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The gift of protection, with Marlene Zahner

The Australian veterinarian, David Paxton, suggests that wolves might have started living around the periphery of human settlements in a mutually helpful way; they would have protected human settlements and given warnings by barking at anything approaching.

Domestic animals are known to protect humans and take this job very serious. The cooperation between animals and humans goes back thousands of years; but it is only lately that dogs are trained and used to protect national parks and endangered species.

Since 2011, bloodhounds are working to protect Virunga National Park from poaching. Virunga National Park is Africa’s oldest park. It is a 7,800 km2 (3,000 sq mi) National Park that stretches from the Virunga Mountains  in the south to the Ruwenzori Mountains in the north, in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, bordering Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Ruwenzori Mountains National Park and Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda.

I met Marlene Zahner during our Animal Communication seminar in Switzerland. Her strong personality allied with a love for animals, make her an approachable and respected professional in the field of conservancy. She kindly agreed to be interviewed for my blog.

1. Hello, please introduce yourself and tell me what is your involvement with Virunga and the Congo hounds.

Dr. Emmanuel De Merode, Chief Warden of Virunga National Park, decided 2011 to form a canine anti-poaching tracking unit after learning of their effectiveness in combating poaching in other seriously threatened national parks. The warden reached out to me to help build a program in Virunga. I grew up with bloodhounds and for more than 20 years has been training police and SAR handlers to work with bloodhounds. I am widely seen as an international expert in the field of “man-trailing”, which is the teaching of human/canine teams to work together to track people by scent.

2.  With which African reserves do you work?

Virunga National Park = Congo hound Project and Boa Vista, Cape Verde, Combined Project of the Turtle Foundation and the DodoBahati Foundation

3.  Where is Virunga?

In the East of the Democratic Republic of Congo, at the border to Rwanda and Uganda.

4. Why they had a war? Are they still in war?

This is a very complex problem going back not only decades but centuries. The most recent event is the Genocide in Rwanda, which lead to a stream of refugees moving across the border and to the park’s border, as well as the the Interahamwe, the Hutu genocidaire, who were responsible for the slaughter of the Tutsi’s. This last group is still active in the region and called FDLR. The main reason for the ongoing unrest and wars in the region is based on the wealth found in Eastern Congo, such as gold, coltan, diamonds and last not least oil. Many armed groups, often not Congolese groups, are illegally mining or illegally deforesting. This is huge business, which they can only continue to do when there is no law and no strong government in the region.

   ” We can adapt our consuming habits”

5.  Virunga was not aired in Greece. It is not considered a “blockbuster”. Do you think people should be more interested in knowing what is happening in other countries with the fauna and flora? Why?

Absolutely! We are living in a world which is connected. We – the west and so called developed countries, are profiting from what is going on in the Congo. Their wealth is going abroad, the Congolese people are starving. The wars in Congo have caused more the 6 million deaths and nobody cared. Congo has still the second largest rain forest in the world. Forests are the lung of the planet and widely influence our climate. If we look away from this, we are just as guilty. Not everybody can travel to Congo or another place on this planet which is used and destroyed out of human greed, but we can care, and we can adapt our consummation. We can buy product without palm oil, we can recycle our telephones, which have coltan parts, and we can choose a way to support the wonderful work of Emmanuel DE Merode not only for the park but the people of Eastern Congo.

6. What is poaching? And why is it practiced?

Poaching is illegally hunting and killing wild animals in protected areas (parks and reserves) for profit.  It is a huge international business! Killing elephants for ivory, rhinos for their horn,  killing animals to sell bush meat, killing whole gorilla families to sell their babies in the black market, just to mention a few of the most famous examples. Often this money is being used to buy arms and finance criminal and terrorist groups.


7. What are the species menaced of extinction?

CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is an international agreement between governments. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.Roughly 5,800 species of animals and 30,000 species of plants are protected by CITES against over-exploitation through international trade. Within 50 years humans have reduced the number of vertebrae animals around 50%. Every year 50000 species are going extincted.

8.  Can the hounds help humans avoiding poaching? How?

The Congo hound unit can help catching the poachers and keep the poachers from even trying because they know they can be caught.

9.  Have you always worked with animals?

I have always lived with animals. As a veterinarian I was with animals during my working hours and with my dogs and horses during my off work hours.

       “They do not stab you in the back” Christian Shamavu, Park Ranger

10. What do you like about it?

I loved animals ever since I became aware of myself and my feelings. I always was very compassionate with animals, had animal’s friends during my childhood, and still have it during my adult life. Animals are genuine. They live their life, have emotions, friendship, they suffer just as humans, but they are not greedy, do not kill and torture for fun. Emmanuel de Merode once told me about the gorillas: they have all the good qualities of humans and none of the bad ones. Christian Shamavu, Congo hound ranger and friend, said, his dogs do not lie, they do not stab you in the back.



11. Dogs have worked with humans in numerous ventures- What these hounds can teach us?

The same all dogs can teach us: Be genuine with your feelings, be loyal, but do not sell yourself, help but not forget yourself while doing it, and enjoy your life.

12. How can people help the reserves in Africa against poaching and civil wars? Are we, in an indirect way related to these interests that destroy this magnificent continent and are bringing species in extinction?

As mentioned before, we are wildly responsible for the destruction of nature and extinction of species with our consuming habit. We have to be aware not to buy anything which helps destroying our nature, even if this means to not buying these things at all. It means changing our eating habits. Meat production and over fishing are some of the worst cause of destruction of this planet and climate, although most people are not aware of this.


One more time, we learn from animals. Thank you Marlene for your time and your love of animals. We hope people will be more careful in their consuming habits, it is the least that we can do to help the National Parks, the Rangers and their dogs, who are protecting the park and the animals.

Photos  by Marlene Zahner
















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