By Laura Lundquist
By the end of this week, a pair of ebony dogs from Montana will be hunting for ivory relics in Africa, joining the battle against illegal poaching and trafficking.
Steve and Ruger, two homeless black Labrador retrievers, avoided uncertain futures when they were brought to the attention of the Working Dogs for Conservation.
For 14 years, the Three Forks-based organization has adopted and trained more than 35 dogs, mostly rescue animals, to sniff out everything from weedy woad plants to pika poop in order to augment conservation work.
Since June, the two dogs have trained in a junkyard south of Bozeman, learning to search automobiles for ivory of any sort: unfinished tusks, figurines, jewelry or piano-key tops.
The dogs need to know their jobs well, because on Wednesday, they leave for their new homes in the South Luangwa region of Zambia, Africa.
Members of the South Luangwa Conservation Society will take over their care and training as they try to stem the illegal ivory trade that has surged in the past few years, threatening to send African elephants and rhinos into extinction.
Illicit trade in ivory rose in 2011 to the highest levels in 16 years. In 2013, ivory shipments rose another 20 percent over 2011 levels, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
Poachers killed more than 25,000 African elephants in 2011, another 22,000 in 2012 and the slaughter continues unabated. Asian elephants are not immune.
Tanzania has the highest rate of poaching, according to a February Interpol report, but Zambia also has problems.
The ivory is then smuggled through Uganda and Kenya on its way to Asia or Europe.
China is the primary destination for illegal ivory, but the U.S. is the second-largest market.
WDC wants to stop the ivory before it leaves Africa.
“Searching vehicles is a new thing for us. We have not worked on trafficking,” said WDC executive director Pete Coppolillo. “But because of the rise in ivory poaching and the lack of response of other management authorities who work on trafficking issues – they have been resistant to including wildlife products in their screening – we somewhat reticently are now in this business to stop wildlife trafficking.”
The problem is not limited to wildlife trafficking.
After last year’s bombing of a Kenyan mall, investigations into al-Shabaab, a Somali terrorist group associated with al-Qaida, revealed that wildlife traffickers are the same people who traffic in narcotics, guns and people.
An Elephant Action League report claims that the illegal sale of ivory funds up to 40 percent of Al-Shabaab’s operations.
“If you’ve got a network of people, who cares if you’re moving heroin or rhino horn, except that rhino horn is worth more. And they do nasty things like making the people they’re trafficking carry the rhino horn so they won’t get caught,” Coppolillo said.
WDC co-founder Megan Parker has overseen the dogs’ training and will accompany them to Zambia for a month, making sure the handlers are as trained as the dogs.
She was pleased with the donated junkyard training grounds.
“This whole place has been a dreamland for me. I could not design a better place to train dogs,” Parker said as she wandered through the maze of old car and truck bodies, inserting donated pieces of ivory into random compartments. “There are so many scents and rabbits and marmots that could throw them off if they don’t stay focused on their work.”
But after three months, the dogs have no problem staying on task, although each has a little different technique.
Three-year-old Ruger, found on a Montana reservation, is almost blind so he searches methodically, going from car to car, sniffing almost every part before moving on.
One-year-old Steve, whose owner died suddenly of cancer, is more high-energy but will sit stock-still and expectant once he’s found his target.
Since their reward is being allowed to play, the dogs were trained to the scent of ivory by first finding their chew-toy placed behind a piece of ivory.
Eventually, they can search for the ivory itself and are taught to sit when they find it. They are immediately rewarded with their toy.
The dogs’ behavior needs to be continually reinforced and handlers need to avoid rewarding the dogs for other things. To make sure the dogs are doing their jobs, WDC members will return to Zambia periodically for the next 10 years.
At some point, the dogs will probably also be trained to sniff out ammunition to detect poachers trying to enter protected areas.
Some WDC dogs, such as 8-year-old Peppin, have been trained to recognize as many as 20 scents. The only hitch is that the dogs will search for all those scents all the time so trainers have to be selective, Coppolillo said.
“Since 9/11, we’ve learned more about dogs and how they work than we ever did before. In April, we were in D.C., training on the newest techniques for searching vehicles. And a lot of it is adapting military stuff regarding explosives. So that information is out here but it’s not getting across the pond. So that’s what we’re doing,” Coppolillo said. Video.