See link for photo.
The bus has stopped at the edge of the road. Rick is running between the suitcases and sniffing around one, another, a third … he’s wagging his tail, sometimes looking back at his handler, who is encouraging him to continue. He’s enjoying this hide and seek game, especially when he can smell something interesting in one of the suitcases. His excitement escalates — yes, this is the one! He lies down to indicate that he is sure. “Great dog, good dog!” says the handler and waves at the officers that a suitcase has been identified.
Happy Rick gets his toy and is already looking forward to a new game, but Rick just did a very serious job. Complying with the officer’s orders, the Chinese owner of the suitcase opens it. Among several bottles of alcohol and some clothing, there is a yellow can. “What is inside?” the officers asks. “Food, just food,” the owner insists. The officer takes his knife and cuts the tape, opens the top. The can is full of pangolin scales. But that is not all: a small rounded object, wrapped in yellow plastic, is hidden among them. The officer starts cutting the plastic tape and discovers an ivory bracelet. “Ivory!” he announces to people around him, shows the bracelet to everyone and gives a signal to the policemen next to him. They immediately arrest the man and escort him to their car. So this is what caught Rick´s attention — a single ivory bracelet and several handfuls of pangolin scales, all well wrapped in plastic, closed in a tin can and hidden in a suitcase. All illegal.
This operation took place in cooperation with PALF (Project for the Application of Law for Fauna, Republic of Congo), a project based in Central Africa’s Republic of Congo and a member of the EAGLE (Eco Activists for Governance and Law Enforcement) Network, which oversees similar wildlife law enforcement projects throughout Africa. PALF and its sniffer dog program work in close collaboration with the Ministry of Forestry and Sustainable Development to combat the illegal wildlife trade. Headed by activist Naftali Honig, PALF has been working in collaboration with an organization that first brought sniffer dogs to Congo to identify traffickers of wildlife products. Rick and another dog arrived at the end of February 2014 and one year later they were all being trained to find ivory, pangolin scales and bushmeat, as well as weapons and ammunition.
Central Africa’s forest elephants are particularly targeted by traffickers and therefore prone to poaching since their ivory is harder and sought after by the carving industry. Trafficking of ivory and other products of wildlife crime is a sophisticated and well-organized international business. With the current expansion in logging taking place in the forests of the Congo Basin, an increasing number of Asian companies are involved in the exploitation of natural resources. This opens a more direct route to these countries, where the main market for ivory lies.
For Rick and his friends, finding contraband means their work is done, but for the PALF activists, this signals the start of their role. The biggest barrier to wildlife law enforcement the EAGLE projects have encountered is corruption, often reaching the highest levels of government. All too often a wildlife trafficker is arrested, only to be back on the street the following day.
The Chinese man whose suitcase Rick identified? He tried to leave the country just days later but thanks to PALF’s interventions, government officials were soon walking to his plane to arrest him for the second time. Within fifteen minutes he had bought his way back onto the plane, but finally, PALF won the day and he now awaits sentencing by Congo’s courts.
The numbers of arrested traffickers, seized wildlife products, saved animals and confiscated weapons is growing. PALF now plans to expand collaboration with more anti-poaching units and logging concessions and to offer short training courses to a variety of relevant agencies to help them understand the capacity of the dogs unit. Rick and his canine friends aren’t too bothered about all these plans. They don’t even care if somebody tries to bribe their way out of trouble or not. They just enjoy the work.