WWF - New sniffer dog technique launches in Africa's ivory trafficking hotspot

30 Aug 2018 09:46 AM

A new way of enabling sniffer dogs to detect ivory, rhino horn and other illegal wildlife products from just a tiny sample of air taken from a shipping container is being trialled in Mombasa port, Kenya – an African hotspot for illegal wildlife products leaving the continent.

Carried out by WWF, TRAFFIC and Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), the method, which is used in the detection of contraband in shipping containers, will be a useful new tool in tackling the illegal wildlife trade. It is expected to lead to more discoveries of illicit animals, plants and timber products and help identify those responsible for the shipments.

Using a technology known as RASCO (Remote Air Sampling for Canine Olfaction), KWS dogs are being trained to detect wildlife contraband from filters or sniffing pads.  Air from targeted shipping containers is suctioned and passed through filters which are then presented to the dogs who have been trained to sit when making a positive identification.

WWF East Africa wildlife crime coordinator Drew McVey said:

“This technique could be a game-changer, reducing the number of endangered animal parts finding their way into overseas markets like southeast Asia.

“Man’s best friend is a trafficker’s worst nightmare: dogs’ incredible sense of smell means they can sniff out even the tiniest amount in a 40 foot container. As organised criminal syndicates use ever more sophisticated methods to hide and transport illegal wildlife products it is vital that we continue to evolve our efforts to disrupt the barbaric trade.”

Before the RASCO trial was introduced, the dogs were previously successful in detecting ivory and other illegal wildlife products in Mombasa port and in transit, by going from container to container. In the first six months of operation this led to 26 seizures, and they have continued at this rate ever since. However, this way of working presented many challenges. Logistically the number of containers - over 2,000 a day - and the high temperatures made working conditions for dogs incredibly hard. The containers had to be opened in the presence of representatives of all the relevant Government agencies such as Kenya Revenue Authority, Customs Department and Kenya Police along with either the owner or a representative of the owner. The new method is quicker and easier for both officers and dogs. The sniffing process can be done in climate controlled rooms enabling many more containers to be checked.

Dogs are reliable and efficient scent-detectors. Numerous studies have established dogs’ proficiency at locating an extremely wide range of scents. The sniffer dogs can detect even the smallest amounts of wildlife contraband, like ivory or rhino horn powder.

Once seized, authorities can glean information about the trafficking trade chain from the shipping documents, while forensic examination of the contraband, such as DNA analysis of elephant ivory and rhino horn, can link products to the scene of the crime. This is crucial in helping to link poachers to individual wildlife crimes, an act that has proven invaluable in court cases in Kenya and South Africa.

The illegal trade in wildlife is devastating animals and plants across the globe. It affects some of the world’s most iconic animals—around 90 per cent of Africa’s elephants have been wiped out in the past century mainly because of the demand for ivory — as well as lesser-known species like pangolins, whose sought after meat and scales drive one to be taken from the wild on average every five minutes.

Drew McVey added:

“Disrupting trafficking is essential if we are to end this colossal trade that affects countless species and millions of people worldwide.  A critical moment is coming up in October, when London will host a conference on the illegal wildlife trade. Here, world leaders need to commit to ways of stamping it out once and for all. The trade is a global problem that can only be ended through global solutions.”

Trialling of the technique was introduced at Mombasa Port in July 2018 following training in June.



The sniffer dog training is funded by WWF Kenya, following championing of the RASCO technique by TRAFFIC. WWF Kenya hosts the East Africa wildlife crime hub which coordinates WWF’s wildlife crime work across east Africa linking anti-poaching in the field and anti-trafficking operations across the globe ensuring that WWF, TRAFFIC and partners work together to tackle wildlife crime. Players of People’s Postcode Lottery have helped to fund some of the Hub’s work to conserve threatened species.

Players of People’s Postcode Lottery, in conjunction with TRAFFIC have helped to fund some of the Hub’s work to conserve threatened species.

WWF and TRAFFIC support sniffer dog programmes in key wildlife trade hotspots in Africa and Asia. In Kenya, sniffer dogs are used in airports, ports (Mombasa) and national parks in order to prevent poaching or find illegal wildlife products.

As well as working to end trafficking, WWF is also working to stop poaching, reduce demand and influence international policy about

*About Mombasa Port

Mombasa Port in Kenya has been identified by wildlife authorities and partners as one of the largest transport hubs for illegal wildlife parts, alongside other illicit activities including drugs and weapons smuggling in Africa.

A 2014 report by C4ADS found that Mombasa port was Africa’s single most active ivory trafficking hub. Between 2009-2014 18,817kg of ivory was seized.

About WWF

WWF is one of the world’s largest independent conservation organisations, with more than five million supporters and a global network active in more than one hundred countries. Through our engagement with the public, businesses and government, we focus on safeguarding the natural world, creating solutions to the most serious environmental issues facing our planet, so that people and nature thrive.  Find out more about our work, past and present at wwf.org.uk

For further information, please contact: Jonathan Jones | 07835291907 | jjones@wwf.org.uk