Detection Dogs to the Rescue: Saving the Mediterranean Tortoise

Detection Dogs to the Rescue: Saving the Mediterranean Tortoise

  • Erin Swanson

Can pups really help save the Mediterranean Tortoise from the brink of extinction? Meet Jara aged 7 and her little ‘sister’ and detection dog in training Olivia (3). They're carrying out vital detective work to help this endangered species thrive again in its homeland.

Jara and Olivia, along with their humans Alfonso and Laura, are part of the ECCOtrenca Bio-detection Project in Spain. The organisation actively works together with canine companions for the conservation of the environment.

Days of Wonder & Wander: Conservation Canines

A man stands next to a detection dog while they work.

‘Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life’ – so the saying goes, and it certainly feels that way for this team.

“Every day working in the countryside is a new surprise,” says Alfonso. “Being outdoors, living, working, and wandering in the Vall Major de Bovera area of Spain really is such a privilege.”

ECCOtrenca is an organisation responsible for a series of protected, semi-wild areas in the Parc Natural del Montsant which were set up in 2016 to re-introduce the endangered species of Mediterranean Tortoise back into the landscape.

A man holds Mediterranean Tortoises in his hand next to a smiling detection dog.

Alfonso feels passionately about doing this work. “The Mediterranean Tortoise had been all but eradicated from this area of Spain due to aggressive farming activity, which upsets the natural habitat. In 2016 we created 5 hectares of protected space right here where 250 tortoises were reintroduced.”

Laura explains how a haven has been created:

“Here in this space there is no farming machinery used, no pesticides and no agricultural practices that are damaging to the environment. The area is mainly olive groves and the flora and fauna in the area creates a biodiverse space where the Tortoise can thrive.

All the animals we introduced were microchipped and it is hoped that around 80-90 remaining from the original population of 250 will go on to survive and reproduce. We were confident the population had stabilised which was a great achievement, but before we had our dogs on the team we had no idea how many tortoises were out there.”

We Couldn't Do It Without Them

A detection dog lies down next to four Mediterranean Tortoises.

ECCOtrenca needed some serious canine detectives on the case. Alfonso gives us the inside scoop on how two detection dogs – Jara and Olivia – are key players in this conservation project:

“Jara and Oliva’s role is crucial to helping us keep up to date with the numbers we have in the protected area, we couldn’t operate without them.

Obviously the tortoises are small and hard to spot, they wander sometimes for many kilometres and keeping them penned in is just not an option.

What’s interesting is that when they hibernate in the winter they lose their scent while they’re in a hibernated state so there’s a very specific time of year when this crucial work can be carried out.

A detection dog sniffs a Mediterranean Tortoise.

During the annual tortoise census in March, the dogs help us first detect these beautiful creatures and then we can monitor and scan them to track their progress over the years.

It’s not possible to know exactly how many of the original 250 have survived and gone on to breed, so we do this in a controlled way during the breeding season in the spring and base our statistics on how many of the species we can detect and measure during a set geographical area and time frame.

The Ruffwear harnesses really help us in our work, as you can see they’re well used! We prefer the Web Master™ Harness because of the five points of adjustment but also they’re highly visible in the brushland.

A detection dog wearing a Web Master™ Harness sniffs out Mediterranean Tortoises.

We add bells too so we can hear them as sometimes Jara and Olivia can disappear into the undergrowth and get distracted. The Web Master is robust and less likely to rip and tear. I can rely on these harnesses because of the design and quality Ruffwear have.

Jara and Olivia love being outside but the days can be long, hot, and dusty. The Great Basin™ Bowl is lightweight and ensures we can give the dogs plenty to drink on the go.

We take breaks in the shade and the dogs can run and play. The Huck-a-Cone™ dog toy is a great training tool for helping the dogs to understand the difference between down time and work time.

A detection dog takes a break in the shade to rest.

The application of dogs specifically trained in environmental management and conservation is a new very powerful, accurate and effective work tool. But they’re our companions too.

When the girls are not ‘at work’ they live at home with us and are just regular house dogs. They love to play and can be very mischievous. I often wonder if they realise how important they really are to us and this project or if this ‘work’ just feels like one big game of sniff to them.”

Oh, to be a dog for a day!

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