It’s Pooches vs. Poachers in the Fight Against Wildlife Smugglers

A new breed of law enforcement is on the scene—and its bite is stronger than its bark

A Canines for Conservation handler and his dog inspect a vehicle as a part of a 12-week training course. (Peter Chira)
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The fight between wildlife poachers and conservationists is an arms race, with poachers relying on increasingly advanced smuggling techniques to keep their activities hidden from the authorities. Yet one of the most powerful weapons being deployed against poachers today is one based not in sophisticated machinery or computationally complex software, but on trust. It's the bond between an anti-poaching dog and her trainer.

To be a handler in the African Wildlife Foundation's (AWF) Canines for Conservation Program, being a dog person is a must. Program Director Will Powell refers to one of his longest-standing pairs—handler Jacob (whose name has been changed to protect privacy) and his dog Diva—as “a complete love affair.” Even on his days off, Jacob frequents Diva’s kennel to play or simply sit by her side. Their connection isn't constrained by work hours, nor defined by mastery on one end of a leash: it is a partnership of equity, respect and absolute enamorment.

Motivated by the success of canine units in the military and police force, AWF and several conservation-focused organizations are stepping up their training of canine units to sniff out forbidden items of trade before they leave their country of origin. Since their launch in 2014, Canines for Conservation has completed over 200 busts of poached merchandise, homing in on ivory elephant tusks, pangolin scales, rhinoceros horns and more with 90 percent accuracy. Once dogs pick up on the unfamiliar scent of a wild animal in luggage or cargo, they will alert their handlers, who can then pass cases to local officials.

Canine squads have been positioned at several major ports and transport hubs across Africa, targeting vehicles at borders, shipping containers, and traffic at airports. And the program is expanding with unprecedented success, with plans to move into Cameroon and Mozambique in the coming months. According to AWF’s latest figures, of the 27 poaching busts made in Tanzania in the past 12 months, 22 have been attributed to canine teams turning criminals over to the Tanzanian Wildlife Authority.

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After a hard day in training, Canines for Conservation dogs are often rewarded with their favorite treat—a squeaky Kong chew toy. According to director Will Powell, "Kong is life." (Peter Chira)

The Canines for Conservation Program is small, with fewer than 30 dogs on active duty. But even simple word of mouth has had far-reaching effects in deterring poaching efforts. “Once people know there’s a dog working effectively at an airport, the patterns change,” Powell explains. Even the dogs’ “uniforms”—consisting of doggie goggles (“doggles”) and booties—contribute to their intimidation as they strut confidently into bustling crowds of travelers.

Yet the heart of these anti-poaching units are pairs of handlers and dogs, intimately bonded by their unifying mission. The teams undergo a rigorous two-and-a-half-month training program to ready themselves for the field, the first two weeks of which are spent “just learning to adore dogs,” according to Powell. “Once you teach that, everything else is easy.”

Powell is an anthropologist who has been training dogs for the workforce since 1996, initially specializing in landmine detection. Given that he was raised by a long line of dog lovers, including a grandmother who constantly surrounded herself with a suite of shepherds, his profession is no surprise. “Dogs have always been the most important members of our family,” he says. “The children always came second.” But it wasn’t until late 2014 that Powell began recruiting canines for the cause closest to his heart: the preservation of some of nature’s most precious species.

With their keen noses and adept tracking abilities, dogs are perfectly suited to this line of work. Tracking breeds already established in the workforce like German Shepherds, Belgian Malinoises, and spaniels were natural fits, Powell says.

Canines also offer a nice reprieve from the caveats of human labor: in exchange for their work, all they request is a pat on the head, a tennis ball, or an exceptionally squeaky toy. And with Powell at the helm, the rewards flow freely. “If a dog isn’t happy, they’re not working,” he says.

The dogs travel the continent in the comfort of air-conditioned vans to protect them from the blistering heat, and spend their evenings in kennels enmeshed in insecticide-treated mosquito nets to ward off disease-carrying tsetse flies. In the three years the conservation program has been active, not a single canine has yet been lost to injury or illness.

Getting selected to join such an elite team of sniffers is no small feat. Unlike guide dogs, which begin socialization and training from an early age, anti-poaching dogs are selected for duty after puberty, around 18 months of age. “We buy dogs that have a bachelor’s degree and then we give them a PhD,” Powell explains with a laugh. In addition to being bred from traditional “working” lines, the dogs must be sociable (but not too friendly), confident (but not overly aggressive), and in excellent physical condition.

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Canines for Conservation dogs are typical "working" breeds, such as German Shepherds, Belgian Malinoises and spaniels. (Peter Chira)

The process of selecting handlers is equally rigorous. Most of the candidates Powell considers are veteran wildlife rangers, and among them, he prefers experienced dog owners. While the first day of interviews is fairly standard, the second day goes to the dogs—literally. Like a film director conducting screen tests with his leading lady, Powell pairs up would-be handlers with experienced sniffers and keeps his eyes peeled for the final piece of the puzzle: that indefinable chemistry between handler and companion.

“When the handlers start training, they often keep the dogs at arm’s length,” he says. “But by the end, they are completely in love.” As he recounts stories of handlers and their dogs, Powell reflexively refers to them as parents and their children; to him, it is the most natural and deep of relationships.

“The fact that trust and love are so central to what is considered a working relationship shouldn’t surprise anyone who has a dog,” says Rebecca Frankel, author of War Dogs: Tales of Canine Heroism, History, and Love. “Canines are so good at reading people… this is the key to why it’s so successful.”

But Canines for Conservation faces some challenges. Before the teams are allowed access to transportation hubs, they need the cooperation and support of local government. And even in cases where full permission has been granted, the proceedings can be rocky.

Powell’s team conducted their first deployment in Kenya in 2015 in a charge led by Diva. Within her first hour on the job, Powell recalls, she had nosed her way into a bag containing a tusk. However, local policemen had been bribed into turning a blind eye, and the case was shunted to a nearby university, where corrupt officials ruled that the specimen was simply a convincing sample of “hard plastic.” In other words, the dogs have made a difference, but their efforts cannot fully forestall the efforts of the black market. Powell himself says that without significant shifts in infrastructure, wildlife poaching will never be eradicated.

Still, he remains optimistic in his indefatigable team. Human integrity can be infinitely compromised, but Powell is sure of one thing: dogs are incorruptible. For them, joy can be as unremarkable as prancing back to a chew toy in the hand of a beloved trainer after a challenging bust. In this partnership, conservation is simply a labor of love.

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a PhD student in Microbiology and Immunobiology at Harvard University and Co-Director Emeritus of Science in the News, a graduate student organization that trains young scientists to communicate science to the general public. She is also a 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow at Smithsonian magazine. Website: katherinejwu.com

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