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by Ed Marks

The American embassy in Sri Lanka, like its counterparts worldwide, has the task of liaison and coordination with local authorities on the subject of narcotics. When I served there from 1986 to 1989, narcotics’ use was not a major problem, nor was the country an exporter or a major transit point. Nevertheless, these are relative terms, and the Sri Lankan government was worried that narcotics activity in the country was growing. Both governments were concerned about the increasing evidence that at least one of the Tamil separatist groups was funding its activities by drug smuggling from South Asia to Europe.

Soon after my arrival in Colombo, a young colleague who held the narcotics portfolio (among his other duties) arranged a luncheon with four of his most important contacts in the narcotics area: police, customs, etc. We discussed various aspects of the problem and of our bilateral cooperation in the field. At one point, we discussed inspection and control mechanisms at airports and ports, and especially the virtues of specially trained sniffer dogs. The subject interested me as I had some knowledge of the subject from my days in counterterrorism. We all realized that, useful as they are, dogs have disadvantages: scarcity, cost of procurement and maintenance, difficulty of adaptation to tropical climates, and a negative cultural reaction to them among many Moslems.

I cannot remember exactly who first broached the thought (although I would like to take credit), but suddenly we were discussing the possibility of replacing sniffer dogs in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in Asia with an indigenous animal, to wit, the mongoose. The more we talked, the more the idea seemed worth pursuing. The senior police officer present claimed experience with local mongooses as pets and insisted that they were clever and trainable, and notable for their ability to smell.

Mongoose walking on sandy soil, headed to the right.

The next day I asked my colleague to draft a telegram to the bureau handling narcotics matters in the State Department proposing an experimental project to train mongooses in sniffing narcotics.  He appeared surprised, as he had thought our previous day’s conversation was simply a lark. He was also obviously a bit embarrassed at the thought of drafting a telegram to the D  epartment on what appeared a rather frivolous subject. I assured him that there really was something to explore here, that nothing was frivolous if properly phrased, and that the bureau in question was flush with money and short of projects.

So, he went out to do some research. First, we had to determine whether the plural of mongoose was mongeese or mongooses. The answer is, of course, mongooses. He then contacted the local zoo and found the director interested in the idea and prepared to offer staff and space. Through the zoo director, he found a young Sri Lankan PhD in zoology at Peridinyia University who was delighted at the thought of directing the project. The police offered cooperation and the necessary small amounts of narcotics for the training. With all the details in place, my colleague, now more or less officially appointed as Mongoose Project Coordinator, made some quick calculations and estimated that we could start the project and run it for one year for about $2,000. I felt that was too small a sum to appear serious, so I upped it to $10,000 in the telegram. With some trepidation on his part and glee mixed with satisfaction on mine, we sent the message off.

The first result was a spate of articles in various newspapers and magazines, to include the Washington Post and Time Magazine. Obviously, someone in Washington had leaked our proposal almost within minutes of reading it. The articles were humorous in tone, but not unfavorable; the best one was headlined “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi replaces Rin Tin Tin”. I thought that was rather a good line.    The next result was approval of the project and the authorization of our requested $10,000. I was very gratified and the rest of the embassy very amused.

The project itself lasted for about one year, with mixed results. We confirmed that mongooses could indeed learn to identify hidden drugs and to point them out to the handlers. However, we were never able to get hold of more than half a dozen young mongooses to train, and our sample was not large enough to determine the reliability of the little animals. (We also had some losses in the training program. One of the most promising mongooses got loose from his cage one night and wandered around the corner where he found himself face to face with a very large Bengal tiger who roared him out of all of his training and into a nervous breakdown.)

Washington sent out a dog trainer who inspected our project, confirmed that the results were incomplete but promising, and recommended a further authorization of funds and an expansion of the program. However, at this point the Department lost its nerve (or interest; the US government is not very good at small projects). The local Sri Lankan authorities, however, remain interested and are continuing the effort at a reduced level.

It is a pity that the project did not take off. I still think there are real prospects in the idea.  However, the PhD is going to write a paper on what he learned about mongooses and maybe we advanced human knowledge a tiny bit. In any case, newspaper articles on the project continue to appear from time to time and my young colleague learned, I hope, something about the nature of bureaucracies.End.

Ambassador Edward Marks’s Foreign Service career spanned 1956-1995 with assignments that included Kenya, Mexico, Angola, Zambia, Belgium, Zaire, and Sri Lanka. In 1976, he was appointed chief of mission to the Republics of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, followed by service as the State Department’s deputy coordinator for counterterrorism and as deputy US representative to the Economic and Social Council to the United Nations. Ambassador Marks was recalled to active duty in 2002-5 to serve as the Department of State’s advisor on terrorism to the US Pacific Command.

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