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Dogs Wage War on Illegal Ivory

By Amy Fernandez

From the archives of The Canine Chronicle

We hear a lot about superstar canines trained to ferret out weapons and drugs. That’s a big slice of the detection dog business, but those are far from the only categories of smuggled contraband flying around the globe.

There’s almost no limit to the determination and creativity that a profit motive can inspire. Likewise, science is beginning to realize there’s almost no limit to the fine-tuned capabilities of the canine nose. Dogs regularly demonstrate their ability to distinguish faint traces of an astounding variety of scent molecules and achieve amazing results when all else fails. And so far, everything seems to be failing when it comes to stopping the illegal ivory trade.

Individually and collectively, governments have been working on this problem since 1979 when Africa’s rapidly dwindling elephant population first captured global attention. Then estimated to be around 1.3 million, a decade later it was down to 600,000. Currently it’s estimated that only 400,000 elephants remain in Africa.

In 1989 the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) instituted a worldwide ban on the ivory trade. Since then, enforcement efforts combined with all sorts escalating fines, prison sentences and other legal sanctions enacted over the next ten years have had virtually no impact with the exception of one tangible result. It drove the business underground and simultaneously drove up prices. The illegal ivory trade is flourishing. The price of ivory has skyrocketed, tripling between 2010 and 2014. It’s big business for organized trafficking rings that rake in at least $20 billion in profits annually.

Occasionally, news reports announced the interception of an illegal cache of ivory, usually several tons. However, thanks to escalating prices, even small amounts sadly bring big profits. Prices have gone so high it is no longer necessary to smuggle tonnage. Just a few pieces of raw ivory in a suitcase can yield $50,000 or more. For various reasons, x-rays and human screeners routinely miss most of the contraband ivory flowing out of East Africa.

For decades, various conservation groups have purchased and donated trained detection dogs to African wildlife service personnel stationed at key ports, airports and border crossings at the epicenter of the problem. Purchased with donated funds, they come with hefty price tags. Unfortunately, there’s a lot more to the deal than buying them and shipping them to the desired destination.

They’ve experimented with different breeds: English Springers, German Shorthairs, and German Shepherds, to name a few. In some cases, the breeds simply couldn’t acclimate to the African climate or work effectively in intense heat. Far more often, the handlers were the main problem. Few had any experience with dogs, and none at all with highly-trained detection dogs.

Recruiting and training handlers is the real challenge. Recently, Tanzania has taken a new approach to this problem. Tanzania is arguably the country hardest hit by this problem. Despite its longstanding ban on the ivory trade, 60 percent of its elephant population has been slaughtered in the last five years, with the elephant population dwindling from 110,000 to less than 43,000 today. Meanwhile, it’s estimated that at least 415,000 pounds of ivory were smuggled out of the country during that period.

The first change taken by this country has been with selecting a breed that’s proven to work effectively in hot weather. The government purchased eight trained Malinois from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Canine Training Center in El Paso Texas, which also helped to select and recruit 13 Wildlife Services rangers as their handlers. The handlers were then sent to El Paso for a ten-week course working with the dogs and a follow-up course when they returned to Tanzania. There’s also ongoing supervision in place to monitor the teams and provide ongoing refresher courses for both dogs and handlers. Maybe this will work. We can only hope or soon there soon won’t be any elephants left to worry about.

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Posted by on Oct 22 2020. Filed under Current Articles, Featured. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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  • November 2020