With sweat rolling down my brow from the near 100 percent humidity in the forest and the smell of damp and decay in my nostrils I was concentrating on keeping my footing as we moved along in single file along elephant paths crowded in from both sides by rapidly encroaching bushes and small trees.stepped over roots and fallen trees. Trying to keep my footing as I stepped over large fallen trees blocking my path whilst trying to be as silent as possible was a feat I quite often felt I was losing. The Dzanga Sanga Protected Area is actually quite small in comparison to the size of the rainforest and juts out from the the underside of the Central African Republic and is bordered by Congo (Brazaville) and Cameroon.
There are myriad threats to the rangers we were mentoring in this reserve… Heavily armed poachers from Cameroon and Congo, who outnumber and are more heavily armed than the rangers and the more demure BaAka people who are more under threat from the marauding poachers than anything else. We watch everything to make sure the tactics and procedures of moving and more importantly communicating in the forest are implemented properly and the effects are quite often instantaneous.
All of a sudden the men in front of me we running across the ground in front of me – no warning whatsoever given but I duly followed at pace. The ground ahead of me seemed to be moving – a black swath moving left to right for the next twenty metres or so – I lost sight around the next corner.
We stopped after twenty metres, normally an ant crossing is only for about twenty metres… looking down at the same town we carried on – at a fast pace!! Ants already boiling up our legs…
There are ants everywhere in the forest – they seem to get up our trousers and bide their time before starting to announce their presence.
The next thing I knew we had our trousers around our ankles, shirts off and picking carnivorous ants off of our bodies… I can’t imagine what we looked like and though this was definitely not tactically correct this is a prime example of where the tactics have to be aligned with local conditions or they will become irrelevant and discarded.
In CAR, the communities are markedly different from Mali and so the problems of poaching and trafficking are also very different. The Bilu tribes are responsible for most of the elephant poaching, though the diminutive and shy Bayaka Pygmies are avid bush meat hunters who will delve into poaching if offered money which is becoming more frequent.
Because of their intimate knowledge of the forests they are often taken advantage of by the Bilu, Cameroonian poaching gangs and others to do the actual poaching or at the very least to act as the trackers. A way to prevent this from happening is by shutting down these routes and pressuring the BaAka so that it is not an attractive work offer whilst at the same time providing them with an alternative to poaching for money. WWF has built a clinic, a school and there is a lodge on the Sangha river which provides work for the BaAka inhabitants of Bayanga.
By using technology which has proven successful over and over again in counter poaching the teams on the ground can also find ivory, weapons and ammunition cached so thAT it is undetectable by humans working on their own. This has already proven to be a game changer in CAR as it has in South Africa, Zambia and kenya. Enter Mitch and Bobby, who had already seen action in Mali and were well used to working in tough environments.
On the first mentoring operation with the detection dogs Mitch and Bobby, we were stationed at a vehicle check point when one of the handlers recognised someone who had previously run away from us when we had come into sight.. We had come around the corner in the landcruiser, passing through more of a savannah area before we hit the forest proper and so could see quite far ahead. Though we stopped and questioned the rider, who turned out to be a Moto taxi driver the suspicious person had already made his escape running into the savannah and outer perimeter of the forest. He had such a head start that it would have been foolish to take chase.
Erik Groenendijk (Mitch and Bobby’s trainer) and myself were sitting on some chairs, under a chair taking in the scene in front of us. Vehicles full of fruits and locally made boxes being stopped at the boom, which also served as the customs border between Congo and the CAR. Mitch being loaded on the back of vehicles to detect any sign of bush meat ammunition or ivory. Suddenly Mitch’s handler recognised the man who had run into the forest in an attempt to evade us made apparent how important each partner in the detection team are to each other as each has separate abilities and responsibilities.
We went across from our position to the house and the handler entered the small thatch dwelling with Mitch and protection, which is vital for the safety of the team while they are working. We waited outside to see if there was anything of value (to us) being hidden in the small building.
Moments later we heard the clicker which signals to the dog that a reward (playing with a toy) is coming and knew that Mitch had found something. Erik, the trainer from Holland became very excited as he knew exactly what this meant.
The clicker was the signal that the dog was about to get his reward, in this case a chewy toy for the positive detection. It is always a game with the detection dogs and they must be rewarded for them to stay interested in detecting the same scent. Be it ammunition, ivory or drugs.
He came out with his handler and after sniffing one shotgun round the handler had then found and now the rest of the team went into continue with a thorough search of the interior and found an additional stash of ammunition hidden in a corner of the room that Mitch, would not have been able to find on his own.
Such an important partnership between man and dog.The man was an ammunition trafficker and though all of the ammunition was shotgun shells, it is these networks which the hardened elephant poachers exploit. This means it is imperative that all traffickers need to be arrested and their networks taken down.
This was a significant find as it gave Mitch huge confidence as well as showed the handlers and wider community that the detection dogs give a significant advantage to the Counter poaching rangers. The work continues and spare a thought for Mitch, Bobby and their handlers who continue to detect traffickers and poachers who destroy the world’s wildlife and ecosystems.
For them it is just a game, for the planet it is survival.