Kenya: Sniffing Out Poachers in the Mara to Save Animals


Leopold Obi, The Daily Nation

Date Published

At the Maasai Mara Game Reserve’s Oloololo Gate, Garvey, a Labrador must sniff at all the vehicles entering and leaving the conservancy. By this simple act, the dog has helped reduce poaching at the reserve. 

Recently, it successfully detected gun cartridges that had been used to kill an elephant in Nyakweri Forest, leading to the recovery of a bundle of ivory. It also helped identify cartridges in two separate robberies in the vicinity of the Trans Mara conservancy.

Unfortunately, after five years on the job, Garvey is due for retirement. The rangers who have worked with the dog will be sad to see it go. But Ntayia Langas, who heads the dog unit in the Mara Triangle, is upbeat, saying they have a squad of well-trained, energetic puppies to take over from their venerable mate.

They have three Bloodhound and Labrador puppies being trained to sniff out poachers by American experts. The dogs will go a nine-month training, which began in December 2017.

The initiative is supported by the World Wide Fund for Nature-Kenya (WWF-Kenya).

“We have two types of dogs in the Mara triangle: Labradors, which are sniffers, and Bloodhounds, are used as trackers,” says Langas.

Because it is nearly impossible to trace footsteps on grass, the rangers previous efforts to tack poachers in the vast triangle were fruitless. In most circumstances, poachers seemed to vanish into thin air, the only evidence of their presence being a trail of animal carcasses.

To stem poaching, the Mara Triangle first introduced two Bloodhounds in 2009.

“The motivation for killing wildlife is for bush meat or trophies, and poachers will go to any extent to get the trophies, including killing rangers,” said Dr Yusuf Wote, WWF-Kenya managing director, “The dogs save the rangers’ lives, as well as the wildlife.”

Labradors, which are trained to detect gun powder, explosives and other forms of ammunition, were introduced in the Mara in 2013 to check vehicles entering and leaving the conservancy to enhance security for both the staff and wildlife in the park.

Major Impact

Dr Wote says that introduction of the dogs in the park has had a major impact in curbing poaching crime at the park, as well as it exit points such as airports, where t sniffer dogs have also been introduced.

Dr Wote said WWF-Kenya supports organisations such as the Kenya Wildlife Service in training and deploying sniffer dogs and tracker dogs in the Mara Triangle, the Jomo Kenya International Airport and Mombasa port to guard against trafficking of wildlife products and rare plant species such as sandalwood.

The dogs have also been able to help field rangers trail poachers even when signs or footsteps cannot be found. At many airports and border crossings, sniffer dogs have detected drugs and other contraband goods, a campaig that is now being extended to tackle the smuggling of ivory, bush meat and other illegal wildlife products.

It is difficult to detect most of these products when they arrive at the port or the airport because they are usually hidden inside containers that scanners cannot detect, so the sniffer dogs come in handy, he says.

The dogs have made it possible to nab poachers, who, rather than surrender, often hide in the bushes in that park, says Langas, adding that the task would be impossible without the dogs.

In the past few years, field rangers in Mara have arrested more than 100 poachers, traversing the vast Mara Triangle and going as far as Serengeti in Tanzania.

Critical to Economy

Wildlife conservation is critical to the country’s economy, given that they bring in $1.3 a year, which is equal to 12 per cent of the country’s GDP. However, poaching remains a major threat to the country’s wildlife.

The government declared a ban on game (except birds) and trophy hunting in 1977, and followed this with laws in 2014 that made ivory poaching and trafficking punishable by fines of $200,000, or even life in prison; previously the the maximum fines for such crimes was about $400. 

But illegal trade in wildlife continues to thrive, abetted by corruption in the government and security lapses at border points.

Poachers are typically locals with first-hand knowledge of the terrain who work with one or more middlemen, a wildlife traffic report 2016 titled Wildlife Protection and Trafficking Assessment in Kenya. These middlemen have links with to a kingpin or patron, who, provides or facilitates access to financing, weapons and intelligence on the movement of rangers.

“Hunting for bush meat is rampant in the Mara Triangle as poachers lay snares to trap gazelles, impalas, topis, buffaloes, and wildebeest, among other edible game. The big fives are also top on the poachers list,” pointed said Langas, adding that they once rescued a trapped rhino trapped but were too late to save a lion that had been snared.

To work effectively, the dogs need proper care and an enabling environment, which makes the project very expensive, says Dr Wote.”The dogs need clean kennels, frequent deworming and washing, proper food and water.

Kenya Named a Major Transit Country

The Wildlife Traffic report 2016 titled Wildlife Protection and Trafficking Assessment in Kenya identified Kenya a key transit country for wildlife contraband.

Kilindini Port in Mombasa and the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in Nairobi are the leading exit points for wildlife contraband the country, the report said. Since 2009, more ivory has left through Mombasa than any other African trade route. 

It is primarily destined for China and Hong Kong, with transit points in Malaysia, Viet Nam, Thailand and Singapore. Large quantities of wildlife contraband goods have been seized at JKIA, the report says.

The main wildlife products originating from Kenya are ivory, rhinoceros horns, big cat skins and pangolin scales. Ivory from Tanzania, Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Conga, Uganda and South Sudan also pass through Kenya. Other products trafficked through Kenya are pangolin scales and timber from Uganda.