The roar of airplanes and rumble of trucks at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport doesn’t bother Rocco as he gets to work. In a cargo-loading area, he leaps onto a conveyor belt carrying luggage bound for destinations around the world. He runs purposefully from one suitcase to the next, sniffing each. He stops dead in his tracks at a small bag, briefly sits, then lunges for his reward—a rubber toy his handler presents to him.
Rocco has found what X-ray machines and human screeners could easily miss: a piece of ivory. The hand-size tip of an elephant’s tusk was hidden inside the bag for a demonstration of the canine’s olfactory prowess.
The three-year-old Belgian Malinois is a member of a new team of eight dogs specially trained to sniff out ivory at airports and ports in Kenya and Tanzania. In July 2015, seven Kenyan Wildlife Service rangers and six rangers from Tanzania’s Wildlife Division completed the new canine training under the auspices of the African Wildlife Foundation, a nonprofit conservation group based in Kenya, with operations across Africa.
As is well known, elephants across Africa are in trouble. During the past decade an estimated one-fifth of the continent’s elephants have been poached, bringing their numbers down to about 400,000, according to a report from the U.S. State Department released in March 2016.
In 2014, Kenya enacted tough new laws that make ivory poaching and trafficking punishable by fines of $200,000, or even life in prison, compared to the maximum fines of about $400 that were handed out previously. Stricter laws and better enforcement are having an effect. According to the African Wildlife Foundation, 93 elephants were poached last year, down from 384 in 2012.
On April 30, the Kenyan government is set to burn 105 tons of confiscated ivory and one ton of rhino horn to symbolically reinforce its message of resolve in cracking down on poaching and ivory trafficking. And when U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell visited Kenya in January, she signed an agreement between the two countries to step up the fight against wildlife trafficking.
And yet despite the progress, Kenya remains a major transit point for smuggled ivory. That’s largely because it flows out through Mombasa, the main port for all of East Africa and parts of central Africa. That’s where the sniffer dogs come in.
Since January the dogs have led 18 busts of ivory in Kenya alone. In the latest, at the end of March, one of the dogs identified 18 pieces of raw ivory at Nairobi airport in cargo headed to Bangkok from Mozambique—a haul worth more than $60,000.
And in a single week in January, dogs found ivory hidden in the luggage of four passengers en route to China. Two of the travelers were transiting through Kenya from Ghana and Mozambique. Much of the ivory had already been worked into rings, bangles, and other ornaments and stuffed into cigarette boxes.
The dog team has also detected more than 1,100 pounds of pangolin scales at Nairobi’s airport, as well as 200 live turtles at Julius Nyerere International Airport, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
“This should put all travelers attempting to smuggle wildlife products from Africa on alert,” said Philip Muruthi, vice president of species protection for the African Wildlife Foundation.
Kenyan Wildlife Service’s new sniffer dogs are more effective than the ones used previously at Nairobi’s airport because they’re better trained and handled. Will Powell, the African Wildlife Foundation’s conservation canine director, trains the dogs at a center in Arusha, Tanzania, where he’s been based.
He’s had 20 years’ experience in this art, primarily training dogs to detect landmines and explosives in conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Bosnia, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. He says training dogs to sniff out biological material such as ivory and other animal parts isn’t very different from detecting explosives and narcotics.
The key, Powell says, is positive reinforcement. “The dogs are taught to associate the smell of ivory and other target odors with receiving a toy and lots of praise,” he explains. “The dogs are conditioned to sit when they smell ivory, and then as soon as they’ve sat, they receive their toy and have loads of fun.”
Handlers are carefully chosen from the ranks of the Kenyan Wildlife Service and Tanzania’s Wildlife Division and must show a rapport with dogs. They undergo two months of training alongside the canines, which include German shepherds, German short-haired pointers, and English springer spaniels from Europe, along with the Belgian Malinois.
These breeds are especially suited to the work because they’re high-energy, open, social dogs “who love to work,” Powell says, adding that “happy dogs make the best working dogs.” He calls the Belgian Malinois “the Ferrari of the working dog breeds.” They have a good balance of energy and handle-ability, so first-time handlers do well with them. And he says, “They have super drive, and they’re very clever, as well as being tough and resilient.”
The dogs get so good at sleuthing that not even an ivory object as small as a ring or bangle eludes them. As Powell says, it’s “a testament to how well trained these dogs and their handlers are.” He’s now training eight more dogs who will likely be deployed to Uganda and Mozambique.
When a dog finds hidden ivory, the handler calls in law enforcement, such as the airport police or customs agents, who detain the owner of the baggage.
Detection is just the first step. Law enforcement is the next critical phase in cracking down on trafficking. The ivory’s authenticity must be verified by an expert; police reports must be correctly filed; and police, lawyers, and magistrates need to be schooled in new laws and the legal process to ensure that criminals are convicted.
“Finding ivory or rhino horn or other wildlife contraband is not an end in itself,” Muruthi says. “We want people to be prosecuted, sentenced, and to face the full measure of the law so it’s truly a deterrent."
Amy Yee is an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in the New York Times, Economist, Wall Street Journal, on National Public Radio, and in other media outlets. Her article about climate change in the Sundarbans mangrove forest of Bangladesh was a Notable Essay in the Best American Essays 2015. Follow her on Twitter.