How to Stop the Ivory Trade: Technology Is Helping Dogs Discover Contraband

Broken Tusk Elephant
An elephant with a broken tusk walks in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. Between 1979 and 1987, the African elephant population dropped from 1.3 million to only 600,000 because of poaching. GORAN TOMASEVIC/REUTERS

A new technique could help dogs detect illegal ivory and rhinoceros horns even faster.

The system, introduced by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the wildlife charity TRAFFIC and the Kenya Wildlife Service, is being trialed at Kenya's Mombasa port, the biggest wildlife trafficking hub in Africa. At this port, some of the shipping containing are hiding illegal items and now authorities may be able to find them with just a sample of air.

The technology is called Remote Air Sampling for Canine Olfaction, or RASCO. RASCO helps make searches faster and allows dogs to do their sniffing in climate-controlled rooms, instead of requiring them to be outside in the hot weather for so long, detecting ivory in at least 2,000 containers a day. Between 2009 and 2014, 18,817 kilograms of ivory was seized at Mombasa, according to The Independent. RASCO has been used since the late 1990s to detect explosives on aircraft, but this is the first time it's being used to stop the ivory trade.

When air is suctioned out of a shipping container then passed through a filter. The dog then will sniff the filters and be able to detect small amounts of rhino horn, ivory, or other illegal wildlife products. The dogs were trained to sit when they smell one of the illegal items.

When the illegal items are found, sometimes glued on the inside of other items at the very back of the large containers, authorities can obtain more information about the origin of the item and potentially track down where it came from. Before this program, containers had to be opened with a staff member from the Kenya Revenue Authority, the Kenya police, as well as the owner or representative of the container.

According to the University of Washington's Center for Conservation Biology, between 1979 and 1987, the African elephant population dropped from 1.3 million to only 600,000 because of poaching. Often poachers would target old matriarchs because their tusks were large and they were easier to find.

When family groups lose their matriarchs, it can compromise their social, competitive, and physiological functioning, leading to long-term consequences. According to WWF, poachers still kill tens of thousands of elephants each year.

"This technique could be a game-changer, reducing the number of endangered animal parts finding their way into overseas markets like Southeast Asia," Drew McVey, WWF's East Africa wildlife crime coordinator told The Independent. "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."