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Not just man’s best friend

The illegal wildlife trade, also known as wildlife trafficking, has many faces. Birds and reptiles, including the endangered grey parrot and the critically endangered radiated tortoise, are collected from the wild for the international pet trade. All manner of primates, from ring-tailed lemurs to western lowland gorillas, are hunted for bushmeat. Even the largest land mammal, the African elephant, is threatened – nearly 100 individuals are poached every day for their ivory tusks. On top of all this, many species are unintentionally caught in snares set for other animals.

Fortunately, the fight to stop wildlife trafficking also has many faces. Humans have recruited the help of highly trained super sniffers to stop the poaching and trafficking of threatened and endangered species. It turns out that man’s best friend is also a good friend to animals threatened by the illegal wildlife trade. That’s right, you can now add “protecting elephants” to the ever-growing list of reasons to love dogs. But what exactly are these dogs doing? We can look to our friends and partners in elephant conservation at Conservation South Luangwa (CSL) to find out.

The secret to dogs’ success as conservation warriors is their amazing sense of smell. Unlike humans, who understand the world visually, dogs understand the world by smelling it. The 300 million olfactory (scent) receptors in their noses allow dogs to detect some odors in parts per trillion. With a sense of smell at least 10,000 times better than ours, dogs can detect what we can’t. Combine that with portability and agility superior to most technology, and it’s easy to see why detection dogs are important members of the CSL team.

The mission of Conservation South Luangwa is to protect the wildlife and habitats of the South Luangwa ecosystem in Zambia – an ambitious undertaking with many factors to address. Their work includes wildlife rescue and de-snaring, elephant conflict mitigation, anti-poaching patrols, aerial surveillance and, you guessed it, a detection dog unit. All these efforts help CSL protect African elephants from poaching and other threats. Since 2005, CSL has treated over 160 elephants for snare wounds, and in 2018 alone, their teams confiscated 100 elephant tusks and removed 78 firearms from the possession of potential poachers.

The detection dog unit is an integral component of CSL’s work to protect elephants and other wildlife. The dogs are trained to detect ivory, firearms and ammunition, pangolin (widely believed to be the most trafficked animal in the world), leopard skins, and certain species of bushmeat. And they do it well. Not only are they effective, but they’re also incredibly efficient. Have you ever dropped something in your car and not been able to find it among all the nooks and crannies? A detection dog would be able to find it for you. On a larger scale, they can detect small illegal items within a fully packed trailer in a matter of minutes – something that would take a group of humans several hours.

With animal populations declining and incidents of poaching increasing, conservation work can feel like a marathon with no finish line. But just like the species we’re working to protect, conservation biologists are resilient and skilled at finding creative solutions to complex issues – like training dogs to detect ivory. With your support, we can continue making progress towards ending wildlife crime. Come visit us when the new African Savanna opens on August 8 to learn more about African elephants and how to protect them. In the meantime, you can check out Conservation South Luangwa’s website to learn more about their work and see examples of their human and canine conservation warriors in action.

Photo courtesy of Edward Self Photography

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl