How trained dogs are helping Africa win the battle against poaching


Kirstin Johnson, The Independent

Date Published

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The multibillion-dollar illegal trade in African wildlife and their products is fuelling unsustainable levels of killing of elephants, rhinos, lions, and other critical species.  

In many sites, the populations of these animals are plummeting. The desire for status symbols such as ivory, skins, and scales, as well as unsubstantiated claims about the medicinal properties of horns and bones, is driving some of Africa’s most iconic animals to extinction.

But last week African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) celebrated another milestone in its fight against this devastating trade. The latest team of sniffer dogs and their handlers graduated from AWF’s training base in Tanzania for deployment to Botswana’s international airport and national parks, beginning their contribution to anti-poaching and a growing African-led movement that is saying “no” to the illegal wildlife trade.

Will Powell, head trainer and director of AWF’s Canines for Conservation (C4C) programme, said “The dogs and their handlers must be totally in love with each other. The first week of their training is simply about creating the bond that cements the partnership for the training to come, involving play and just hanging out. Once this bond is established, we can start work.” 

Powell takes the elite training that he used with narcotics- and landmine-sniffing dogs in the Middle East, and applies the same principles to canines sniffing out the animal-parts trade in Africa. 

After pairing up local handlers with dogs mainly sourced from Europe, they’re put through an intense 10-week programme before being stationed at strategically important airports, shipping ports, and key wildlife-trafficking routes.

This approach doesn’t focus on training people to get dogs to perform, but rather it’s about finding pairs of dogs and handlers that become ‘dream teams’ who are in tune with each other and the important task at hand.

Botswana is the latest country to join Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Mozambique who already have C4C teams operating under the management of their wildlife authorities. 

It’s perhaps no coincidence that some of these countries also participate in the Giants Club, an exclusive forum operated by conservation charity Space for Giants that brings together African Heads of State, global business leaders, and elephant-protection experts to secure Africa’s remaining elephant populations and the crucial landscapes they depend on. These countries are really strengthening their commitment to wildlife and wild lands as part of their economic future.   

Dogs do not lie, they can’t be bribed, and they are delighted with their reward—a simple rubber toy called a Kong. The canine units are already proving their worth, including one team who in 2016 secured as many busts at Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in just eight months as the total amount detected in the previous seven years.

And for teams deployed in protected areas, once the dogs pick up the scent of a poacher, their sense of smell is so acute that they are able to track the scent for as long as a week. 

Supported by AWF, the judiciaries and wildlife-enforcement authorities are then able to take the criminals to court and ensure that they are prosecuted. Since the programme began in 2015, there have been dozens of busts and tonnes of wildlife products taken off the market.  

Congratulations to the newly graduated Botswana team, we wish you and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks all the success in protecting Africa from the perils of the illegal wildlife trade.