SA dogs combating rhino poaching in West Africa

South African sniffer dogs were being used to combat rhino poaching and the smuggling of elephant tusks, according to a report on Saturday.

The sniffer dogs recently uncovered a major drug smuggling operation in the West African country of Benin, the SABC reported.

The dogs, trained by Mechem, a subsidiary of state arsenal Denel, were deployed at ports and airfields to counter the growing trade of drugs and illicit substances.

Veterinary ethnologist at the Mechem training facility in Pretoria, Dr Hannes Slabbert told the SABC the dogs were much more effective than any x-ray system and very efficient.

“We are very proud of our track record, our training and expertise in the field — and we are also very involved in this rhino poaching.”

“We supply dogs to private game reserves and we are working towards supplying quite a few dogs to other entities as well to stop this, so we are not only looking at drugs and explosives but also the rhino poaching and the elephant tusk problem,” Slabbert said.

In an effort to combat rhino poaching Denel group CEO Talib Sadik has placed the company’s technology, human and canine resources at the disposal of anti-poaching initiatives, according to Denel’s website.

“We have some of the most sophisticated technology in the world and at least three of our business entities can help stop rhino poaching — Mechem for their sniffer dogs, Carl Zeiss Optronics, for its powerful ‘eye-in-the-sky’ technology and Denel Dynamics for their unmanned aerial vehicles,” Sadik said.

Horns out of South Africa
Syndicates involved in the illegal wildlife trade are becoming more sophisticated, say conservationists, making it more difficult for law enforcement officials to regulate trade in ivory and rhino horn.

“There is increasing evidence overall that in the rhino horn and ivory trade, there is greater involvement of criminal syndicates, and greater organisation,” said David Newton, the East/Southern Africa regional director for wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic.

Cape Town has emerged as the port from which at least two large shipments of ivory and rhino horn were shipped in recent months. In January authorities in Malaysia seized a 500kg consignment of elephant tusks shipped from Cape Town, leading the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) this week to call for a complete ban on the ivory trade.

In November 2011, Hong Kong customs officials intercepted a shipment of 33 rhino horns and more than 800 pieces of carved ivory that had been shipped in a container from Cape Town. Experts believe the shipment was destined for China.

Illegal ivory seized by South African officials has tended to consist of small shipments of carved and semi-processed ivory, in the form of jewellery or figurines. This latest shipment to Malaysia, which consisted of tusks, would appear to be a major departure from that practice.

Traffic said smugglers appear to have shifted away from air transport to using sea freight instead. “In early 2011, three of the large scale ivory seizures were at airports, but later in the year most were found in sea freight,” the organisation said. Traffic also called on the South African Port Authorities to invest in scanning equipment and to “up their game” in monitoring export cargo.

Gildenhuys, who works closely with police to apprehend ivory traders, said officials are doing what they can to stop the trade but conceded that “obviously, the more equipment you’ve got the better chance you’ve got of detection”.

Stronger regulation
IFAW’s Southern Africa director Jason Bell-Leask said conservation groups have for years expressed concerns about the ability of governments to regulate the ivory trade. He said that given the large quantities being traded, it is obvious that this ivory is coming from elephants that have been poached.

Bell-Leask believes stricter monitoring of the wildlife trade is needed. “There needs to be a heightened focus for enforcement authorities, customs in particular,” he said.

According to Traffic, there were 13 large scale seizures, each containing more than 800kg of ivory, last year, with an estimated total weight of 23 tonnes — a figure that represents about 2 500 elephants. In 2010, there were only six large scale seizures with a total weight of just under 10 tonnes.

“We’re getting back to a point here [where] an ivory trade ban makes sense,” he said.

There has been an international ban on trade in ivory since 1990 but Cites — the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora — has made two exceptions to this rule, allowing a handful of countries to enact once-off trades of stockpiled ivory in 1999 and 2008. South Africa was among the countries that were allowed to sell off their stockpiled ivory in the last round of trades.

Tanzania, Kenya and Mozambique are known elephant poaching hotspots and the key markets for export are in the Far East, specifically China and, to a lesser extent, Thailand. — M&G reporter and Sapa

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