COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Passengers arriving at Colombo airport may soon find their luggage coming under the scrutiny of brown weasel-like creatures with twitching noses, slender bodies and long tails.
Mongooses, made famous as symbols of loyalty and tenacity by Rudyard Kipling, are being groomed to replace dogs to sniff out contraband drugs at the international airport in the capital of Sri Lanka.
The first mongooses are already being tamed in preparation for a yearlong training project funded by the State Department, which initially reacted with mirth when the American Embassy here suggested the scheme.
"If it works, then we would proceed to use mongooses for sniffing drugs not only here but possibly in other countries," said Edward Marks, deputy chief of mission.
Stemming the flow of drugs is a high priority for the U.S. government and Marks said the United States was cooperating with Sri Lanka and other countries where traffickers were active.
110 Pounds Seized
Sri Lankan police seized more than 110 pounds of heroin and opium last year, half of it at Colombo airport, along with more than 40 pounds of hashish.
Police narcotics chief C.P. Mendis estimated that last year's seizures represented only 8% of the total drugs that entered the Indian Ocean island, considered a staging post for drug smugglers.
German shepherd dogs trained to sniff out drugs are brought from the cooler central highlands of Kandy to Colombo airport only when there is a tip about a particular passenger on a specific flight.
Air-conditioned vans shuttle the European-bred dogs on the two-hour trip from the Kandy kennels to Colombo, where the temperature averages 82 degrees.
"Sri Lanka has 12 Alsatians but they're so expensive to maintain for this kind of country. We're talking here of a kind of aristocratic dog that is accustomed to cold climates," Marks said.
$200 a Month Per Dog
Mendis estimates that it costs $200 a month to keep each dog; the average salary of a Sri Lankan police officer is about $70 a month.
Marks said there was also a cultural impediment to the use of dogs as drug sniffers. Muslims, a small but powerful minority in Sri Lanka, consider dogs unclean and are outraged when the animals poke through their luggage.
Mongooses, on the other hand, are culturally acceptable--and cheap. They are kept as pets in some Sri Lankan homes.
"The mongoose is very intelligent, loyal, a very pleasant pet, extremely clean," said Bradley Fernando, director of the National Zoological Gardens in Dehiwala, just outside Colombo, where the training project will be carried out. "But we don't know how acute is its sense of smell. Everything will depend on that and that's one of the reasons for this pilot project," he added.