Elephants, rhinos, pangolins and lions are under threat from poachers of endangered wildlife. Meet the dogs that sniff out contraband in Africa.

(Photo courtesy of Paul Joynson Hick/African Wildlife Foundation)

Today — April 22, 2020 — is the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day, an annual event celebrated around the world to demonstrate support for environmental protection. Below, guest author Tira Shubart examines an unusual animal conservation campaign in Africa to curb illegal poaching of endangered wildlife using trained dogs.

Elephants, rhinos, pangolins and lions may not know it, but dogs are now their new best friends. They are called Canines for Conservation, and they help to protect endangered wildlife in six countries in Africa — six so far, but it’s just a start.

The spectacular wildlife of Africa is under threat from poachers who hunt endangered animals to supply the illegal wildlife trade. International criminal networks sell ivory from elephants, horn from rhinos, teeth from lions and scales from pangolins to people who may not understand that an estimated 100 elephants are poached every day.

And at least two rhinos are poached daily. Lions, fewer in number than rhinos, have lost 85% of their habitat. And pangolins — the only mammal with scales — are the most trafficked animal in the world, with an estimated tens of thousands poached each year.

Pangolin (Wikimedia Commons/Piekfrosch)


Some people mistakenly believe rhino horn and pangolin scales can be used as medicine. The truth is quite different. Horn and scales are made of keratin, the same substance as fingernails or the hooves of horses and cows. Lion teeth and claws are sought for jewellery in some Asian countries. Others want elephant ivory as a status symbol.

But now poachers in Africa, who hunt with military-style weapons and sometimes even helicopters, are up against dogs with a nose for detection.

Dogs sniff out smuggled goods

Certain dog breeds, like Springer Spaniels and Belgian Shepherds, do battle with the illegal wildlife trade by stopping the smuggling of ivory, rhino horn, lion teeth and pangolin scales. The detector dogs can find smuggled goods in luggage and cargo at airports and ports across Africa, which disrupts the illegal business. The dogs are almost impossible to trick.

Spaniels and shepherds have found ivory and rhino horn even when it was wrapped in layers of metal foil or buried in coffee and chili peppers. Dogs have sniffed out lion’s teeth hidden in a thermos.

Once an illegal shipment is found, the finds are confiscated and the enforcement agencies start the detective work to track down the smugglers.

How dogs fight crime against endangered wildlife

So how are the dogs and their human handlers trained to fight wildlife crime?

Will Powell, who heads Canines for Conservation, which is sponsored by the African Wildlife Foundation, is the man behind the scheme.

Powell has been training dogs his whole career, first teaching them to detect landmines in war zones. After helping to clear thousands of landmines on three continents, he focused on conservation in Africa. Powell loves his “clever dogs,” and he chooses them carefully.

“We select dogs in places in Europe, where there is a culture of working dogs. We want dogs that have the canine equivalent of A levels, and then we take them further, sometimes to the PhD level,” Powell said, referring to the British exams before university and the highest university degree. The dogs Powell chooses are intelligent and tough, and can cope with the heat in Africa.

Dogs have helped authorities arrest hundreds of smugglers in Africa.

Employees of wildlife authorities in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique, Botswana and Cameroon are matched with dogs at Powell’s base in Tanzania. Each human and canine team learn how to discover hidden wildlife contraband in eight to 10 weeks. The handlers learn to trust their dogs, treat them well and give them time to play. Strong bonds of affection develop.

The dogs and their handlers have sniffed out contraband leading to hundreds of arrests of traffickers and the disruption of smuggling routes across Africa. There have been almost 400 seizures of illegal wildlife products at airports and sea ports since the programme started five years ago.

When the dogs make a successful discovery, they are rewarded with their favourite toy. And maybe on Earth Day, for their role in stopping endangered wildlife poaching, the detector dogs might be given an extra treat.

(Watch an award-winning video on Canines for Conservation by Lily Annenberg, a student at News Decoder partner Thacher School. For a story by Tira Shubart on Canines for Conservation that was published by the BBC, click here.)


  1. There are eight species of pangolins, but each different species has the same tough, overlapping scales and tongues that can be half as long as their bodies. Why is this design so effective in helping them find their favourite food?
  2. Elephants have almost the same age span as humans. But how long is an elephant gestation period?
  3. What other aspects of nature in Africa do you think should be protected?

Tira Shubart is a freelance journalist and media trainer based in London. She has produced television news and trained journalists across four continents for international broadcasters, including BBC News, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Al Jazeera, over several decades. She is a Trustee and Co-Founder of The Rory Peck Trust for freelance journalists and an Ambassador for the Science Museum in London.

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WorldAfricaDogs are saving endangered wildlife in Africa