That study turned into a full-scale contract the following year when Conservation Dogs became the first company to work with the Gabonese National Park Agency, The Ministry of Water and Forests, and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in Gabon to train and supply a team of anti-poaching dogs. Over the last couple of years, the dogs have regularly swept a number of pinch points in Gabon capital Libreville and its surroundings, sniffing out endangered wildlife and plant species. Accompanied by their trained handlers, they search luggage at the international airport and make checks at the train station. They also sniff containers at the city port and can be deployed at roadblocks, picking up scents inside vehicles.
Adam Vizard, Wagtail’s UK/Overseas Operations Manager, explained: “We have been working closely with local authorities to support them in an attempt to combat illegal activity relating to endangered species – our dogs are trained specifically to detect concealments of ivory, pangolin scale, shark fin, bush meat and iboga root, as well as other products of animal origin. “They have been prolific in assisting with the searching of all manner of air cargo in locations such as Libreville Airport, as well as personal luggage prior to it being loaded on the aircraft and at baggage reclaim.”
Now, thanks to the dogs’ on-going success, the service is being opened up to include Tanzania.
“Wagtail is working alongside the WCS in the detection of products of animal origin in Gabon, so it was natural that we would want to replicate that success in Tanzania,” explained Vizard. “Our dogs are trained to be handled by local WCS dog handlers and work very hard to be the best at what they do.” Wagtail International, which was established in 2003, is one of the UK’s leading suppliers of detection dogs for UK and international operations. The company holds a UK Home Office licence to store drug scents and explosive scents for the purposes of detection dog training.
Conservation Dogs was set up as a centre for the training of anti-poaching and wildlife detection dogs. It uses the same skills already proven with Wagtail’s tobacco, drug and people detection dogs.
The Gabon team have had phenomenal success with finds of ivory, pangolin, shark fin and illegal bush meat. Across central Africa, 76% of the forest elephant population is estimated to have already been lost to poaching, with an estimated decline of 30% in Gabon. Some commentators have likened the illegal trade in ivory to being similar to drug smuggling.
It was this high elephant poaching pressure, together with the illegal trade of animal skins and other wildlife products that drove Gabon to look for inventive ways to improve the detection rate. Because the challenges associated with curbing the illicit trade in wildlife are similar to those of illegal drugs, the Gabonese National Parks Agency looked to similar methods used by customs and police, which is why the dogs were chosen. To date dogs have chalked up finds of ivory in checked-in luggage, pangolin hidden inside a truck, several sacks of shark fin hidden within other fish products and large hauls of illegal bush meat from a railway station, and on a road check point. (africanaerospace, text + photo)