Technology transforms how sniffer dogs hunt down poached ivory and rhino horn in African wildlife trafficking hotspot

‘This technique could be a game-changer, reducing the number of endangered animal parts finding their way into overseas markets like Southeast Asia’

Jane Dalton
Sunday 26 August 2018 00:58 BST
Specially trained dogs are being used to sniff out illegal wildlife parts in shipments in Kenya

A pioneering technique that enables dogs to detect illegal ivory and rhino horn more easily and quickly than ever is being trialled at Africa’s biggest wildlife trafficking hub.

Authorities expect the new system to allow them to detect more illicit animal parts, plants and timber products that are hidden in crates and help identify the criminals behind the cargos.

The new approach – at Kenya’s Mombasa port, a hotspot for illegal wildlife products being exported from Africa – involves taking a small sample of air from shipping containers.

The samples are passed through special filters that are then presented to dogs who have been trained to sit when they smell wildlife contraband.

The technique has been introduced jointly by conservation giant WWF, UK-based wildlife charity TRAFFIC and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), who believe it could transform the battle against the illegal wildlife trade that threatens species with extinction.

World leaders need to commit to ways of stamping out the illegal wildlife trade once and for all

Drew McVey

Around 90 per cent of Africa’s elephants have been wiped out in a century mainly because of the demand for ivory in Asia. Rhino species are critically endangered or vulnerable after decades of being targeted by poaching gangs, and around 300 pangolins are poached every day – on average one every five minutes.

​WWF’s East Africa wildlife crime coordinator Drew McVey said: “This technique could be a game-changer, reducing the number of endangered animal parts finding their way into overseas markets like Southeast Asia.

“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 40ft container.

“As organised criminal syndicates use ever more sophisticated methods to hide and transport illegal wildlife products, it is vital that we continue to evolve our efforts to disrupt the barbaric trade.”

Mombasa is a favourite port with smugglers of illegal wildlife parts, drugs and weapons. A 2014 wildlife crime report found it was Africa’s most active ivory trafficking hub. Between 2009 and 2014 18,817kg of ivory was seized there.

Before the trial, dogs were used in searches at the port and in transit by being led from container to container.

The African heat and high number of containers – at least 2,000 a day – made conditions for the animals incredibly hard, officials say. Containers had to be opened in the presence of staff from Kenya Revenue Authority, customs and Kenya police, along with either the owner or a representative.

The new technology, known as Rasco (Remote Air Sampling for Canine Olfaction), makes searches faster for both officers and dogs and eliminates red tape. The sniffing process can be done in climate-controlled rooms, allowing many more containers to be checked.

“Disrupting trafficking is essential if we are to end this colossal trade that affects countless species and millions of people worldwide,” said Mr McVey.

“A critical moment is coming up in October, when London will host a conference on the illegal wildlife trade. Here, world leaders need to commit to ways of stamping it out once and for all.”

The East Africa wildlife crime hub, which coordinates WWF’s wildlife crime work across east Africa, has received money from Britain’s People’s Postcode Lottery.

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