Mid-October, I found myself panting up and down the steep cobblestone streets of colonial Quito. The 10-hour plane ride and the 9000+ feet elevation of Ecuador’s capital were however not the only thing robbing me of my breath. Quito’s beautiful old town represents one of the largest, least-altered and best-preserved historic centers in the Americas and was in 1978 the first city to be declared a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO.
But I was not there as a tourist, I had travelled to Quito to pick up Manotas. A name, I was told, that means ‘big hands’, but you won’t find that translation in any dictionary.
‘Big paws’ would be more appropriate as Manotas is a 7-year-old yellow Lab. He was born in Colombia on June 25, 2006. In 2008 Sea Shepherd acquired six police dogs in Colombia and Manotas was one of them. WildAid along with Conservation International selected another four dogs. After extensive training by the elite Ecuadorian police unit Grupo de Intervención y Rescate (GIR) on the mainland, Manotas and the nine other dogs were transferred to the Galapagos Islands in January 2009 where, after additional training by the environmental police, Unidad de Protección del Medio Ambiente (UPMA), they became part of the canine squad combating the smuggling of shark fins and sea cucumbers and wildlife trafficking in the Galapagos.
The Galapagos Islands, officially known as the Archipiélago de Colón, are a group of volcanic islands straddling the equator over 900 km west of continental Ecuador. Its unique wildlife inspired Charles Darwin’s ideas on evolution, natural selection and adaptation. The islands have been dubbed the most sacred ecosystem on the planet.
Since 2000, Sea Shepherd has maintained a strong, positive presence in the Galapagos Islands.
The Galapagos is our line in the sand. If humanity cannot protect such a unique and diverse ecosystem, we will not be able to protect any ecosystem. The Galapagos is a challenge and battlefield for the effort to halt human greed and destruction. These enchanted isles are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and this means all of us have a responsibility to help protect them from illegal exploitation. Over the years Sea Shepherd has among other things, supplied radio equipment, an Automatic Identification System (AIS), and shark education to school children.
And, of course, we initiated the K9 unit.
These dogs and their guides form the first ever police K9 unit in South America that focuses on the detection of contraband wildlife. The success of this project is very important as other South American countries could learn from this model program and implement a similar system. This will be elemental in getting stronger wildlife protection in place in a part of the world that is so rich in biodiversity. Colombia’s National Police, for instance, introduced a canine squad with four dogs to help in the fight against the illegal trade in animals, plants and timber last September.
Once in the Galapagos the dogs were divided over the main populated islands, Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, and Isabela, and have been checking all movements of people and cargo between, to and from these islands. At these places either existing kennels on National Park property were used or Sea Shepherd built kennels specifically for the dogs where facilities for them did not yet exist. They are more spacious than existing kennels with the well being of the dogs in mind. They are also built on land owned by local authorities in order to avoid possible retaliation from poachers and smugglers.
Manotas worked at Baltra Airport, the main entry point to the islands, checking passenger’s baggage and cargo and at Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island’s major port where the tourist boats exchange passengers, cargo ships discharge their load and fishing vessels land their catches. Ever since their introduction it has become a common sight at all the airports and in all the harbors in Galapagos to see the guides and dogs checking cargo and luggage. Even though we are mostly interested in the detection of shark fins, the dogs are capable of detecting a wide range of animal smells, making the smuggling of wildlife past these check points very difficult. The unit is also being used to check more remote locations and to search properties in which the presence of illegal wildlife is suspected.
We have not only seen numerous cases in which wildlife smugglers were apprehended and illegal wildlife was confiscated, the unit also has a preventative function. Nobody in their right mind still tries to smuggle wildlife past these dogs, as detection is a certainty.
Originally three organizations put their names under the first/original agreement in 2008, but as of 2010 Sea Shepherd Galapagos has been the only one providing food and veterinary care to the dogs. Sea Shepherd has been and will continue to cover expenses on food and medical care for the dogs as well as training materials.
For this project Sea Shepherd has signed an institutional agreement of cooperation between Sea Shepherd, the Ecuadorian National Police and the Internal Affairs Ministry. The agreement includes a very important animal welfare provision by which the dogs are to retire after 5 years of service to a home as a companion animal. That time has almost come.
In April 2012, Manotas and two other dogs, Kiper and Willy, contracted a parasitic disease, probably Ehrlichiosis, an infectious disease transmitted by the bite of a tick. Manotas was the only one to survive. After his recuperation he was removed from active duty and Sea Shepherd Galapagos requested to have him officially retired. Because of the hard work and persistence of the people behind Sea Shepherd Galapagos, Manotas was legally returned to Sea Shepherd and an official ceremony honoring him for his service was held October 17, 2013. During this ceremony the officials expressed both their gratitude towards Sea Shepherd and the importance of the K9 project for the Galapagos. In one of the speeches a police commander listed some of the achievements during Manotas’ years of service: more than 800 sea cucumbers, 1,000 shark fins and 20 iguanas were intercepted in various operations.
The next day I traveled with Manotas and Sea Shepherd Quito volunteer Carlos Ortega, who guided, shuttled and helped me throughout my stay, to the brand new Quito International Airport to get Manotas’ paperwork done in order to fly out. Pre-flight preparations went smoothly and close to midnight we boarded our flight to Atlanta. There I was able to pick him up and walk him for an hour before our final flight to Seattle. In Seattle we were picked up by Yvonne Devereaux, who runs Lady’s Hope Dog Rescue, a local Seattle-based rescue, who will assist Sea Shepherd in finding homes for the remaining dogs from the Galapagos as they retire from service. Yvonne drove us to the ferry terminal at Anacortes where Manotas and I boarded for the last stage of our trip towards his new happy home in Friday Harbor with Sea Shepherd USA Administrative Director Susan Hartland, his new, blind & deaf sister Sally and two feline friends.
The Galapagos K9 Unit remains one-of-a-kind in the country and one of only a few in the world.
Even in this remote part of the world, human encroachment is taking a heavy toll on our fragile ecosystem. Sea Shepherd considers Galapagos an ongoing campaign and possibly one of the most important in our history and in that of the human race. After all, if we can’t protect something as unique as the Galapagos Islands, we are doomed as a species.
Read more: http://www.seashepherd.org/galapagos