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Bloodhounds used to sniff out people killing elephants for ivory

Bloodhounds are being used in the Demoratic Republic of Congo's Virunga National Park to help stem the massacre of elephants.

Editor's note: This post contains a graphic image at the bottom that some readers might find disturbing.

Faced with a huge increase in elephants being killed for their tusks, governments and wildlife groups have been looking for new ways to stem the massacre. Africa's oldest national park on Monday said it had begun using a new tool to track down poachers: bloodhounds.

While the suspects in one killing got away, Virunga National Park said its first use of the dogs proved that tracking the scent of the tusks can work.

"We are extremely pleased with the outcome," Emmanuel de Merode, chief warden at Virunga said after the dogs led rangers to the suspected poachers in a nearby fishing village. "After a year of intensive training, both the hounds and the rangers proved to be a very effective weapon."

The dogs were deployed after an elephant was found dead inside the park --"the tusks had been hacked out of the elephant's face," Merode wrote in a blog post.


"It was an incredibly challenging crime scene," he added. "The killing had been done four, maybe five days before, and would have been heavily contaminated by scavengers." 

Rangers decided to use the elephant carcass to track the poachers "but the tracks were blended in with the passage of every hyena and every lion in the neighbourhood," Merode wrote in the blog. "On top of that, Dodi and Lily (the two dogs) took one look at the carcass and bolted. It’s not surprising as the carcass looked terrifying and had a horrific stench."

A ranger "spent a good half hour talking to Dodi and reassuring her," he added. "He was able to convince her, and she came in.  He used a bone as the scent item, and after twenty minutes searching for a trail, they took off."

The dogs and six rangers followed the scent of the elephant carcass for five miles to a small fishing village. "A unit of rangers patrolled the area through the night, and in the early morning intercepted a group of suspects who opened fire," the park said in a statement. "After a short exchange, the suspects fled leaving their rifles on the scene."

The park expects its five bloodhounds will have a "significant impact" on poaching. Funded by the European Union, the program brought in dogs trained in Switzerland by a center known for providing U.S. and European police with tracking dogs.

Virunga, a U.N. World Heritage Site located in the Democratic Republic of Congo, had an estimated 3,000 elephants in the 1980s but that's now fewer than 400. The park also is a wildlife haven for hippos and 200 of the last 700 mountain gorillas.

Over the last decade, 150 Virunga rangers have been killed by poachers. Some 300 rangers protect the park covering 3,000 square miles -- an area larger than Delaware.

Legalize ivory trade to save elephants, rhinos?

Driven by demand from Asia, prices for ivory on the illegal market have skyrocketed and that's led to record slaughters of elephants.

TRAFFIC International, which monitors the illegal wildlife trade for governments, doesn't estimate prices for fear that doing so will encourage poaching. But "with demand sky high, there’s likely to be a buyer on hand to pay whatever exorbitant sum is asked for," TRAFFIC spokesman Richard Thomas told msnbc.com.

In Cameroon, some 450 elephants were killed earlier this year by groups from Chad and Sudan suspected of using the money to buy weapons and ammo in their ongoing conflicts. 

"This most recent incident of poaching elephants is on a massive scale but it reflects a new trend we are detecting across many range states, where well-armed poachers with sophisticated weapons decimate elephant populations, often with impunity," John Scanlon, secretary-general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species said in a statement.

Under the convention, a fund to help crack down on poaching was begun last August and had received $250,000 from governments through the end of February.

But the convention office urged nations to do more, especially in coordinating efforts. "Save for a few cases where it was possible to make DNA profiling analysis," most seized ivory hasn't been tracked back to the source, the convention office said in a statement. "A national, regional and international approach to manage and conserve elephants is essential."

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Poachers are also going after rhinos, whose horns are in demand in Asia as a traditional medicine.

In South Africa, poachers killed a record 448 rhinos last year. So far this year, 80 have been slaughtered -- a number on pace for a new record.

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LuAnne Cadd / Virunga National Park

The discovery of this slain elephant in Virunga National Park led to the deployment of bloodhounds to track down poachers on Feb. 28.