Dogged determination catches smugglers

The sniffer dogs are trained to find even a tiny molecule of rhino horn. (Michelle Nel)

The sniffer dogs are trained to find even a tiny molecule of rhino horn. (Michelle Nel)

How do rhino horns leave South Africa and get to foreign shores? Quite simply, trafficking is largely done through commercial airports.

To tackle this problem, the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT)Rhino Project focused on these smuggling routes by deploying sniffer dogs at OR Tambo International and training more than 100 airport officials.  

Woe betide the smugglers when sniffer dogs Rico and Condor are on guard – they will find even a tiny molecule of rhino horn. Kirsty Brebner, the project manager, says it was a matter of weeks before smugglers stopped using the routes patrolled by dogs.

“Rico found two rhino horns, ivory and elephant skin. We have shut down the use of air freight cargo for smuggling,” she says.

Rico and three friends are deployed at OR Tambo and will soon guard Lanseria Airport too. One dog patrols a private reserve.

Warwick Wragg, head of the dog unit, says it once had a dog called “The Professor” who could differentiate between 72 different kinds of explosives in cargo.

“The EWT is the first NGO using sniffer dogs against poachers,” says Brebner. “Law enforcement is not our remit, so as soon as our dogs find something we alert the police.” 

The organisation moved on to the next level by putting 155 law enforcement officials through a five-day, accredited course. They included members of the police services, revenue services, department of agriculture, provincial nature conservation agencies, the Green Scorpions and scanner operators at OR Tambo.

Other practical interventions have seen more than 400 security booklets donated to private rhino owners, game reserve managers and law enforcement personnel. The manual urges daily patrols of water points and feeding spots, and warns about staff being bribed for information.

“We meet state prosecutors and magistrates to highlight wildlife crime and appropriate penalties. We also support provincial conservation agencies and selected private reserves with fuel and equipment,” says Brebner.

The project also set up training for the rehabilitation of rhino orphans and the treatment of injured adults, in collaboration with Karen Trendler’s Working Wild organisation.

It also raised funding for equipment at the faculty of veterinary science at Onderstepoort to support field interventions for injured rhino.