Detector dogs trained to sniff out illegal wildlife shipments

Wildlife Detector Dog Viper hones in on a suspicious smelling package during the training drill.  Credit: Tom MacKenzie / USFWSMiami — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a message for would-be wildlife traffickers: There’s a new dog in town, and if you try to bring illegal wildlife parts into the country, there’s a good chance he’s going to sniff you out.  And there are more just like him.

Last week, the first class of “wildlife detector dogs” and their handlers graduated from training in searching for protected species. In coming weeks, they will be stationed at key ports of entry around the country, searching for wildlife smuggled across U.S. borders. The four retrievers – named Viper, Butter, Lancer and Locket – have been trained as part of a national effort to stem the growing trade in threatened animal parts such as elephant ivory and rhino horn.

“The recent rapid growth in the global trade in protected wildlife is pushing some species perilously close to extinction. Elephant and rhino populations in particular are declining at alarming rates,” said Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement Deputy Chief Ed Grace. “The battle to stop wildlife smuggling is one we simply cannot afford to lose, and using dogs and their phenomenal sense of smell to catch smugglers will give us a real leg up in this effort.”

The use of dogs in law enforcement isn’t new.  Dogs are already used to detect illegal fruits and food products, bombs and drugs.  Some have even been trained to track down pythons that are invading Florida’s Everglades.  Training dogs to find smuggled wildlife products was the next step.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service enforces the nation’s wildlife laws, such as the Endangered Species Act and Lacey Act, and is responsible for U.S. enforcement of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).  This agreement between 178 countries restricts cross-border trade in protected wild animals and plants, from elephants and rhinos to Brazilian rosewood and wild orchids.

Service inspectors monitor declared wildlife shipments and work to intercept smuggled wildlife and wildlife products.  Inspectors examine imports and exports at U.S. international airports, ocean ports, border crossings, international mail facilities, and FedEx and UPS processing centers. Using dogs will give inspectors a whole new capacity to quickly scan air, rail, and ocean cargo, as well as international mail and express delivery packages, declared or not, without the time-consuming need to open each crate, box, or parcel.

The four graduating dogs and their Service Wildlife Inspector-Handlers completed the 13-week training course at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Detector Dog Training Center in Newnan, Ga., half an hour southwest of Atlanta. The center normally trains detector dogs to sniff out fruits and plants to interdict potential insects or diseases that could hurt U.S. agriculture.

For the Wildlife Inspector-Handlers, this is a new and exciting venture.

“This gives me a chance to combine my two great loves, wildlife and dogs,” said Amir Lawal, Wildlife Inspector at the port of Miami.  “I can’t wait to get started in the field with my new partner to stop illegal wildlife shipments.”

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