Dogs have a long history of being trained to sniff out everything from drugs to explosives, and they've recently joined a war against a new enemy.
Poachers are decimating elephant and rhino populations in eastern Africa, and until now, officials have been able to do little about it. But that was before Kyra-K, Messi, Yana, Max-Z, and four other working canines started patrolling airports and ports looking for smuggled goods. The dogs are part of the world's first ever canine detection team trained to sniff out illegal wildlife artifacts.
Elephants are being targeted for their ivory all across Africa and Asia, but the African country of Tanzania has emerged as the epicenter of a "catastrophic" poaching crisis. Over the past five years, poachers have been responsible for the slaughter of 60% of the elephant population living in Tanzania. That's about 85,000 elephants killed either for sport, meat, or most of all, their ivory tusks.
Kathleen Garrigan, a media relations manager for the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) said:
"The problem is, right now it's too easy, there's no risk at all and there's a lot of profit involved."
According to an elephant protection organization called Save The Elephants, the price of raw ivory has recently experienced a steep increase. The price has tripled, making a single kilogram of raw ivory worth $2,100. The AWF estimates more than 188,000 kilograms have been smuggled through various African ports since 2009.
The African elephant is in danger of extinction, but the AWF's Conservative Canine Program is doing their part to keep that from happening. Eight dogs and 13 handlers recently graduated from an extensive program where they were trained in the detection and apprehension of ivory.
The dogs and handlers completed the 10-week course at the United States Customs and Border Protection's canine training center in El Paso, Texas, and then moved on to a follow-up course in Tanzania. The dogs were hand-selected for the position based on breed and natural abilities. Most are Belgian Malinois, chosen for the breed's affinity for work as well as their high heat tolerance.
The one-of-a kind program is led by Will Powell and works in concert with the Kenyan Wildlife Service and Tanzania's Wildlife Division. Powell has a 20-year history of training dogs to detect land mines buried throughout war-ravaged countries. His team of canines and their handlers will patrol the ports of Dar and Mombasa inspecting parcels as they come in and out. Powell says:
"When I was working in Rwanda, the Balkans, you're going into a minefield, and if [the dogs] have a bad day, you die. I'm pretty confident they can find a piece of ivory. If there is smell there, the dogs will find it."
Both Powell and Garrigan are optimistic that the team of canines will be an integral part in their war against poachers. They're capable of detecting even minute amounts of ivory and boast a 90% accuracy rating. Kenyan Wildlife Service's Deputy Director of Security, Robert Muasya, expresses his optimism and appreciation by stating:
"The skills acquired by both the rangers and the canines that have completed the training program are of immeasurable importance to both Kenya and Tanzania, and we look forward to utilizing those excellent and rare skills."
The fate of these endangered animals rests in the paws of these dogs. According to government records, there are less than 43,000 African elephants left in Tanzania, and the world's last male white rhino lives under constant guard. These dogs have an important job to do, and the world looks forward to the program's impending success.
All images via the American Wildlife Foundation