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Tuesday, 5 December 2017   /   published in Rhinos

Going to the Dogs – a K-9 Program

Adapted from Marianne Messina, Huffington Post

In the conservation work of Dr. Phillip Muruthi, habitat science mingles daily with criminal law. Take this ivory interception at Nairobi Airport that Muruthi mentioned in our interview. It came across his inbox because AWF’s innovative Canine Conservation Program made it possible. Years in the making, this program came together when Kenya-based Muruthi and his organization AWF hooked up with Will Powell, a Tanzania-based dog trainer. In spite of massive multifaceted AWF efforts– contraband continued to slip through export hubs like the Nairobi airport. Meanwhile, Powell was training dogs in Tanzania after years spent training bomb detection dogs for war zones. (As researchers have recently come to know, a dog’s nose can be accurate on an order approaching parts per billion.)

Together Muruthi and Powell developed a program that trains dogs to sniff out hidden wildlife parts and prepares rangers to work with the dogs effectively.

“This is big,” Muruthi says. “We deployed dogs in Nairobi two years ago. The dog can search luggage in 10 minutes.”

As it expands, deploying the trained K-9 teams to airports, seaports and other potential trafficking chokepoints, the program offers career advancement for a growing conservation work force. The program also helps young people realize fulfilling futures as a direct consequence of wildlife conservation.

As a joint, international effort, the program’s first trainees were selected from among many wildlife ranger candidates across Tanzania and Kenya. (HuffPost blogger Nick Visser covered the program launch in 2015.) Since then, rangers from Uganda have also come through the program.

Wearing his educator hat, Dr. Muruthi traveled to Tanzania to attend the program’s first graduation ceremony, where he was joined by Tanzania Wildlife Division Head of Anti-Poaching Faustin Masalu and Kenya Wildlife Service Director General William Kiprono.

The dogs exceeded expectation! Commitment from government authorities is particularly important for a cohesive program and long-term success. The news.

The Nairobi Airport sting alone brought AWF into partnership with police, judges, and airport authorities along with Kenya Wildlife Services.

In the two years since the program’s inception, the sniffer dogs have found everything from illegal rhino horn to endangered pangolin scales as poachers tried to slip the contraband off to Asia or the Mid-East.

“Initially we found a lot in Nairobi,” Muruthi reports. “Now we are not. They may be using different routes because they know that if you come you will be caught.”

As it stands, llegal export routes can simply relocate to the weak spots.

Capturing traffickers has some deterrent effect, but for groups like AWF, the hope is to prevent the animal being killed in the first place. In a 2016 report on rhino poaching, Ken Maggs, head ranger for Kruger National Park in South Africa, estimated that at any given time there might be up to 15 groups of poachers operating in the Park (report prepared by author Julian Rademeyer for the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime). Because it has the highest percentage of rhinos, South Africa has been overwhelmed by the poaching epidemic. In countries like Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania, there is a chance to get a better handle on poaching.

“Tracker dogs, for example, in Northern Kenya,” Muruthi explains, “they are used just like police to get quickly to the individual.”

It takes good intelligence and lucky timing as well, but, all things favorable, tracker dogs have a chance to catch poachers before they kill.

Success in the dog and handler training programs allowed AWF to focus attention further up the black market chain. Weak links in the justice system allowed the rewards of poaching to continue outweighing the consequences of getting caught. The organization began to work towards improvements in the criminal justice system itself.