How dogs are helping to clear Sudan's landmines

Story highlights

  • Dogs are being used in Sudan to search for landmines
  • Dr Muiz Ali Taha, a trained vet, began the project in 2008
  • In addition to causing injury, landmines stifle local economies

Khartoum, Sudan (CNN)Focused and determined, Marco sniffs along the sandy ground.

He carefully treads lines across the designated area, his leash extended by his handler Omar, who stands just outside the yellow tape. After a few minutes, Marco begins to sniff around a fixed spot. With confidence, he sniffs, then sits.
    A landmine has been found.
    After marking the spot, Omar takes out a ball from the specially designed mesh pocket sown into his protective gear. Suddenly, Marco transforms from a restrained professional into a playful pooch and joyfully runs out of the box into Omar's arms.

    From $3,000 to $40,000

    Marco is a seven year-old Rottweiler and German Shepherd cross. This demonstration of canine intelligence is only a small snapshot of the projects carried out by mine detecting dogs across Sudan.
    Dr Muiz Ali Taha started the work in 2008, after graduating as a veterinarian and taking a job in the communications department of the UN Mine Action office.
    "While I was working, I realized that one of the ways to clear mines was through dogs. So I started researching the topic, gathering data and assessing the prospect of introducing this method to Sudan," says Dr Muiz.
    Having trained dogs since he was just fourteen years old, he knew what to look for when he traveled to South Africa to start importing the canines in 2006. Purchased from farms in Pretoria for $3,000, the dogs complete their training in the army base at Al-Elafoon, just outside of Khartoum. Once their training is complete, they are worth $40,000.

    Red flag

    When a dog detects a mine, the spot is marked by a red flag. Once the whole area has been surveyed and marked, a deminer will come in with special tools and dig up each spot, detonate and remove the mine. There is one deminer for every two dogs.
    During training, the dogs are required to go through fifty zoned off areas. Half of the boxes contain a variety of detonated mines and the other half are left empty to ensure against false negatives. Some dogs are ready to work from as early as six months old - able to clear an area of 1,200 meters square in two hours.
    "From 2011 to 2015, we have worked on eight projects. Most of these projects were related to development. They would request demining through dogs because they needed the area cleared and returned quickly," continues Dr Muiz.

    Saving children

    Landmines and Explosive Remnants of War are a big problem in Sudan. According to UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) in Sudan, they can be found in 235 locations in the country. They have been responsible for the deaths or maiming of over 2,000 people since 2002 - around a quarter of whom were children.
    Dr Muiz and his dogs have worked across all of Sudan. One project in Girgir, Kassala -- in the east of Sudan, bordering Eritrea -- was prompted by very tragic circumstances.
    "It all started with a woman in labor on the back of a lorry," says Dr. Muiz. "By the time she reached the hospital via the longer - safe - route she had passed away."
    In the mid 1990s, Girgir was an army base for local opposition groups in the Second Sudanese Civil War. Their fighters mined the area against government forces. For nearly two decades, to get to the state capital Kassala, the people of Girgir had to travel a two and a half hour route through the mountains to avoid landmines.

    WW2 relics

    A dog being used in the operation to clear Girgir of landmines
    A few of the mines found in Kassala can be traced back to as early as World War II. Around this time, Sudan, a former British colony, was involved in the East Africa Campaign against Axis forces coming from Italy.
    While large swathes of land continue to be cleared, it is thought that 32 square kilometres remain afflicted by landmines.
    Omar Salih, Marco's 21 year-old handler, was trained by Dr Muiz from the age of 17 and knows first-hand the importance of their work:
    "I've seen some horrible accidents," says Omar. "People that have no clue about mines are getting blown up by them. It's an eerie thing to witness but it gives us a sense of duty to clear areas."
    Despite the incredible dangers of working around land mines, Omar still puts utmost faith in the animals he works with.
    "I trust the work of a dog more than a mine-clearance machine," he says. "A rock or a dead battery can lead to miscalculations but a dog works with a conscience. I would confidently walk through an area demined by a dog."