Sniffer dogs in action to save elephants

Rick and Shon © PALF

The bus has stopped at the edge of the road. Rick is running between the suitcases and sniffing around one, another, third one… he is wagging his tail, sometimes looks back at his handler, who is encouraging him to continue. He is enjoying this hide and search game, especially when he can smell something interesting in one of the suitcases. His anxiety escalates, yes, this is the right suitcase! He lays down to show, that he is sure. “Great dog, good dog!” says the handler and waves at the officers that a suspicious suitcase has been identified. Happy Rick gets his toy and is already looking forward to a new game.

But he just did a very serious job. The Chinese owner, a small guy, opens the suitcase. 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 object of a rounded shape, 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 and shows the bracelet to everybody and gives a signal to the policemen next to him. They immediately arrest the Chinese and escort him to the car. So this is what called Rick´s attention – a single ivory bracelet and several handfuls of pangolin scales, all well wrapped in plastic, closed in tin can and hidden in a suitcase.

But even a single bracelet means that one elephant had to die. Their total number in Africa is estimated to be 434,000. But every year some 30,000 of them are killed for ivory, and the speed with which they are exterminated is not slowing. The situation of forest elephants in Central Africa is even worse. As their ivory is harder, they become even more targeted by traffickers. Their total number doesn´t exceed 100,000, and in 2013 it was estimated that they might become extinct within 10 years. With the current expansion in infrastructure, and more and more logging entering 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 is. Trafficking of ivory and other products of wildlife crime is a sophisticated and well organized international business, its global value is estimated to be more than €17 billion a year.

It was cooperation of PALF, a member project of the EAGLE Network, led by an activist Naftali Honig, and a pro-conservation company, Maisha, which brought first sniffer dogs to Congo to identify traffickers of wildlife products. Rick and Shon arrived at the end of February 2014 and one year later enthusiastic Czech national Arthur Sniegon joined the team and brought in a third dog, Cama, together with her trainer. She taught the dogs to mark ivory, pangolin scales and bushmeat, and also weapons and ammunition. But how surprised she was, when two of the dogs independently on each other pointed their noses to bags with more than 10 kg of marijuana!

All three dogs are Malinois, a Belgian shepherd breed, today used often as police dogs, working to identify drugs, weapons, explosives and other contraband. In the U.S. they are even used to guard the White House. Their high energy, playfulness and, most of all, their enormous intelligence predisposes them for this kind of work. The PALF dogs are able to climb and search the roofs of trucks, operate 4 meters high above the road, squeeze themselves between suitcases in a bus or feel confident at a modern airport as well as in a poachers´ camp in the forest. They take their work more as a play, and this alone may be the impulse for them to learn new kinds of contraband right on the spot.

The drug smuggler was arrested. As well as the Chinese man with the bracelet. And so were others, which were identified by the dogs. For them, finding contraband means the work is done, but for the PALF activists, the work has just begun. Too often a trafficker is arrested and the next day he walks free again on the street. For example, the little man with the ivory bracelet tried to leave the country just days after Rick marked his suitcase. Hard pushing followed – and the authorities walked to the plane to arrest him for the second time. But in fifteen minutes he walked back to the plane, free again! But the PALF activists kept fighting corruption and finally he was blocked from traveling and awaits sentencing from the Congolese Court.

The biggest barrier on the way to law enforcement is corruption. It often reaches to the highest positions, even this fact the sniffer dogs helped to confirm. During a routine road control a car was stopped and the dogs identified live crocodiles and turtles, which were supposed to end on a plate of a high-ranking government official. Of course the traffickers – the officer's own people in this case - all knew very well, that this is illegal, but the appetite of the big man was stronger! When the PALF activists and local police officers insisted on seizing the animals and following the rules, the government officer´s driver and 6 of his servants were laughing at first, then they started threatening the people and in the end they tried to escape. But face to face the law enforcing organization, the policemen had to act in the end. What a surprise, when within an hour the government officer himself arrived and tried to sweep the whole story under the carpet. But in the end he – as any ordinary trafficker – had to legitimize himself and sign the police protocol. In front of all the policemen, who had a chance to witness on their own eyes that the law can be above the highest ranking officers. The crocodiles and turtles were saved and later released back to the wild.

The PALF Sniffer Dog project, launched one year ago, is bringing more and more results.

The numbers of arrested traffickers, saved animals, confiscated weapons and ammunition are growing. Also the number of dogs involved will grow. And there is a big potential for future. PALF also plans to expand collaboration with more anti-poaching units and logging concessions and to offer short training courses to a variety of forces of law to help them to understand the capacity of the dogs unit.

Rick, Shon and Cama aren’t too bothered about all these plans. They don´t even care, if somebody tries to bribe or not. They just enjoy the work.

The dogs are trained to identify ivory, skins, bushmeet and pangolin scales, but also weapons and ammunition © PALF
Thanks to their agility the dogs can easily operate on the rooftop of a bus or on a truck. © PALF
Thanks to their agility the dogs can easily operate on the rooftop of a bus or on a truck. © PALF
The dogs can identify even small pieces of ivory or other products hidden among piles of  luggage © PALF
Search in a poacher camp, where the dogs found weapons and ammunition. The camp was burned then © PALF
The dogs are trained to identify ivory, skins, bushmeet and pangolin scales, but also weapons and ammunition © PALF
Chinese was arrested for trafficking an ivory bracelet, identified by the dogs.
Dogs in action