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Environment

These pooches are sniffing out illegal ivory poachers

U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Stacy L. Pearsall

Elephants and rhinos have a new ally in the war against poachers: dogs.

With noses that are 20,000 times more sensitive than a human’s, man’s best friend is being trained to help identify commonly smuggled goods between the US and Tanzania.

Recently,  a pack of four Belgian Malinois dogs named Kyra-K, Messi, Yana and Max-Z traveled to Tanzania for a 10-week training sessions.

They then patrolled the Julius Nyerere International Airport and the Port of Dar es Salaam to monitor shipping cargo and airport luggage.

Annually, illegal wildlife sales generate around $20 billion. The poaching and smuggling of these goods is handled mostly by sophisticated crime syndicates and terrorist organizations and countries that are most exploited are often unable to mount a serious defense.

Because of this, various animals are being pushed to extinction. The black rhino population is down 97.6% since 1960. Lions have been expelled from 80% of their historic range. More than 35,000 elephants are slaughtered each year. If there’s a market for an animal, it probably faces a grave threat.

The frightening rise in poaching has been met with resistance. Mercenary security forces, foreign governments and NGOs have stepped up to bolster anti-poaching efforts and to defend preservations.

In South Africa, for instance, an NGO trained an elite group of female rangers to fight poachers and the group has been remarkably successful.

In Kenya, a wildlife security force called Maisha Consulting monitors the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park in Kenya from Tel Aviv. Through GPS and cameras and other sensors, the security team is able to better coordinate on-the-ground efforts to protect forest elephants.

Tanzania, where the elephant population has plummeted by around two-thirds over the past decade, has scored some breakthroughs recently. Two major smuggling operations were broken up in the past year, one of which was caught with $1.62 million worth of ivory.

Still, the global fight is daunting because so many gaps remain and poaching hot spots are generally unregulated.

Recently, Kenyan authorities burned more than a massive cachet of elephant tusks and rhino horns worth more than $172 million. It was a major blow to a smuggling operation, but the scale was also demoralizing.

Last year, authorities in New York caught the attention of Times Square when they crushed a large confiscation of ivory.

The use of dogs is just the latest tool in the anti-poaching arsenal and, perhaps, it could cut off avenues to market and capture big criminals. If this happens, smuggling rings may decide that the risks are too high and could opt-out.

But for change to really happen, there has to be a perspective shift in countries where ivory and other wildlife goods are sold.

Once appetite for poached animals stops, criminal organizations will have nowhere to sell and will look elsewhere to make money.   

And then the process of restoring animal populations can actually begin.