Despite being illegal, the use of poison baits to target predators that can potentially harm livestock or game species remains a widespread practice, especially in the Balkans. Not only does poisoning pose the most significant threat to vultures, but it also puts nature, other animals and humans in danger. The good news is that several projects and initiatives are currently combating this severe problem, and one of the ways they do so is through anti-poison dog units (APDU)!
What are anti-poison dog units?
Each anti-poison dog unit consists of a human handler and at least one working dog. By using the dog’s superior sense of smell, these units actively inspect rural areas to detect and remove poison baits or poisoned carcasses from nature to help prevent animals from getting hurt. Essentially, an anti-poison dog unit can improve the process for responding to and handling poisoning incidents, assist police investigations and act as an effective awareness tool.
Helping reduce poisoning incidents in Thrace
Since 2014, WWF Greece‘s anti-poison dog unit, comprising of Ela and Kiko the dog, has been patrolling the vast area of Thrace. The area’s biodiversity is rich, with regular visits by the last Egyptian Vultures in Greece (only five pairs left) and other vulture species such as the Cinereous Vulture and the Griffon Vulture. Within the frame of three projects funded by the LIFE Programme, “Return of Neophron”, “RE-Vultures” and “Egyptian Vulture New LIFE”, Kiko and its human handler Ela covered hundreds of kilometres in order to spot and remove poison baits and animals. All these years, the unit has significantly contributed to the conservation of rare vulture species and saved both wild and domestic animals, detecting more than 200 poison baits and animals. Without a shadow of a doubt, the anti-poison dog units in the Balkans are innovative and effective prevention activities that have contributed to throwing some light on the extent of the illegal use of poison baits and tackling this threat head-on.
Training a new anti-poison working dog
After many years of service, Kiko is getting ready to retire over the next few years. So, by the end of 2021, it was time for the unit to welcome another colleague. The newly trained dog named Dalton will continue the mission of WWF Greece, transitioning to a new local NGO called the Society for the Protection of Biodiversity of Thrace. Before coming to Greece to bond with its handler Ela, Dalton initially received training in Spain by Jesus Lopez Valladolid. Then, the training continued in Crete, where Ela and Dalton joined Spiros and Eka, another APDU under training that swelled the ranks of anti-poison dog units in Crete. Although both handlers accumulated vast experience over their years of work, the training was still very demanding. The dogs learnt to identify and report different target smells of poison baits and animals in several environmental contexts (field, forest and urban area). They carried out many inspections, mostly of preventive nature, in areas where poison bait incidents previously occurred. In the end, the training was a success, and both teams were ready to act in their areas. Dalton came to Thrace, his new home where he immediately got along with Kiko. Now both of them happily “dedicate” their life to serving vultures!
Transferring expertise and building capacities
By the end of 2022, WWF Greece will establish a long course of continuous presence in Thrace, having supported one of the longest-running field programmes in Greece. WWF Greece has passed this extended experience down to the Society for the Protection of Biodiversity of Thrace (SPBT) and its staff, with the support of the M7 partnership working to reduce human-induced mortality of migratory birds and vultures in the Mediterranean by eliminating threats, an initiative funded by the MAVA Foundation. SPBT is an environmental organization of local character that takes action in the region of Thrace. The Society’s efforts focus mainly on the mountainous and semi-mountainous regional units of Evros and Rodopi. Its main purpose is the conservation of the natural environment of Thrace by monitoring birds of prey as key indicators of biodiversity, and at the same time by promoting projects for the harmonious coexistence of humans and nature.