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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Employing dogs to save endangered species and places.

For millennia dogs have been helpers to humans: they have herded and protected livestock, pulled sleds, hunted game, led the blind, located people after disasters, and sniffed out drugs. Now a new occupation can be added: conservation aide.

Working Dogs for Conservation (WDC) was co-founded by Megan Parker in 2000: the idea, to use dogs' impeccable scent capabilities for conservation initiatives, appears so logical and useful when Parker talks about it, one is surprised it took environmentalists so long to realize the potential of dogs.

"Our mission is to benefit science and conservation by working with detection dogs. We help save wildlife by supporting conservation efforts to gather information on rare species in an accurate and non-invasive way," explains Parker. "We train dogs to detect rare samples and they excel at finding trained target odors from endangered species scats to invasive weeds on a huge landscape."

WDC has worked on a wide variety of projects across all regions of the United States. For example, they worked with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) on The Carnivore Connectivity Project where the dogs located scats of wolves, cougars, black and grizlly bears along the Idaho-Montana border.

"Thanks to our team of dogs, we’re proud to report that this work led to the protection of critical wildlife corridors by closing more than 40 miles of roads and preventing a development in a sensitive area," says Parker.

The group has also helped survey the comeback of moose in the Adirondacks and located threatened plants in Oregon and invasive snails in Hawaii, among many other projects.

Parker says for each of these projects the dog's nose is key: "canids have evolved as amazing scenting machines. Their noses, and the vast majority of their brains, are built to detect and discriminate small quantities of odor, picking out single scents among the millions of other scents in the environment. Dogs have been selectively bred for thousands of years to serve myriad human purposes, yet most dogs retain the architecture and ability to scent incredibly well."

WDC has even worked overseas: detecting snakes in the tropics of Guam, locating wild dog and cheetah scat in Kenya, and working with the Andean Cat Project in Argentina to find one of the world's rarest felines.

"We have really learned from our mistakes while working internationally, where the work periods are typically short and the work intense in unfamiliar territory where we have to find dogs and train handlers, which is different from how we usually work," Parker says. Despite such challenges, Parker believes that the program could easily be implemented in other countries.

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