In recent years, more and more nations have strengthened their bans on the import and sale of elephant ivory, an important step in stopping the rampant poaching threatening the species in Africa. But bans only go so far; huge amounts of ivory, as well as rhino horn, endangered pangolins, rare plants and woods are smuggled off the continent every day, hidden in cargo containers shipped worldwide. But the BBC reports that, at least at one port, authorities are trying a new tactic to stop the illegal wildlife trade: trained dogs.
The ivory dog project is being tested at Kenya’s Mombasa port, which is believed to be the global hub for the illegal ivory trade. According to the BBC, almost 40,000 pounds of ivory were seized at Mombasa between 2009 and 2014, a haul that represents the killing of 2,400 elephants. That number tragically does not account for the amount of ivory that was successfully smuggled out of the country.
To crack down on the trade, the World Wildlife Fund, the wildlife trade organization TRAFFIC and the Kenya Wildlife Service teamed up to train the sniffer dogs. According to a WWF press release, the process is called Remote Air Sampling for Canine Olfaction (RASCO). First, dogs are trained to recognize the scent of ivory, rhino horn and other commonly trafficked wildlife products. Then, authorities use special equipment to suck an air sample out of a suspected cargo container, which is then passed through a filter that collects the scent for the dog to smell. A pooch that sits is an indicator that the container carries illicit materials.
Before RASCO, the Kenyan port was already using dogs to investigate containers, leading to 26 seizures in just six months. But sniffing 2,000 containers per day was slow and the dogs often got hot and fatigued. According to a video accompanying Jane Dalton’s piece at The Independent, it may take hours for inspectors to completely empty a container and locate the often cleverly concealed ivory. With the new method, the dogs can smell the filters from comfortable, climate-controlled rooms and examine a container's scent within a few minutes.
“This technique could be a game-changer, reducing the number of endangered animal parts finding their way into overseas markets like Southeast Asia,” WWF East Africa wildlife crime coordinator Drew McVey tells Dalton. “Man’s best friend is a trafficker’s worst nightmare: dogs’ incredible sense of smell means they can sniff out even the tiniest amount in a 40-foot container…Disrupting trafficking is essential if we are to end this colossal trade that affects countless species and millions of people worldwide.”
Mombasa isn’t the only place where canine conservationists are helping to sniff out ivory poachers. Since 2009, reports Sue Palminteri at Mongabay, rangers have used labradors in the Mara Triangle, the northern section of Kenya’s Maasai Maru Reserve to sniff vehicles for weapons and exiting vehicles for hidden ivory, bushmeat and other wildlife goods. The rangers also manage a pack of bloodhounds for tracking down poachers in the vast wilds of the park.
According to the release, the WWF hopes that advances like RASCO and other projects will raise awareness of the illegal wildlife trade, and they hope to turn the world’s attention to the problem at the Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference taking place in London this October.