of Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary in Jharkhand. Another, Jackie, helped nab two poachers in the Hoshangabad district of Madhya Pradesh. And Raja, another dog posted at Bhrampuri Wildlife Division, Maharashtra, has helped solve a leopard-poaching case, leading to the arrest of seven poachers.