A Navy SEAL with a Belgian Malinois
New Delhi, Sept. 22: Osama bin Laden then. Maoist rebels now.
Enter the hunter with a sense of smell 40 times greater than that of humans.
The Belgian Malinois, whose collective CV can boast the prized scalp of bin Laden after one of them tracked down the al Qaida leader as part of a US Navy SEALs team, is now fast becoming the mainstay of India's biggest paramilitary force in its anti-Maoist operations.
Following a nod from the Union home ministry, the CRPF has started phasing out German Shepherds and Labradors and replacing them with the Belgian Malinois.
"The Belgian Malinois is the best in the world when it comes to sniffing out improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and to find hiding humans. They are also very tough and suited for extreme conditions," CRPF inspector-general (operations) Zulfiquar Hasan told The Telegraph.
Over the years, the CRPF has lost hundreds of men in Maoist attacks, often taken by surprise by IED blasts followed by heavy gunfire.
What if there's no whiff of a hidden bomb?
No sweat, these dogs can walk - and walk for long, 30km without a break, unlike German Shepherds or Labradors, which find it difficult to walk long distances when conditions are hot and humid, typical of terrain in areas affected by Left-wing extremism. "This is the main reason they are being taken off from duty from Maoist-infested areas and are being replaced by Malinois," Hasan said.
The CRPF's canine squad now has 350 dogs, including Labradors, German Shepherds and Malinois.
"German Shepherds and Labradors cannot bear the extreme heat in Maoist-affected areas. They weigh more and get dehydrated," a trainer at a CRPF school said. The dogs, the trainer added, also had a sense of smell 40 times that of humans.
For those who say it's a dog's life, the Malinois has had its day too. Like in May 2011 in Abbottabad, Pakistan, when the Navy SEAL team hunted down and killed the world's then most wanted man.
Four years on, the CRPF has started breeding only Malinois at its dog-breeding and training school in Bangalore to meet the demands of its elite anti-Maoist CoBRA force. In the 20 weeks the dogs are trained, they learn how to detect and identify both explosive material and hostile or hiding humans.
"Considering the demand from CoBRA battalions as well as the CRPF unit posted in Jammu and Kashmir, we have increased the breeding capacity at the school," said another CRPF official.
Over the next year, all CoBRA teams deployed in Maoist-affected areas of Odisha, Bengal, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra will be provided only with Malinois for their dog squads.
Sources in the home ministry said other paramilitary forces like the ITBP, CISF and the BSF had been asked to breed Malinois, a breed similar to German Shepherds but smaller, lighter and more compact.
The CRPF trainer said the Belgian Malinois communicates through a nod of its head and not by barking, so it doesn't alert the target.
"Malinois are accompanying us on patrols in areas where our men had been caught off guard and massacred by Maoists," confirmed a CRPF official in Chhattisgarh.
In January this year, a Belgian Malinois squad had come to Delhi to sanitise venues US President Barack Obama was to visit during his stay in India. They had also secured the hotel where Obama stayed.