Attempts to use drones to rescue a group of dogs stranded by the volcanic eruption on the Canary island of La Palma appear to have been pre-empted after a mysterious gang calling itself the A-Team claimed to have retrieved the animals using rather less hi-tech methods.
The eruption – which began on 19 September on the Cumbre Vieja ridge, one of the most active volcanic regions in the archipelago – has destroyed more than 2,000 properties, forced the evacuation of more than 7,500 people, and devastated La Palma’s banana plantations.
It had also left some dogs in the town of Todoque stranded by lava flows. A team of specialists from the Aerocamaras drone company arrived on the island last week and began preparing an unprecedented search and rescue operation whereby drones would be used to drop food and then, once the dogs had got used to the presence of the unmanned craft, airlift them to safety.
But the first drone search on Wednesday, which included two thermal cameras, revealed no sign of the animals. It did, however, turn up some human footprints.
On Thursday a video appeared online that seemed to suggest any further drone deployments would be in vain. It showed a banner – placed in the water container where the dogs were last seen – which read: “Stay strong La Palma! The dogs are fine.”
The banner was signed the A-Team, and decorated with red splodges that were presumably intended as a homage to the bullet holes that featured in the opening credits of the 1980s TV show. The video also featured photos of a number of dogs.
“We’ve seen the video and we’ve confirmed it’s real, like the footprints we found yesterday,” Jaime Pereira, the chief executive of Aerocamaras, told reporters on the island on Thursday. “The main thing is that, one way or another, the dogs have got out.”
Pereira said his teams had seen the banner featured in the video but had been unable to read it from the air as it had flipped over in the wind. He also said the rescue could have taken place days ago.
“We realised that something odd was going on because we’d checked all the areas where they could have been but didn’t find anything,” he said. “All we want to do now is see the dogs, check that they’re OK – and make sure that they’re really the ones we’ve been looking for.”
The members of the A-Team may have opted for anonymity to avoid any possible punishment for venturing into the exclusion zone to rescue the dogs.
A source from the local media outlet that published the video, Palmerus.es, told the Spanish daily El País the animals were fine. For the time being, the source added, it would be difficult to explain exactly what had happened given “it was illegal” to set foot in the exclusion zone.
The eruptions are continuing and about 500 people were evacuated from their homes in the coastal town of Tazacorte on Wednesday night.
Spain has formally classified La Palma a disaster zone in order to begin the process of providing financial support to help the island and its 85,000 inhabitants recover from the first volcanic eruption since 1971.