International trade in illicit wildlife products, like ivory and rhino horn, is turning Africa's iconic species into commodities. The high-tech, multibillion-dollar poaching industry continues to advance with the recent economic boom in demand centers. As retail markets for illegal wildlife products grow, new financial, intelligence-sharing, and transportation avenues emerge. To destabilize this organized transnational trade, African Wildlife Foundation works with various stakeholders to impede the movement of smuggled wildlife goods by using sniffer dogs to catch wildlife criminals. We also enhance legal literacy and administration of wildlife legislation to help law enforcement officers to investigate and adjudicate wildlife cases effectively.
The journey of one elephant tusk from Africa's wild lands through the black market and into a buyer's hands is enabled by multiple actors linked across sectors. Local middlemen provide poaching syndicates with supplies, intelligence, guns, and logistics on the ground. This includes organizing the covert exit routes for wildlife contraband — often, it is hidden within a secret compartment of large trucks heading to major cities. When these illegal wildlife products reach the exit point, exporters have already greased the wheels to make sure they reach their destination without detection. With savvy poaching kingpins directing operations from behind the scenes, the syndicates rake in profits from the slaughter of countless animals — a transnational crime that requires high-level planning, intelligence, and greater levels of finance.
Moving away from traditional means to smuggle wildlife products between African countries and out of the continent, poaching syndicates are finding new trafficking routes to avoid law enforcement officers. They are also changing the form in which illegal wildlife products are transported — rhino horn is sometimes crushed into a powder or processed into beads to get past customs authorities. Meanwhile, limited collaboration between national agencies and across regions creates delays in deploying the appropriate response teams to address traffickers and handle smuggled wildlife products when they are caught.
While many African countries have developed legal frameworks to combat criminal activity, poor awareness of wildlife crime itself limits the proper enforcement of wildlife acts. Cases generally require extended periods of concrete investigation, but this process is hampered by a lack of resources and institutional inadequacies. With poor international legal cooperation, inadequate clarity on how to deliver sentences also allows poachers and wildlife traffickers to slip through the cracks.
AWF’s Canines for Conservation program trains detection units made up of wildlife rangers and sniffer dogs and deploys them to strategic exit and entry ports. Primed to intercept even the smallest piece of wildlife products concealed in the most clever ways, the teams are stationed at trafficking hotspots in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Mozambique, and Botswana. Not only are the canines instrumental in intercepting and deterring offenders from using the routes, they are also a tool for collecting evidence to ensure effective prosecution of wildlife cases.
Although a reliable network of informants gathering intelligence on the ground allows officials to position their response strategically, concentrated anti-poaching efforts must engage all arms of the criminal justice system. This ensures that wildlife offenders cannot escape their crimes through bribes or legal loopholes. AWF facilitates regional judicial training sessions with magistrates, law enforcement officers, and customs agents to develop legal frameworks for the application of national wildlife laws to individual cases of wildlife crime. Apart from guiding the prosecution process, these Wildlife Judicial and Prosecutorial Assistance Trainings also outline how to handle, preserve, and present material evidence, as well as how to manage wildlife crime scene investigations.
We train the law enforcement officers in our canine detection units to utilize sniffer dogs at trial to ensure that the success of their recoveries is translated into convictions. The sessions aim to increase the understanding and general knowledge on wildlife law enforcement using conservation canines, while also equipping rangers with general investigative skills during canine searches. With a sound understanding of the legislative and procedural aspects of wildlife cases based on canine detection evidence, a reduction in wildlife crime is possible.
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