Sniffer dogs are a great tool in wildlife management

Last week,I attended a workshop on wildlife with the theme: “The Role of the Prosecution in Combatting Wildlife Crime in East Africa”.

Its objectives were to increase the understanding on transnational wildlife crime, understand mechanisms for regional cooperation in wildlife law enforcement agencies, understand the programmes in place to secure our borders and prevent trafficking of wildlife products (especially elephant ivory and rhino horn), and how to shore up the creation of East African Wildlife Prosecutors Coalition (EAWPC). 

A couple of tremendous proposals transpired, and, if taken into account, can lead to a success story. From presentations, I avidly noted, among others, the use of wildlife sniffer dogs, technically referred to as Canines, also known as K9.

For sniffer dogs to operate, they must undertake rigorous training to give them the focus, discipline and skills required to detect concealed illegal wildlife products.

In wildlife context, the canines are trained, depending on the purpose of training, for three roles: detection, tracking and patrol.

Since time immemorial, sniffer dogs have been part of our world and are considered as a best friend or pet, especially for security purposes.

But canines are not only loyal, they are also highly intelligent and possess a dazzling sense of smell. These enviable qualities form the basis of using Canines for wildlife management.

In detection, the canines sniff out illegal wildlife traffickers. Today, across the Eastern and Southern African region wildlife trafficking keeps the poaching alive.

It is motivated by a lucrative illegal wildlife trade, poachers target Africa’s iconic species like the elephant and rhino through well-funded, highly trained, and increasingly sophisticated criminal syndicates.

The poaching of rhinos has increased considerably as growing markets that seek out rhino horns for its medicinal purposes, among others. Although demand for ivory is sometimes limited by international embargoes, it still reaches consumers through the black market.

If poaching does not stop, these species could die out within our lifetime. A good example is dinosaurs that died out perhaps thousands of years ago.  The sniffer dogs can detect even the smallest amounts of wildlife contraband, like elephant ivory or rhino horn, stopping traffickers before they can export the illegal products.

Usually, sniffer dogs are deployed in target high-risk gateways for smuggling. So far, these include strategic airports and seaports in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Mozambique. As poaching rates grow, canine detection units are helping authorities detect even the smallest dustings of illegal wildlife products.

As well, Rwanda isn’t immune to wildlife menace. As a result, sniffer dogs have been introduced in Akagera National Park to patrol poaching of endangered animal species as opposed to detection of wildlife products, technically referred to as trophies.

Like noted earlier, the sniffer dogs serve their purpose for which they were trained. In fact, sniffer dogs have proved to be accurate and resourceful in the monitoring of suspicious activity in the park. Well-trained sniffer dogs help park rangers, who are handlers, track the poachers.

Besides, Canines can be trained to acclimatise to many scents. They use their senses to detect substances such as explosives, illegal drugs, wildlife products, currency, blood, and contraband electronics such as illicit mobile phones.

The sniffer dogs are famous for their incredible capacity of detecting smell far greater than humans. They can be trained to diverse scents. It is said that they can smell things that seem unfathomable to us.

While the golden rule is proper management of wildlife, it is crucially important to introduce the Canines in all national parks given that it’s our moral duty to stop the degradation of the earth’s natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature.

A central question is how to prosecute wildlife crimes. As a matter of principle, the proper administration of justice relies on proper provision of evidence. So prosecution of wildlife-related offences can rely on detection dog evidence. However, it necessitates collaborative mechanisms and inter-agency communication to enhance the success of detection dogs.

Inasmuch as detection dog evidence may be the potential evidence, the prosecutors have to trade-off with the standard of proving the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Sniffer dog handlers too have to ensure the recovery, collection, and management of wildlife contraband (or exhibits) recovered by the detection units. To ensure the integrity of canine evidence, it is quite important to take stringent measures against corruption, which is susceptible in wildlife trafficking.

Besides the use of Canine Units, the participants primarily agreed that specific actions would turn things around, notably to adopt transnational enforcement networks, advocate for harmonisation of laws and policies in the region, enhance information sharing among wildlife agencies (by scaling up mutual legal assistance modalities in the region and creating a joint database of convicted wildlife offenders).

They also mooted the idea of mapping and securing all the illegal wildlife trade routes in the region (by identifying hotspots and trafficking routes), enforce proceeds of crimes laws in the region, fight corruption within wildlife agencies, anti-bushmeat consumption campaigns, increase capacity-building programmes (such as inter-agency training on wildlife management), and adopt technology to combat transboundary crimes (by enhancing DNA analysis capabilities).

The writer is a law expert.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.

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