BAMAKO (Reuters) - In an effort to save one of Africa's last desert elephant herds, Mali has employed Mitch, Bobby and Amy - Dutch spaniels with a nose for sniffing out illegal ivory.
The chocolate-colored spaniels are the newest members of an anti-poaching brigade set up to dismantle ivory trafficking networks that have devastated elephant herds in Mali, General Birama Sissoko, an advisor to the environment ministry, told Reuters.
Poaching has been rampant since Tuareg rebels and Islamists took over the north of the country in 2012. French forces pushed them back a year later, but lawlessness still reigns and ivory smuggling has flourished. Trade in elephant tusks funds militants, the United Nations says.
Only about 300 elephants are left in Mali. About 167 have been slaughtered since fighting broke out in 2012 and a system of local self-policing fell apart, the environment minister said earlier this year.
"There is a stock of ivory that circulates. If we can get hold of the ivory, we can work backwards until we get hold of the poachers," Sissoko told Reuters.
The anti-poaching team will take the dogs on searches when they get intelligence about traffickers' hideouts, and they should be able to help police make arrests, said Susan Canney, director of the Mali Elephant Project, which partnered with the U.S.-based Chengeta Wildlife organization to obtain the dogs.
No poaching has been detected since the unit was founded in February, but that could be because poachers are simply laying low for now, said Canney.
"This should be game-changing," Canney said. "Poachers and traffickers are still there. This could catch them red-handed."
Mali's elephants roam the northern Gourma region, where Islamist and separatist groups still frequently stage attacks.
Elephant tusks from Mali are thought to be sold on the black market for up to $5,000, Canney said.
(Additional reporting by Nellie Peyton in Dakar; writing by Edward McAllister)