With her head slightly lowered and a telling wag of her tail, Briar—a German Shepherd of Czechoslovakian origin—cast an expectant glance in my direction. Her body language was loud and clear: She had found what we were looking for and congratulations were in order. Sure enough, hidden in the depths of the prickly scrub in front of Briar was a desert tortoise, the focus of our pilot study in southern California’s Mojave Desert. Imperiled by habitat loss and other anthropogenic effects, desert tortoises are of grave concern to conservation biologists, but their camouflaged presence is difficult to detect with the human eye.
In an attempt to find more tortoises, researchers are teaching new tricks to old friends who happen to have an uncanny sense of smell. Indeed, dogs are becoming an important asset to conservation efforts in myriad ways—from sniffing out wildlife to warding off predators that might otherwise meet their demise if involved in conflicts with people. While dogs have long been valued for their ability to benefit people, today’s “conservation dogs” are enhancing our ability to protect many wild species whose fate may largely depend on us.
The Nose Knows
Many roles played by conservation dogs are rooted in their detection skills, skills that have long been applied to searches for drugs, explosives, forensic evidence and other targets of human interest. In fact, according to Dr. Larry Myers, an olfaction expert at Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, humans have probably used canine companions for detection (as in tracking and bringing down game) for at least 12,000 years. Scientists are only beginning to understand the complexities of canine olfaction, but this much is clear: A large portion of a dog’s brain is directly related to smell, and those fuzzy snouts contain as many as 220 million olfactory receptor cells, compared to roughly 5 million receptors in the human nose. The end result is that we’re profoundly outclassed when it comes to detecting scent.
Canine detection capacity has recently been put to the task of curbing the illicit trade in wildlife and wildlife parts—a multibillion dollar industry that threatens African elephants, Asiatic black bears and many other species worldwide. Responding to this crisis, a handful of nations have trained dogs to detect wildlife contraband. In 2000, for example, the Korea Customs Service and the Animals Asia Foundation introduced a yellow Labrador Retriever named Simba, Asia’s first wildlife sniffer dog. During his two-year stint at South Korea’s Incheon Airport, Simba uncovered more than 80 stashes of bear bile and gall bladders (traditional Chinese medicinals), snakes, seal penises, and even four live baby monkeys.
Meanwhile, Ecuadorian detector dogs regularly search boats traveling back and forth from the Galapagos Islands, sniffing for smuggled shark fins (used in shark-fin soup) and sea cucumber; one successful “find” resulted in the confiscation of 1,537 shark fins. The Kenya Wildlife Service’s website notes that “the presence of sniffer dogs at airports is a powerful disincentive to potential ivory or rhino horn traffickers,” and the South Africa Police Service’s Border Collie, Tammy, has been so effective at finding smuggled abalone that she has her own German Shepherd bodyguard.
According to the wildlife trade watchdog group TRAFFIC, the US is the world’s largest consumer of wildlife products, many of which are imported illegally. In 1996, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) hired Mason (another yellow Lab) to detect wildlife contraband at border crossings in southern California. Mason had been trained to alert on live birds, reptiles and bear gall bladder, and was being trained on ivory at the time of his retirement in 2001. Unfortunately, Mason was not replaced. Sandy Cleava, a spokeswoman for the FWS’s Office of Law Enforcement, acknowledges that wildlife detection dogs “have the potential to be helpful, but we don’t have the resources to pursue a program at this time.” (By comparison, the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency currently employs 1,200 canine teams to detect drugs, explosives, chemicals, currency, agricultural products, and concealed humans at ports of entry and border patrol stations across the country.)