By Sharon Atieno

With poaching and other wildlife crimes fueling population decline among different species in Kenya, the inclusion of dogs to combat such crimes is bearing fruits.

The dogs comprising the Belgian malinois, German shepherd, Springer spaniel and Bloodhound species are part of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Canine Unit which falls under the Security Directorate, Wildlife Protection Department.

Speaking during an Earth Journalism Network webinar dubbed Can canine units help prevent illegal wildlife trafficking in East Africa? Mark Kinyua, Head of Marine and Community Programmes at KWS, said the unit was formed to combat poaching and illegal trafficking of wildlife and wildlife products through tracking and detection respectively.

The canine unit is mobile and spread all over the country. However, the tracking canine teams are in key biodiversity hotspots with endangered species including Meru National Park-Rhino sanctuary, Solio ranch, Lake Nakuru National Park and Tsavo West-Ngulia Sanctuary and Tsavo East while detection teams are located at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA), Mombasa International Airport, Port of Mombasa and along border points such as Kenya- Tanzanian border.

According to Kinyua, since 2014 the dogs have been instrumental in detecting 102 incidents that led to the arrest of 114 traffickers.

He noted that some of the trafficked products include two tonnes of raw and worked ivory including bangles, necklaces and other accessories, rhino horns, lions and cheetah teeth as well as pangolin scales.

In 2016, the dogs helped to uncover 500kgs of pangolin scales from a parcel that was declared to contain feathers at JKIA in Nairobi. This was part of at least five seizures of pangolin scales carried out in that year.

At the port of Mombasa, where there are numerous containers, Kinyua said they are working on introducing remote air sampling for canine olfaction (RASCO). This involves bridging the doors of the containers and putting in a small straw-like pipe that is flexible.

The air in the container is then vacuum-cleaned. Then the detection dogs which are held in a well-air-conditioned room will go through the filters and where it positively identifies the smell, it gives a cue to the handler.

“This system can help us because it takes only 20 minutes to clear the air for 20 feet container and about 30 minutes for a 40 feet container. We can vacuum clean many containers so that when the dog indicates, we can go ahead and call the multiagency team and open the container,” he explained.

According to Dr. Philip Muruthi, Vice President, Species Conservation and Science, Africa Wildlife Foundation (AWF), dogs have numerous benefits including a highly developed sense of smell, up to 100,000 times more acute than a human nose. They are also able to detect many scents and are incorruptible, deterrent, accurate, and efficient.

Dr. Muruthi mentioned that the dogs are trained on different products such as ivory, pangolin, and rhino. When the dog positively identifies a smell, it has been trained to give cues to its handler like sitting. This is then followed by the crime scene and evidence management.

The AWF has collaborated with KWS in a number of activities including developing and deploying dog detection teams, donating detection dogs, providing transport to the canine teams as well as training aids. The AWF has also provided a technical supervisor to help the canine team and funded the development of standard operating procedures to implement the canine strategy.

Besides Kenya, the AWF is working with wildlife authorities in Uganda, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Cameroon and Ethiopia to develop canine units in their regions