This story was originally published August 12, 2015.
Every year, about 35,000 elephants are killed by poachers for their ivory tusks. The popularity of ivory is skyrocketing, especially in China, where the price for it tripled between 2010 and 2014. Because of this, the elephant population has decreased 62 percent in just a decade, to only about 400,000 worldwide.
If poaching continues, in another 10 years, elephants could very well be extinct.
To help prevent this tragedy, dogs are being trained to use their incredible senses of smell to track poachers and sniff out ivory.
‘Supernatural’ Dogs Track Poachers
When it comes to keeping poachers away from an area, “there is no tool more effective than tracker dogs,” according to the conservation organization Big Life Tanzania.
“Our dogs have tracked elephant poachers for up to eight hours at a time or more, through extreme conditions—heat, rain, wetlands, mountains—and still turned up results,” Damien Bell, the organization’s director, told National Geographic. “They love their handlers, and they do a job until the job is done.”
Up to 24 hours after a poacher has killed an elephant, trained tracking dogs can sniff out the trail to the door of the killer’s house.
“This is a significant deterrent: the poacher knows that nothing he can do will be able to change this,” writes Big Life Tanzania’s co-founder, Richard Bonham, on the organization’s website. “The Maasai in particular are terrified of tracker dogs, regarding them as somehow supernatural in their ability to track them down.”
One of Big Life Tanzania’s rangers, Mutinda, happens to a former poacher himself. He’s especially helpful since he’s familiar with secret trails.
“The real long-term benefit may be the example he is showing to his community through the growing prosperity of his family,” Bonham writes.
“The challenge is to find work and employment for others in his old poaching fraternity, in order to get them to change.”
To make a donation to the Big Life Foundation, click here.
Sniffing Out Ivory
To train dogs how to sniff out ivory at airports, seaports and border crossings, in 2014 the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) launched the Conservation Canine Programme in Tanzania.
The dogs, who are purchased from breeders in Europe, spend several weeks being taught to detect illegal wildlife products hidden in cargo or luggage.
The training begins with a Kong toy, which serves as a “neutral” odor, according to the AWF. Next, the dogs sniff small pieces of ivory.
“Positive reinforcement remains at the core of the program’s dog-training philosophy, with all training and handling done with the dogs’ physical and mental health in mind,” the AWF notes.
The dogs are then paired up with their handlers. The teams practice searching buildings, seaports and airports.
Will Powell, director of the Conservation Canine Programme, told CNN it was easier training the dogs than their handlers, because many of the handlers have never been around dogs.
“The first lessons are as basic as learning to call a dog across a room and be nice,” Powell said. “The dogs don’t get a paycheck, so handlers have to provide love and encouragement.”
The program’s first graduating class this year included eight dogs and 14 handlers from the Kenya Wildlife Service and Tanzania’s Wildlife Division. The teams will be deployed to areas identified as export or transit hubs for smuggled ivory.
The AWF is working with other wildlife authorities in Africa to potentially provide conservation canines throughout the continent.
“If dogs are used and intelligently placed, we are going to stop some of the routes the ivory comes through,” Powell told CNN. “The aim is to keep (poachers) on their toes.”
To make a donation to the African Wildlife Foundation, click here.