Sniffing Out Destructive, Invasive Giant African Snails
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SANTA CRUZ ISLAND, GALÁPAGOS – Darwin, a golden Labrador retriever, was rescued after he was unable to complete a service dog training program and black Labrador Neville was saved from a shelter. Now both dogs are paying it forward and saving other wildlife from destructive, invasive Giant African Snails in the Galápagos Islands.
The Regulation and Control of Biosecurity and Quarantine Agency for Galápagos of the Ministry of Environment of Ecuador, Dogs for Conservation, and Island Conservation partnered to launch this first-ever canine detection program for invasive species in the Galápagos, with generous support from Galápagos Conservancy and The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. The Regulation and Control of Biosecurity and Quarantine Agency for Galápagos of the Ministry of Environment of Ecuador ultimately aims to have detection dogs to review high-risk organic imports at all airports and ports that service Galápagos.
“If left unchecked, the snail population would quickly swell and could get out of control, causing an extremely expensive agricultural and ecological crisis,” said Marilyn Cruz, Executive Director, Regulation and Control of Biosecurity and Quarantine Agency for Galápagos of the Ministry of Environment of Ecuador who is leading the implementation of the project. “This first ever Galápagos canine detection program for invasive species and can help detect effectively and cost efficiently remove these invasive snails faster.”
“Galápagos is the best preserved tropical archipelago in the world, thanks to the vigilance of government agencies responsible for its protection. Experience has shown that once an invasive species becomes established, it is almost impossible to remove. These snails pose an immediate threat to local agriculture as well as the survival of endemic Galápagos snail species,” said Johannah Barry, President, Galápagos Conservancy. “Supporting Dogs for Conservation was an obvious choice for us – to establish this first line of defense, and create an innovative approach to detection and removal, with plans for expansion of the program within the Regulation and Control of Biosecurity and Quarantine Agency for Galápagos of the Ministry of Environment of Ecuador to combat other invasive species.
Invasive species are one of the leading threats to the balance of the Galápagos’ ecosystems and rare wildlife that have evolved over millennia, some of which are found nowhere else on earth. However, 40% of the 95 vertebrate species are endangered. The single most prominent cause is invasive species.
“Invasive Giant African Snails can decimate native plants and animals, and if allowed to expand would impact the agricultural production of the island’s farms, which the local community depends upon,” said Karl Campbell, Galápagos Program Director, Island Conservation, who helped identify the need for dogs and other tools to be able to effectively eradicate the invasive snails from Galápagos. “This innovative dog detection program can stop the spread of snails and serve as a model for preventing other invasive species disasters in the Galápagos.”
Globally, invasive Giant African Snails are classed as one of the world’s most invasive species, destroying crops, threatening native snails and ecosystems, and carrying several parasites which can be harmful to both humans and plants. It is illegal to import this species into many countries. Invasive Giant African Snails were first detected in 2010 on Santa Cruz Island, and currently less than 20 hectares (50 acres) are infested on Santa Cruz Island. They can still be removed if additional management methods are integrated into current activities.
Release the Hounds
Previously the Regulation and Control of Biosecurity and Quarantine Agency for Galápagos of the Ministry of Environment of Ecuador staff had to search for and collect snails on rainy nights using headlamps. An important mission, but extremely challenging and not viable as a long-term solution to eradicating the snails permanently. A new – more efficient and cost effective method – had to exist. The partners held a workshop and determined that using canine detection could be the answer. Detection dogs had been used for finding drugs and shark fin in the Galápagos, but not for other purposes.
Dogs for Conservation based out of Texas was consulted and is now leading the dog training. They traveled to Galápagos with the two trained dogs to work with six Regulation and Control of Biosecurity and Quarantine Agency for Galápagos of the Ministry of Environment of Ecuador staff handlers and trainers – many who had never worked with dogs before and had to learn canine behavior, learning theory, scent theory, care of each dog, training methods and handling skills.
“This has been a great experience to interact with this super intelligent dog who is doing a critical job to conserve the Galápagos,” said Fernando Zapata, principal handler for Neville Regulation and Control of Biosecurity and Quarantine Agency for Galápagos of the Ministry of Environment of Ecuador. It wasn’t just the handlers who had to learn new things – both dogs required a period of acclimation to the Galápagos and their new job. The dogs could only be trained on dead snails in the USA because of biosecurity risks for this highly invasive species, so some additional training was needed upon arrival in Galápagos to transition them both to live snails and snail eggs.
While a lot of work, both handlers and dogs took to their mission with dedication.
Darwin was donated by a breeder to an organization that works with prison inmates to train service dogs. He lived in a prison with his trainer for the first 18 months of his life. However, Darwin was too hyperactive and was unable to be trained to perform specific tasks. After evaluating him for detection work, Dogs for Conservation acquired him and began training him to detect snails. This shift in Darwin’s job description and work environment has been very positive for Darwin who is now much calmer and more focused. Darwin loves to play fetch and relax with his handler when he isn’t working. He is a very happy, easy going dog who loves every person and every dog he meets.
Neville was found in a shelter and saved by a Labrador rescue group in Texas. Dogs for Conservation evaluated him and immediately saw that he had huge potential to be a working dog and that for these same reasons he would not make a good pet for the average person… he needed a job! Neville is a big goofy puppy that loves to play. His zest for life knows no bounds and he is almost always focused on his favorite toy – a tennis ball.
“In order to study a species, whether it be an endangered species or an invasive species, biologists need to be able to collect information. Unfortunately, it is often extremely difficult or even impossible to properly survey for specific species due to limitations in technology and/or human eyesight,” said Rebecca Ross, Executive Director of Dogs for Conservation. “There is a reason the U.S. military has spent so much money investing in their dogs, and that is because no one has found a tool or machine that can compete with a dog’s nose!”
Darwin and Neville have now been trained to sniff out the invasive snails so they can be removed. This allows areas to be cleared of these pests faster than before and high risk areas (such as refuse sites) can be checked quickly for invasive Giant African Snails.
This project is also serving as a pilot to establish a permanent canine detection program in the Galápagos. Expertly trained dogs and experienced handlers will be a highly cost effective detection tool for ongoing biosecurity programs aimed at a variety of invasive species to protect the unique and fragile ecosystems of the Galápagos.
RESOURCES: Photos, Dogs and Handlers Profiles, B-roll footage (upon request)
Sally Esposito, Island Conservation, 706-969-2783, email@example.com (PST)
Dra. Marilyn Cruz, Executive Director of the ABG, 593- 052-527-414 Ext. 104, firstname.lastname@example.org
Rebecca Ross, Executive Director, Dogs for Conservation, 512-568-9099 (PST) Rebecca@dogsforconservation.org
Dr. Linda J. Cayot, Science Advisor, Galápagos Conservancy, email@example.com
Featured Image Photo: Rebecca Ross, Dogs for Conservation
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