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In China, Airport Sniffer Dogs Hunt Down Illegal Wildlife Products

But even if the dogs do sniff out tiger and rhino parts, a system needs to be in place for fully prosecuting the criminals behind those goods


If you happen to be flying through an airport in Yunnan, the Chinese province bordering Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, you may be greeted by several sniffer dogs. Rather than searching for narcotics being trafficked out of the Golden Triangle, however, these dogs have their snouts set on another category of illegal goods: wildlife products. TRAFFIC reports:

To qualify for the novel role in Chinese wildlife trade enforcement efforts, the three canines and their trainers underwent months of intensive training at Ruili Drug Detector Dog Base, part of the Anti-smuggling Bureau of the General Administration of Customs of China (GACC).

Following the training, the dogs had to each pass a stiff test to locate wildlife products concealed in a variety of locations including a container, on an airport luggage conveyor belt and at a postal centre.

As you can see in the video example above, the Labradors aced their final test. The dogs are trained to pick out the scent of some of the most sought-after and commonly trafficked illegal goods, such as tiger parts, rhino horn, pangolin scales and live turtles, TRAFFIC reports. If all goes well, more sniffer dogs will be turning up at additional ports of entry throughout China. 

Yunnan received the canines ahead of Beijing and Shanghai since a significant portion of the illegal wildlife products that end up in traditional Chinese medicine brews or on exotic restaurant menus in China originate from Southeast Asia. The airport is just one potential entry point, though: the Wildlife Conservation Society recently reported in Policy Innovations about the gross degree of corruption along the Ka Long River, which divides Vietnam and China. There, criminal gangs control the waterways, often smuggling endangered wildlife in plain view of law enforcement agents that they’ve paid off.

We discovered that the most commonly smuggled animals are pangolins (live, frozen, and de-scaled), freshwater hard-shell and soft-shell turtles, snakes (cobra, rat snakes, python), elephant ivory, crocodiles, civets, bears (live and paws), macaques, tokay geckos, rhino horn, and a number of bird species.

Smugglers usually pay tens of thousands of dollars in bribes to officials when shipping illegal wildlife over the border.

Still, there was some recent good news. Around 20 men operating under the command of a smuggler called “Steel-face” Dung were arrested recently, although it’s not clear how long they’ll stay behind bars. As the WCS points out, many of the most notorious wildlife trade king pins are repeat offenders who are used to paying a small fine or spending a few days in jail before they’re back at it again. So ultimately, even if the dogs do sniff out tiger and rhino parts, both TRAFFIC and WCS suggest, a system needs to be in place for fully prosecuting the criminals behind those goods.

More from Smithsonian.com:

State Department Takes on Illegal Wildlife Trade  
Obama Tackles Illegal Wildlife Trade 

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