Sniffing out the menace called poaching

The role of man’s best friend in the war against poaching

There is an old saying that borders on hunters learning to shoot without aiming, since birds have learned to fly without perching. In the same vein, as perpetrators of illegal activities devise new ways to escape detection and punishment, those dedicated to apprehending them need to, in turn, implement new methods to remain one step ahead. The war against wildlife poaching still rages on as the years roll by, but in recent times, poachers and smugglers have had to deal with a new adversary: man’s best friend.

In hunting for hides, skin, horns and tusks, these people, whose life’s work is to put wildlife at risk for material gain, have deployed all sorts of modern weaponry in furthering their cause, but now they will have to deal with dogs, too. Deployed in various locations across six African countries, there are scores of these dogs, who have helped in tracking down smugglers and traffickers with their efficiency in sniffing out elephant tusks, rhino horns and pangolin scales.

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Since Canines for Conservation, the programme initiated to involve dogs in the fight against wildlife poaching, kicked off in 2011, there have been 400 seizures of illegal wildlife products. These days, wildlife authorities in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique, Botswana and Cameroon require employees to be skilled in dog handling. Employees who take up the handling of dogs undergo training programmes which stretch for up to 10 weeks, and they are also carefully matched with the dogs that they would be working with.

Wild animals are being poached on a massive scale, with millions of individual animals of thousands of species worldwide killed or captured from their native habitats. Poaching poses a growing threat to elephants, rhinos, and other charismatic animals. Some animals, such as birds, reptiles, and primates, are captured live so that they can be kept or sold as exotic pets. Slaughtered animals, on the other hand, have commercial value as food, jewellery, decor, or traditional medicine. The ivory tusks of African elephants, for example, are carved into trinkets or display pieces. The meat of apes, snakes, and other bush animals is considered a delicacy in parts of Africa.

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Poaching has devastating consequences for wildlife. In some instances, it’s the primary reason why an animal faces a risk of extinction. This is the case with the African elephant, more than 100,000 of which were killed between 2014 and 2017 for ivory. Poaching has also had a catastrophic impact on rhinos, with more than a thousand slaughtered a year for their horns.

Training these dogs to top levels of detecting takes about 4 to 5 months.  All the wildlife products they are required to sniff out are hidden in various ways, from wrapping ivory in jars of coffee to putting a lion’s tooth in a thermos. The dogs sniff luggage and cargoes at airports, and the Canines for Conservation programme, aware of the tactics employed by traffickers, works closely with airport authorities in the countries where the dogs are deployed. These canine partners, whose role in fighting wildlife poachers over the years has been acknowledged, are also fed specially, and are kept in kennels and large spaces where they can relax.

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