Zambia’s Luangwa Valley teems with an awe-inspiring variety of wildlife, with elephants, giraffes, lions, and rhinos striding across its grasslands and congregating along the lagoons of the Luangwa River. This jewel of an animal sanctuary is also the site of a growing trade in wildlife poaching and trafficking, and as rhinos are hunted to near extinction for their horns, and elephant populations are diminished by greed for their tusks, the scouts and rangers who protect these lands are in a battle for wildlife survival. Fortunately for them, a determined pack of canine allies is at their service. Whether they’re tracking poachers across the plains or sniffing out contraband at roadblocks and airports, conservation dogs have become a critical force in the fight to protect Zambia’s natural wonders.
This team of four-legged detectives and their handlers were trained by Working Dogs for Conservation (WD4C), a Montana-based non-profit that teaches dogs to use their magnificent noses in the service of ecology. Founded in the early 1990s, the organization deploys dogs across the globe — from Kyrgyzstan to the Falkland Islands — on missions including the detection and eradication of invasive plants and animals, monitoring of endangered species populations, and disrupting wildlife trafficking.
Canine noses have long been put to use in the service of detection. Hounds have been trained to assist in law enforcement since at least the 19th century, and bomb-sniffing army dogs searched for German landmines in World War II. The work has become commonplace in police K-9 units, customs agencies, and search-and-rescue teams, while canines are now even used in medical care to sniff out diseases like cancer and malaria. Building on the techniques of police K-9s and search-and-rescue animals, WD4C’s four ecologist co-founders pioneered the use of dogs in conservation work after first enlisting the animals to help them find and distinguish bear scat during a field project in Canada’s Jasper National Park. Later, projects sent dogs to monitor endangered kit fox populations in California’s San Joaquin Valley, and to eradicate invasive saltcedar and pepperweed plants in Wyoming, yellow star thistle in Colorado, and brown tree snakes in Guam.
Recently retired WD4C co-founder Megan Parker says, “I always try to remind people that humans have been using dogs to find information on animals and conservation for thousands of years, and all of these working dog lines have been bred for hundreds of years or longer to work with people to get what they want. That relationship between humans and dogs is really the vital part of this — that dogs are willing to tell us what they know.”
How do dogs know what they know? A lot of it comes down to the structure of a dog’s brain, and how much of it is dominated by the huge olfactory bulb, responsible for the animal’s remarkable sense of smell. The part of a dog’s brain dedicated to processing odor is around 40 times that of a human’s, and while humans have around six million scent receptors in our noses, dogs can have up to 300 million. They can use this sensitivity to detect substances in parts per trillion. “Dogs have a brilliance,” Parker says. “We have no idea what it’s like to smell in the way that dogs smell.”
WD4C’s headquarters sprawl across 44 acres in Turah, Montana. A former equestrian center set along the Clark Fork River near Missoula, the property includes pastures, paddocks, ponds, and arenas — plenty of space for dogs to roam as they prepare for their missions. There’s also office space, kennels, a doggie fitness facility, and a dedicated training shop equipped with devices such as scent snorkels and a scent carousel to help dogs zero in on their target odors.
Dogs training to join WD4C’s anti-poaching program in Zambia, for example, will learn to target the scents of ivory, rhino horn, bushmeat, pangolin scales, animal skins, ammunition, gunpowder, and guns. If their training is a success, they can join a team of four dogs and eight local handlers to protect the wildlife of Zambia’s Luangwa Valley by detecting illegally trafficked animal products, tracking poachers, and locating and protecting rhinos.
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This wildlife crimes unit has been working alongside local Zambian organization Conservation South Luangwa since 2014. The animals’ efficiency and dedication have proven to be valuable assets in advancing the NGO’s mission. According to Rachel McRobb, CEO of Conservation South Luangwa, “the dogs and partnership with WD4C have resulted in the reduction of wildlife trafficking in this area, the arrest of over 120 poachers or wildlife traffickers, [and seizure of] countless firearms and other illegal wildlife contraband.”
Canine field specialist Lauren Wendt is in the process of training a new rescue puppy for the Zambia job. A former game warden and detective with Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, Wendt initiated that state’s first wildlife K-9 unit before joining WD4C two years ago. Her work now includes scouting shelters across the country, looking for dogs with a certain spark who couldn’t quite fit in as a family pet. “There are some dogs that always want to be doing something,” Wendt explains. “They just have that innate drive to be searching for something or playing with something, and if they’re not given a path to do that, then they often start chewing furniture or doing other unwanted behaviors.”
Few truly have what it takes to make it as a conservation dog. Wendt says that they screen around 100 dogs for each one they take in as a candidate, and of those, only about half make the final cut; if a pup is rejected, WD4C places them in a forever home.
The dogs that do make it go absolutely bonkers for the toys and playtime that serve as rewards for successful detection, but they must also take enough joy in the work itself to sustain them over long, grueling searches — hours spent hunting for targets that may never materialize and therefore don’t present the opportunity to be rewarded. “You know, we’re not going to try and force the dog to do work that it doesn’t want to do,” Wendt says.
Benny, a Labrador retriever, was just “too much dog” for his adoptive family and had landed in a shelter at 16 months old before Wendt found him. The obsession with toys and hunting that made him unmanageable as a pet has served him well in his career. He began his working life as Wendt’s K-9 partner when she was a Fish and Wildlife detective in Washington. Trained to detect elephant ivory, shark fin, rhino horn, and firearms, he’d accompany Wendt to the port of Seattle to sniff out illegal products in shipping containers. He still lives with Wendt most of the time, but is currently on the job for WD4C in Montana, helping ecologists map and monitor the population of black-footed ferrets, one of the most endangered mammals in North America.
Of the roughly 40 dogs in WD4C’s workforce, most are shelter rescues, but WD4C also offers a new path for working dogs ill-suited to their current careers, like search-and-rescue dogs whose sensitive paws can’t handle rough terrain, hearing assistance dogs who are too excitable, or border patrol dogs who just aren’t into it. Jax, for example, was a Green Beret who didn’t like to bite people. The sweet Belgian Malinois loved hunting for odors, however, and WD4C put him to work checking boats for invasive zebra and quagga mussels at Grand Teton National Park.
A lot of the dogs in the crew will keep working until the age of 10 or 12, and many seem reluctant to give up the hunt, Wendt says. When the dogs reach the end of their working lives, however, a comfortable retirement awaits. Most continue to live with their primary handlers, and receive acupuncture, swim therapy, massage, and high-quality food. “We want to keep them as happy and healthy as possible,” Wendt says. It’s a fair reward for saving the planet.
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