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A Powerful Deterrent

AWF’s Canines for Conservation Program was once just an idea. With the program now in its second year, that idea has developed into a formidable deterrent for wildlife traffickers across Africa.

Dog-and-handler teams at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya, busted wildlife traffickers more than 30 times in 2016, not only sniffing out ivory, but also pangolin scales, lion parts and live tortoises. The finds by the AWF-trained teams represent more than half of all busts made at the airport over the past seven years.

The detection units posted at the Port of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania are picking up steam. In October, the units helped the Tanzania Wildlife Authority discover and arrest a suspected ivory trafficker. “Word travels fast in Tanzania, so even talk of the bust can be a powerful deterrent for wildlife traffickers,” says Will Powell, director of AWF’s canine program.

Under Powell’s direction, AWF graduated its second class of detection dogs and handlers in August 2016. The 12 handlers—all from Uganda Wildlife Authority— and six dogs have since deployed to Entebbe International Airport in Uganda’s capital city of Kampala.

Imetura Imelda was one of two women to graduate in this second class. On graduation day, it was obvious that she was ready to get to work. “I used to be afraid of dogs—they were my biggest fear,” she laughs. “Now, I am really excited. I cannot wait to get started making busts to ensure wildlife has a bright future.”

Her partner in this endeavor? A large Belgian shepherd dog named Elsa.

Weak Link No More

Just a few years ago, the judicial system was Africa’s weak link in the battle against wildlife trafficking. Tales abounded of known wildlife criminals being arrested with ample evidence, and then released with a small fine or other light punishment, such as community service. According to AWF Law Enforcement Manager Didi Wamukoya, “Historically, wildlife crimes were treated like petty crimes.”

That is starting to change. Thanks in part to judicial sensitization workshops being hosted by AWF, law enforcement officers across Africa are learning that wildlife crimes have significant negative economic, societal and ecological impacts—and that they themselves can be critical players in halting wildlife crime.

“The judiciary is very important in the war against wildlife crimes,” remarked Charles Tumwesigye, deputy director of conservation for the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), during a judicial workshop jointly hosted by AWF, UWA and the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Kampala in June. “High conviction rates and penalties play a vital role in deterring wildlife offenders.”

To that end, more courts are starting to hand down severe sentences to convicted wildlife traffickers. The most publicized example was of Feisal Mohamed Ali, a notorious ivory kingpin who received a 20-year sentence and US $200,000 fine from Kenyan courts last July.

Other courts are also weighing in with the heavy hand of justice. “Courts are increasingly handing down deterrent sentences, demonstrating that they are now trying these cases like the serious crimes that they are. Every part of the law enforcement chain needs to be strong in fighting wildlife crime, from detection through prosecution. If there is any weak link, it will be exploited by wildlife traffickers,” said Philip Muruthi, AWF’s vice president for species protection.

AWF continues to provide judicial trainings appropriate to each country, including a regional east African law enforcement workshop with participants from six countries and a training in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Between April 2015 and November 2016, AWF trained more than 624 law enforcement officers through its judicial workshops.