A sniffer dog considers some luggage. Photo by Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK)
“I know that without a dog I wouldn’t be able to do it,” says Zhumazhanov Dauren, a border patrol officer in Kazakhstan, who is working with Zetta, a Labrador retriever.
“I see many opportunities ahead of us – I will be the first person from our border checkpoint team who has a sniffer dog with the ability to look for wildlife products. So we will have to prove every single day that we are the best team, and work very hard.”
Officer Dauren is among a group of five handlers and five sniffer dogs who are working to combat wildlife trafficking in Kazakhstan thanks to the work of Fauna and Flora International (FFI), the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK), the Kazakhstan government and their partners.
Zhumazhanov Dauren with sniffer dog Zetta. Photo by ACBK
Supported through a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Combating Wildlife Trafficking Program, the project aims to train sniffer dogs and their handlers to detect live animals and wildlife products as well as illicit products before being smuggled. While animals like elephants, rhinos and pangolins have received a considerable amount of attention as emblematic species of the wildlife trafficking crisis, countries like Kazakhstan also have highly threatened and unique species in peril.
Protecting Saiga Antelope, Saker Falcons, and Steppe Tortoises
In Kazakhstan, numerous species are threatened by trafficking. One of them is the critically endangered saiga antelope. According to FFI, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the global saiga population has declined more than 90 percent. In the mid-1970s, their population numbers topped 1 million. Estimates in 2016 put their numbers around 108,300. Illegal trade in saiga horns and poaching are the greatest threats to the species’ survival.
A male saiga antelope. Photo by Daniel Rosengren
While Mongolia and Russia have small numbers of saiga, Kazakhstan currently has the largest remaining population. In addition to poaching and trafficking, saiga populations can decline and change rapidly because of harsh winters and disease. But it’s the poaching of male saiga for their horns that constitutes the conservation challenge this project plans to address. Trafficking of saiga horns is very profitable and currently carries little risk for those who do it.
|Saiga horns are weighed in an Asian market. Photo by Saiga Conservation Alliance
Demand for saiga horns stems from a belief that they can be used in traditional medicine to treat fevers and liver maladies. A number of countries have been implicated in the illegal trade including China, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Vietnam.
Three border seizures in the past six years led to the confiscation of 7,176 horns, with an estimated value of $11 million, showing both the enormous scope of the trade and how sniffer dogs can play a critical role in protecting the species. It’s estimated that only 8,000-10,000 horns remain on male saiga in the wild. Poaching has greatly decreased the ratio of males to females in the population.
As part of this project, sniffer dogs are being trained to help detect saiga horns before they are smuggled. The dogs are effective in finding large and small quantities of horns in luggage, vehicles and warehouses. Within only two months of the first teams being deployed, they have already detected two attempts to traffick saiga horn.
Saker falcons are trafficked as live animals for use in the sport of falconry. Photo by Sergey Eliseyev
Another species that is severely impacted by trafficking in Kazakhstan is the saker falcon. Despite Kazakhstan banning export of the falcon in 2002, their numbers continue to decline because of trafficking. Sought for their use in falconry, Middle Eastern markets are some of the largest consumers of the falcons, and in particular the United Arab Emirates. While a falcon tends to sell for around $1000, false media reports have helped to stimulate more poaching by suggesting that a falcon sells for $10,000 - $50,000.
A saker falcon is wrapped as if being smuggled, then used to train sniffer dogs. Photos by ACBK
In the past three years, 76 falcons have been confiscated by law enforcement officials.
Steppe tortoises included in a training exercise for the sniffer dogs. Photo by ACBK
Steppe tortoises are another important animal that the sniffer dogs are being trained to detect. Also sometimes known as Central Asian or Russian tortoises, they are a species threatened by trafficking for the pet trade. Based on recent seizures, it’s believed that approximately 4,000 are smuggled each year.
How the Dogs are Trained and Deployed
The initial five dogs that have been trained started the three-month-process in April. Four are Belgian shepherds and one is a Labrador retriever. The goal was for the dogs to develop certain behaviors, bond with their handlers and learn to distinguish the scent of saiga horn. Each dog also learned the scent of at least one other item of interest from a list that included saker falcons, steppe tortoises, narcotics and snow leopard derivatives.
A previously trained sniffer dog was used to demonstrate how effective they can be in searching for saiga horn. This took place in April at a showcase event for government officials and stakeholders. Photo by Sergey Skylarenko / ACBK
The handlers of the dogs were trained using the latest detection methodologies and scent discrimination science. As the training progressed, the handlers and dogs practiced in airports, railway stations, and parking lots. The project aims to train three more dogs and handlers this year so that there are eight pairs in total.
In April, a showcase event about the sniffer dogs was held. The aim was to demonstrate to other government and law enforcement officials in Kazakhstan the benefits of this project and show how the capacity to combat wildlife trafficking would be boosted. Project partners are working together to develop a deployment plan for the units on the borders between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan and Kyrgyz Republic.
Senior Trainer Akan Tursunbayev notes that the dog units will need to regularly change their locations because “the same people who cross at certain customs points can become familiar. When the [sniffer dog units] change places, relationships and familiarity become impossible and allow for the work to be carried out effectively.”
One other important aspect of this kind of work to factor is the dog’s ability to concentrate and do the work well. Tursunbayev says that “the duration of the dog’s work mainly depends on its physical condition and the degree of its training. A well-trained service dog can intensively work no more than 10-15 minutes in one application. Then it needs to have rest for 15-20 minutes for physical recovery. The greatest joy is when the dog discovers the smell of the substances sought. They are happy and like ‘smiling’ about it.”
A Border Patrol Officer’s Best Friend
Many of the border patrol agents who are working with sniffer dogs say that they enjoy working with the dogs and view them as their partners. One even went as far to say it’s his “best friend.” Another says that he prefers working with the dog rather than other people, which to dog lovers might not come as a surprise.
Illarion Efremov takes a break with Larch. Photo by ACBK
Illarion Efremov, who works with a sniffer dog named Larch, says: “Sometimes we have cases when we need to decide whether we should listen to the dog and begin a long and difficult process of investigation or not. However, a good handler should know his or her 'partner' and trust it – this is exactly what we have learned and will do in the future. Working with a dog opens many opportunities because of its unique sense of smell. Things which are unreal for people, are absolutely real for sniffer dogs.”
Kadyrov Abay with Cerri. Photo by ACBK
Kadyrov Abay, who works with Cerri, notes how the well-being of his dog is important to him. “The dog doesn’t choose its work – for the dog this is its whole life, way of life, and a game. A person who has decided to work with a sniffer dog should secure its life path, make it interesting, and create all of the conditions for successful work.”
Written by Levi Novey of our International Affairs Program with a big thanks to FFI