Man’s best friend is playing an increasing role in the struggle to save wildlife in Africa. The unprecedented surge in both poaching and trafficking of wildlife is prompting government authorities, non-government groups and private land managers to turn to dogs to protect wild species, catch poachers and recover illegal weapons, ammunition and contraband animals. For example, using their keen sense of smell, tracking dogs can be trained to follow the scent of a poacher across a landscape. Typical breeds employed are German shepherds, Labrador retrievers, spaniels, hounds and border collies, among others.
Most of these working dog programs, however, lack access to ongoing training of dogs and their handlers as well as a community that can share best practices and provide support. Before investing in sending more dogs to Africa, the Elephant Crisis Fund wanted to discover how they can be deployed to best effect.
With support from Save the Elephants, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and other groups, Working Dogs for Conservation conducted a review to assess the state of dog conservation programs continent-wide. The review team consisted of: Megan Parker, Ph.D., of Working Dogs for Conservation; Chris Aycock of the American Society of Canine Trainers; and Matt Muir, Ph.D., of USFWS.
The team made site visits at five canine programs in Kenya and four in South Africa. It sent online surveys to an additional 17 dog programs in Africa and received 16 responses, from S. Africa, Gabon, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia.
The survey found that canine programs ranged from as few as one dog to as many as eight, deploying dogs on missions anywhere from only once a month to five days a week. Some programs maintain training weekly, while others offer no ongoing training, which results in decline in dog performance. Access to adequate equipment and facilities was rated as a key marker of program success.
All programs requested additional and updated comprehensive training.
Besides a lack of dog training, the program cited the absence of veterinary care as a major challenge. Working dogs suffer from a wide range of disease as well as injuries — some fatal — sustained in encounters with snakes, scorpions and other kinds of wildlife.
The canine programs reported some notable success: Rhino horn, ivory, pangolins in transport, bushmeat, weapons, ammunition, valuable ecological data and the poachers themselves have all been detected by the working dogs. Many programs also reported successful confiscations and poacher captures, sometimes at national airports.
The review resulted in a robust list of recommendations, among them:
- Recruit and maintain motivated dogs and handlers.
- Construct appropriate kennels with adequate security and infrastructure.
- Invest adequate time and resources in training (including continuation training) to ensure effective performance over the life of the program and the working life of the dog.
- Acquire and maintain good working equipment and dedicated transport where necessary.
- Foster good working relationships with national law enforcement agencies to facilitate use of evidence.