The young bloodhounds – Carla, Sabrina, Lila, Lily and Stella – have broken new ground in Congo, where dogs are not generally used for more than guarding.
“The dogs have gained a sort of a heroic status in the park,” said Maierhofer. “People are always talking about them and everyone knows them.”
Maierhofer and his wife Ursula, who are both German police detectives and private trainers of sniffer dogs, worked intensively with the dogs before taking them to the Virunga National Park where help was desperately needed in the fight against poachers.
More than 150 rangers killed
Established in 1925, it is the oldest national park in Africa, covering around 7,800 square kilometres of varied habitat in the north east of the Congo – and is one of the last places that mountain gorillas can be seen in the wild.
As beautiful as the region is, the number of animals falling victim to illegal poaching has exploded. The illegal trading of elephant tusks shows no sign of stopping and militants have killed more than 150 rangers in the past 17 years, as violent political unrest rocks the country.
The call for tracking dogs went out from Virunga park director, Belgian-born Emmanuel de Mérode to world authority on sniffer-dog training, Swiss vet Dr Marlene Zähner, who contacted the Maierhofers at their home in North Rhine-Westphalia.
After months of intensive training by Zähner in Switzerland, she and the Maierhofers took the bloodhounds to Congo – for the all-important introduction to their handlers.
Despite dogs not normally being kept as pets there, “introducing the bloodhounds to the rangers went really well and they took to caring for them immediately,” Maierhofer, fresh off the plane home, told The Local.
There was one dog that immediately took to a camp worker at the ranger base. “He was promoted to dog handler on the spot,” said Maierhofer.
The relationship between handler and dog is crucial – they need to trust each other in what can be a very dangerous situation.
“Everything was new for the rangers and there was a lot to learn,” said Maierhofer. The bloodhounds, who had received vigorous training before being flown out to their new home, took some getting used to, as dogs are not usually kept as pets in the Congo.
First successful mission reaps a haul of guns
The dogs also had a lot to get used to – they will often be flown in a small, rickety plane or helicopter to get closer to poachers, and have to be ready for confrontation if they find them as the men hunting elephants are also most likely to be carrying guns.
“Poachers are often heavily armed in the Congo,” said Maierhofer. “We do extensive training to prepare the man-trailing teams for gun-fire, which is how confrontations with poachers can end.” The teams are also taught how to deal with attacks from dangerous animals, such as lions. It is all a far cry from Switzerland.
There are now five man-trailing teams working in the park. Maierhofer was recently there to oversee their first operation.
He said the rangers and dogs spent two days combing the Virunga terrain, following a scent that lead them to the border of Uganda and culminated in an armed standoff with suspected elephant poachers. The suspects opened fire at the ranger teams but then fled, leaving behind a cache of weapons.
Both Maierhofers volunteered their time and expertise for the “Congohound” programme.
“It’s my belief, and it’s my job,” he told The Local. He said that many other countries in central and southern regions of Africa where poaching is particularly bad could benefit from a similar set-up.
”But right now we’re concentrating on the Congo.”
Over recent years, tourism has slowly been increasing to the Virunga Park as stricter safety measures have been put in place and more than 3,000 tourists have visited since 2008.
Congohounds is part of an international push to make the Congo a safer place for the animals and people who live there, as well as those who want to visit.