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(Updated 18/4/01)

British dogs sniff out ivory poachers in Kenya

DOGS trained by the British Army are playing a crucial role in the ongoing war against ivory poaching in Kenya. It is believed that the specialist team of dogs are the world's first specially trained ivory sniffers.

The canine unit of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps trained the dogs at the Defence Animal Centre (DAC), based at Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire. The unit already trains dogs to sniff out drugs, explosives and missing people, but the request from the Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS) represented their greatest challenge so far.

The task was entrusted to experienced trainers Sgt Tom Nichol and Lance Corporal Paul Duke.

The pair's first problem was to obtain enough ivory to be able to train the dogs to identify it. The import and export of ivory is illegal nowadays, hence the escalation in poaching. However, the special circumstances of the KWS's request dictated that a number of seized elephant tusks could be sent to the unit from Kenya.

An undisclosed number of dogs were recruited for the 12- week basic course, in which the handler used ivory as a toy and gave lots of praise when a dog retrieved it. Eventually, the dogs began to associate the smell of ivory with fun and praise.

The dogs had to be confident enough to be able to work in cars, boats and aeroplanes, as well being capable of withstanding the heat and rough terrain in which they would be working. So it was with some apprehension that the trainers moved the dogs to the KWS Institute at Lake Naivasha.

Empathy

The KWS had carefully selected its handlers. Rangers Robert Kipunde and Frank Keshe are both Massai warriors and well attuned to working in the area, as well as having a good empathy with dogs. Two of the unit's dogs, black Labrador 'Blair' and yellow Labrador 'Charlie' were allocated to Robert and Frank. In a short space of time, dogs and handlers were working in close harmony as a real team.

Paul Duke said: "All the dogs have been specially trained for their temperaments, but the first time we walked through a herd of giraffe, their eyes nearly popped out of their heads. We trained them in the UK with cows, to get them used to walking through herds of animals. But they came through with flying colours and the giraffes are now just part of the scenery to them."

Since arriving in Kenya, the dogs have learned not only to find illegal ivory but also illegal rhino horn ands weapons. Rhino horn is the world's most expensive substance - a single horn sold in Japan could easily fetch $1 million (700,000).

The dogs have enjoyed some success, with a number of ivory tusks and rhino horns already recovered.

KWS Assistant Director Josiah Achoki praised the dogs, saying: "We have come a long way in our fight against poaching. We are slowly wining and should be able to deter people from killing our wildlife."