In 1989, a rapid decline in the African elephant population spurred the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species to institute a worldwide ban on the trade of ivory. The ban has only done so much, and between 30,000 to 50,000 elephants are killed per year, according to wildlife charity Born Free.
Now, conservationists are employing a new tool in the fight to protect these vulnerable beasts: Dogs. The African Wildlife Foundation has teamed with Kenya and Tanzania to deploy ivory-sniffing canines to detect ivory in transit.
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The AWF is attempting to establish a kind of doggie Harvard in the continent, whereby they train, track and monitor detection dogs throughout Africa.
“We’re not simply training dogs and ‘gifting’ them to governments and groups, never to be heard from again, but working with them and their handlers, cradle to maturity,” says Kathleen Garrigan, a spokeswoman for AWF.
Recently, the AWF saw its first graduating class – eight dogs and 14 handlers from the Kenya Wildlife Service and Tanzania’s Wildlife Division. The group has already partnered with both organizations to install dogs at ports, in airports and at border crossings.
One advantage using dogs is that they’re extremely adaptable.
“Dogs can handle all sorts of temperatures,” says Will Powell, the director of AWF’s Conservation Canine Program in Arusha, Tanzania.
“The first couple of weeks we start early in the morning, go for long walks and ease them into the day.”
Powell notes that the program is just as much about training the dog’s handlers as it is the canines themselves.
“Training the dogs is the easy bit,” he says.
Many of the handlers have never owned dogs, so getting them to forge a bond is part of the process.
“The first lessons are as basic as learning to call a dog across a room and be nice. The dogs don’t get a pay check so handlers have to provide love and encouragement,” says Powell.
Long term, the AWF hopes to make dogs a bigger and better part of conservation efforts.
“If dogs are used and intelligently placed, we are going to stop some of the routes the ivory comes through,” he says.
“The aim is to keep (poachers) on their toes.”