Illegal wildlife trafficking ranks among the most lucrative global crimes. Many desire wild animals and their parts or products for food, pets, medicine, or decorative items.According to a recent UN report, around a million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, in part by illegal wildlife trade.
The highly dynamic and adaptive illegal trade in wildlifeis not only driving the global biodiversity crisis to a point of no return but also creates a scope for animals to transmit diseases to humans by bringing many different species of wild animals into close contact with humans. Diseases transmitted between animals and humans, known as zoonotic diseases, including SARS, Avian Influenza, Ebola, and Covid-19, are responsible for more than two billion cases of human illness and more than two million human deaths annually.
A large number of turtles and tortoises destined for the international turtle trade are regularly seized at the international airport in Dhaka and border towns — Photo: Rapid Action Battalion
A 2018 study led by the Wildlife Conservation Society found that wildlife trafficking is a major, geographically extensive problem in Bangladesh involving several different groups of wildlife species including those known to spread zoonotic diseases. The findings identify Bangladesh as a source, importing country, and corridor country, for example, for freshwater turtles and tortoises traded in large numbers.
Law enforcement officers combatting illegal wildlife trade around the world are now being aided by humankind's faithful allies, dogs! Working dogs (professionally known as K9s) are traditionally known for their roles as military war dogs and police dogs for narcotics, arms, and explosive detection.
However, in recent years K9sare increasingly assisting wildlife conservationists in a range of purposes: K9shelp searching for tiger scat in Cambodia, inpreventing rhino poaching in India, reducing livestock-predator conflicts in Mongolia,apprehending elephant poachers in Kenya, assisting in geometric tortoise survey in South Africa, aiding park officers detecting invasive plant species in Hawaii and even helping scientists by detecting fecal samples of killer whales in the ocean!
In Bangladesh, K9s assist the Army, Navy, Rapid Action Battalion, Dhaka Metropolitan Police, and Border Guard Bangladesh. Most recently the Airport Armed Police has incorporated K9s for detection of narcotics, arms, and explosives. Local communities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts usedogsfor hunting and poaching.
Published studies on engaging dogs in wildlife conservationin Bangladesh are limited to a single study conducted between 2005-2007 by Dr. M Monirul H Khan, Professor of Zoology, Jahangirnagar University. His study on the use of domestic dogs in mitigating human-tiger conflicts in the Sundarbans region involved 40 dogs that demonstratedhigh detectionrates for tigers that had entered villages.This shows that village dogs could potentially help reduce human-tiger conflict in Sundarbans areas.
When asked aboutthe prospects for engaging working dogs for wildlife conservation in Bangladesh, Dr. Khan stated: "Working dogs have been very useful due to their strong auditory and olfactory perception. They have been used in North America for bear tracking and even in West Bengal by the Forest Department to deal with wildlife crimes."Law enforcement agencies in India, Nepal, Indonesia, Thailand, North America, Europe, and wildlife-rich African countries usetrained dogs to combat wildlife poaching and illegal trade.
"K9s play multiple roles in wildlife conservation and protection efforts worldwide. Their main roles include wildlife surveys by scat detection of endangered or hard to find species, detecting illegal wildlife contraband, and aiding in finding illegal weapons or items used by poachers and smugglers to capture and kill wildlife," explains Mike Veale, President of the Global Conservation Force, USA-based organisation dedicated to protecting wildlife by supporting K9 anti-poaching units in African countries.Mike believes that dogs in many regions have improved wildlife conservation efforts by making researchers, field scientists, veterinarians, and rangers much more effective and efficient in their daily jobs.
In Bangladesh, the Forest Department leads the combat against wildlife crime with mandated support from other law enforcement agencies. When asked about prospects for engaging wildlife detection dogs, ASM Jahir Uddin Akon, Director at the Forest Department's Wildlife Crime Control Unit,said: "We currently do not have the capacityor resources to take on such aninitiative."
However Alamgir Hossain, Additional Superintendent of the Airport Armed Police (AAP), responded by saying: "We deploy sniffer dogs to detect arms, explosives and illegal drugs, but our dog squad is not trained to detect wildlife products. We have resources and capacity to engage sniffer dogs to detect wildlife contraband in the airport."
Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) also has an operational sniffer dog squad, deployed around the country in major border areas, includingat the Shah Amanat International Airport, Chittagong. Therefore, wildlife detection dogs could potentially be incorporated into the BGB dog squads as they already have the resources and the capacity to manage working dogs.Initiating such a programme for BGB and AAP would, however, require approval from the Home Ministry.
According to Dr. Monirul, suitable dog breeds with more efficient qualities than our local breeds are prohibitively expensive.Wesley Visscher, head of the Netherlands-based organisation 'Scent Imprint Conservation Dogs' specialised in training conservation detection dogs, clarifies: "Regardless of the breed, not every dog can become an operational working dog. Candidate dogs must have a high play or prey drive and be friendly with people. They must have no fear."
Additionally, a published study by Dahlgren and Elmore said that individual variation in traits such as drive, intelligence, cooperation, trainability, range, and scenting ability is more important than the breed of the dog itself. For example, Conservation Canine, a non-profit organisation, which operates under the University of Washington, USA, trains and deploys conservation dogs around the world. The dogs they use for their programme are primarilyrescued dogs of the mixed or unknown breed of origin.
Local dogs in Bangladesh, especially the ones used by indigenous communities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts as hunting dogs,possess high prey drive and fearlessness. Theselocally adapted breeds certainly have strong potential as cost-effective conservation allies in Bangladesh to help conservation of wildlife.Wesley believes, that the effectiveness of K9s in the field largely depends on the dog handlers. Proper training for dog handlers mustbe ensuredto sustain such programmes.
Engaging dog squads have indeed exciting potential forcombating illegal wildlife trade in Bangladesh.Law enforcement agencies are preparedto incorporate K9s for wildlife detection. With technical support from specialised organisations, conservation detection dogs could supportthe government of Bangladesh in itscommitment to stop the illegal wildlife trade and improve the protection of threatened wildlife and wild places in Bangladesh.
Nafisa Islam, a BSc. in Environmental Sciences from Asian University for Women, is currently working as a Communications Intern for Creative Conservation Alliance.
Shahriar Caesar Rahman, a conservation biologist, is a co-founder and CEO of Creative Conservation Alliance.