Canine crime busters

2013-09-26 00:00

THEY may have clowns’ names, but their job is deadly serious. Ronaldo, Condor, Heady and Rico are four members of an anti-poaching unit that gets little publicity. Their skills are very necessary in the fight against the smuggling of endangered animals and the by-products of poaching.

Warwick Ragg is the operations manager of the explosions division of the Bidvest/ EWT (Endangered Wildlife Trust) dog unit. He is the person in charge of training the dogs that are leading the poaching fight.

The dogs’ mission is to track down any smuggled goods in any cargo hold or luggage. This way they can track and arrest those who are trying to get their ill-gotten gains out of the country.

Poachers are seen as the people on the ground, killing rhinos on game farms, but the unseen culprits are those who are behind the scenes, paying for the whole operation, setting up elaborate smuggling networks and thinking up ways of getting the horn past customs and the law.

Sniffer dogs have been trained to sniff rhino horn and other items that fall into the category of biodiversity are able to indicate where smuggled items have been concealed. Their sense of smell is so accurate that they can even tell if the rhino horn is from a white rhino or from a black rhino says Ragg, the dogs’ trainer and head of the operation.

One of the dogs, Rico, a Belgian Shepherd, was previously used in human rescue operations, but his boisterous nature made him a bit intimidating, so he was transferred to the new biodiversity unit.

Ragg says the two-year old-dog is amazing and has adapted very well to the training. “They are exposed to the substances over a period of time until they are extremely familiar with them. We test them and soon they can pick up small differences, such as the difference between rhino horn from different areas — but they will still show a positive reaction.”

The dogs are also trained to sniff out sungazer lizards, which have become the latest reptiles to fall prey to illegal smuggling. They are also able to sniff out rare cycads and ivory.

Ragg says that for the dogs it is all in a day’s work. The initial work is in teaching them discipline and then training them and getting them used to identifying the correct items.

The dogs are rewarded for correctly identifying a banned substance and this is what keeps them interested in doing their job.

Two of the dogs are German Shepherds and the other two are Belgium Malinois. These breeds particularly have an excellent sense of smell.

Dogs use their sense of smell to interpret the world around them.

The average dog is able to analyse smells 1 000 times more effectively than humans. When they smell a substance they recognise as a “trigger”, the animals can react in an aggressive or passive manner.

They will alert their human handler to the source of the smell. The handler will then investigate further. Ragg said that the unit has been very successful in finding illicit goods and there is now a plan to expand their services countrywide.

At the moment, they are operating at O.R. Tambo International Airport and are expanding to Lanseria.

EWT is also hoping to use the dogs to help anti-poaching units in finding poachers. The dogs would be able to sniff explosives and find spent bullet cartridges and track evidence. All these efforts will strengthen the fight against poachers.

• trish.beaver@witness.co.za

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