Posted on December 07, 2020 07:00

These patrolmen and dog duos, are decisive to avoid the illegal commerce of species, a job that combines intelligence, cleverness and a lot of intuition. In a unique blow to trafficking mafias, one of these binomials detected 1883 turtles that were about to be trafficked from the Leticia airport in the Amazon.

During a normal working day in March 2020 at the Alfredo Vásquez Cobo airport in Leticia (Amazonas), the wild fauna canine binomial was busy inspecting hundreds of suitcases, boxes and cargo to avoid the illegal extraction of native wild animals to be sold in Bogotá or taken abroad.

The sight of some boxes used for the transportation of chicks, reinforced by instinct and considerable experience alerted ‘Fruco’, a golden Labrador and his guide, police patrolman Diego Angulo, that something was amiss.

‘Fruco’ remained motionless and confirmed my suspicion, says Angulo, who remembers that his partner sniffed continuously, an indication to take action.

When the boxes were opened, they found many bags; their contents shook strangely. The officer requested support to remove whatever it was that did not stop moving, which ended up being 1833 mata mata turtles (Chelus fimbriata), ready to be illegally sold.

Thanks to the shocking discovery of this canine binomial, it was possible to save the majority of the reptiles that miraculously were still alive.

Unfortunately, this illicit activity that extracts monkeys, birds, reptiles or amphibians from their habitats for their sale in the country’s or Europe’s black markets, is now becoming a common transnational crime amounting from 10 to 20 thousand million dollars a year, as estimated by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).  Furthermore, this crime affects one of five vertebrates on Earth, as per National Geographic magazine.

The work of these binomials functions as a spoke in the wheel in the prosecution of this serious crime in megadiverse countries, such as Colombia.  Wildlife trafficking is the second cause of flora and fauna loss on the planet, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).  Curbing this illicit crime goes much further than a systematic and repetitive exercise of package and luggage inspection. Essential to its success, it requires a fine-tuning of a sixth sense that is jointly activated and strengthened by the friendship between the patrolman and his dog.

Signs like a bark, lying down or making another unusual movement, are enough for the policeman to know that his four-legged companion has identified wild animals or parts of them.

It is not a skill that arises spontaneously or from one day to the next. At least four months of training and practice are needed to create an efficient duo.

On one hand, environmental authorities train policemen in the identification of wild species, and on their transportation and illegal commercialization.

For the dogs, training begins as a game with a reward system for each species or part found. Not all races are suitable for this task.  The most skilled are the Labrador retriever and the German shepherd.

Additionally, the quadrupeds spend considerable time fine-tuning their sense of smell in what is called a bank of odors, a series of samples of skin, fur, shells and other elements of diverse species which are likely to appear during daily inspections.

“This odor bank framed for the detection of wild fauna was the first in all Latin America and is essential in the constant retraining of the canines. It is, additionally, a key complement in this traffic tracking strategy”, explains Juan Manuel Escobar, biologist and leader of the team of Protection, Prevention and Wild Fauna Investigations of the District Environmental Secretariat of Bogota.

Once trained, the success of the canine/patrolman duo requires determination, patience and perseverance. “‘Fruco’ is very clever and knows how to make himself understood”, says Angulo, who tells us how it is enough for his companion to put his foot insistently on a suitcase or package as an alert signal of the presence of an alive or dead animal.

However, the patrolman warns that there is much need for more of these binomials, because the one formed by him and ‘Fruco’, for example, is the only one that patrols at the Alfredo Vásquez Cobo airport and at the river port of Leticia. “With more binomials we could detect more. In this situation, every minute counts”.

Andrés Balcázar is a biologist and traffic specialist at WCS` program “Combate al Tráfico de Vida Silvestre” (Fight Against Wildlife Traffic), a project financed by the European Union and the United States government, supporting the country’s authorities in detection and control. He agrees: “having a dog that detects illegally transported animals complements the abilities of its guide”.

For instance, at the El Dorado airport in Bogotá, the minimum necessary staff to help combat this crime would include at least four patrolmen and eight specialized dogs.  Colombia is a pioneer in this initiative; therefore, its reinforcement would most surely translate into tangible achievements in the fight against this crime.   

Bogota has another heroic binomial: the one formed by Patrolman Miguel Salamanca and his dog Mack. This duo covers the El Dorado airport and the El Salitre regional transportation terminal. For Patrolman Salamanca, his dog ‘Mack’ is not only a service animal but a companion. “He is like a friend, with an extraordinary acuteness sense”, explains Salamanca.

Salamanca is also is reminiscent of ‘Poly’, a Labrador retriever that worked with him for four years and recently passed away. “He was astonishing; he basically never failed. He was a very clever and loving dog”, he remembers. Together with him, as a companion -says Salamanca- they found in the Salitre terminal a number of wild species, from parrots in bags and plastic boxes, to dismembered Colombian sliders. 

Last year in El Dorado airport, ‘Mack’ and his canine guide discovered 1300 mata mata turtles (Chelus fimbriata). But the challenge for the duo continues and is progressively more demanding, due to escalating illegal trading of wildlife parts and subproducts which is now even including insects.

Juan Manuel Escobar coincides. He remembers the 2019 ‘Ancestros’ operation in the Caravana shopping mall in downtown Bogotá, directed by the District Environmental Secretariat.

A massive sale of feathers, horns, skins, serpent rattles, armadillo tails, among other elements, was detected in this location.  During the development of the ‘Ancestros’ operation, 1431 subproducts were seized, thanks to the support of these dogs, as not even the smallest wildlife parts are unnoticeable for such well-trained noses.

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