Former stray dogs join fight to save Africa's elephants

This month, ivory smugglers and poachers in Kenya will face a new squad of crimefighters - Charlie, Blair, Megan, Mouser, Jason, and Vicky - a pack of expatriate canines.

The Labradors, German shepherds and collies - most of them former London strays - had six months of training to learn to detect pieces of ivory or rhino horn as small as half a centimeter and buried as deep as a meter and a half under ground.

Though it's only a six-dog squad, Josiah Achoki, the Kenyan Wildlife Service's assistant director of operations, says it will be effective. "The smugglers know they don't stand a chance," he says.

The British Army provided the canines, training, and kennels. Kate Hemmings, adviser to the British defense attache in Nairobi, says the canine antismuggling unit is a modest pilot program. Further care of the dogs and upkeep of the program will fall on the shoulders of the KWS. "If it gets too big, it will be hard for them to sustain," she says. "It is expensive, and so has to be limited ... but that said, it looks like a sure success, and we hope it will grow."

Ivory trade was banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 1989, in response to the mass slaughter of elephants. A report last year by the Nairobi-based Save the Elephants organization said that from 1979 to 1989, Africa lost over half its elephants to the ivory trade, with Kenya losing 85 percent of its population.

While the ivory ban dramatically reduced poaching and may have saved the species from extinction, it did not fully stop the trade, which has gone underground. Meanwhile, a relaxation of the ban between 1997 and 2000 allowed a small amount of ivory to be exported and served to encourage more smuggling.

Most ivory is smuggled from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, Cameroon and Gabon westward to the ivory carving centers of Abidjan in Ivory Coast, Lagos in Nigeria and Dakar in Senegal.

Kenya is a transportation hub - with traders and smugglers moving ivory and horn from various African countries through Nairobi's international airport and Mombassa's seaport en route to Europe and elsewhere.

Much of the ivory eventually makes its way to Asia.In Japan, ivory is used for making hankos, or personalized official stamps. In China, many traditional medicines and aphrodisiacs call for ivory or rhino horn.

The main retail buyers of ivory, says the Save the Elephants report, are tourists from France, Spain, and Italy, diplomats and foreign military, and United Nations and NGO personnel.

Save the Elephants officials say that UN workers, diplomats and humanitarian aid workers are the worst abusers. North Korean diplomats, meanwhile, were found to be among the biggest traffickers in ivory in the 1990s, according to The Ivory Markets of Africa, a private NGO study of the ivory trade in 13 African countries.

The total amount of illegal ivory seized since 1997 exceeds 13 tons, according to Save the Elephants.

The KWS reports that in 1999 Kenya seized more than 2 tons of illegal ivory - four times the average seized in the previous six years. Last year, a North Korean businessman was caught with 700 kilos of tusk as he was boarding a plane, and a Romanian diplomat and aPakistani peacekeeper were arrested in February as they tried to take out ivory carvings.

Poaching in Kenya continues to rise, with criminals using AK47s, bought cheaply on the Somali border, to shoot elephants, zebra, eland, impala, hippos and buffalos. Tusks are sold, hides are used to make drums or clothing, and the meat is eaten.

The Kenyan government has long relied only on KWS rangers and police officers to catch poachers and smugglers. Last year, however, Kenya decided that dogs could be man's best weapon against the violators.

The new canine team is split into two groups: One will sniff out ivory and rhino horn at air and sea ports, while the other will track down poachers in the country's national parks.

The dogs were trained in Britain - small pieces of ivory and rhino horn were shipped out to the Leisterchire dog-training school so the canines could practice. They arrived late last year in Kenya, along with a year's long supply of their favorite British dog food and two handlers from the British Army veterinary corps who helped the KWS build a dog-kennel compound in Naivasha and also trained local handlers.

Kalama Mlewa, one of 12 rangers chosen to be trained as a handler, is in charge ofCharlie, walking him four times a day, cleaning his kennel, grooming him, continuing with training, and going out on practice patrols.

"Seek on, seek on," he calls out to the dog, speaking in a Scottish accent he picked up from the British trainers, as he encourages his charge to look for a hidden piece of tusk. "That's me good boy," he says, smiling as Charlie starts barking near a blue knapsack in which the bait has been hidden. "That's me boy."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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