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Dogs are powerful sniffers: though sensitivity varies by species, their noses can be 10,000 to 100,000 times stronger than those of humans. Law enforcement agencies around the world have long put that canine advantage to work, using “sniffer dogs” to uncover everything from explosives to illegal drugs. Now, through an initiative supported by TRAFFIC and WWF, man’s best friend is turning its nose to wildlife crime.
Jin Kai, a 2-year-old female Labrador, is part of the first team of sniffer dogs fighting wildlife crime in China. In 2013, through a new program run by the country’s antismuggling bureau in partnership with TRAFFIC, she and two fellow Labs learned how to sniff out tiger parts, elephant ivory, rhino horn and a number of other endangered species products.
The global illegal wildlife trade is booming—and as with all black markets, it’s booming in secret. Illegal products from endangered species roll through the world’s airports, shipping centers and postal systems in a relentless stream: in 2013, smugglers were caught with 583 pieces of chocolate-coated ivory sealed in candy bar wrappers.
A customs official who wants to check a piece of luggage for illegal wildlife goods has to open it up and carefully pick through the contents. In contrast, a sniffer dog like Jin Kai can interpret the bag’s contents with a few quick sniffs.
Dogs’ noses separate air into two different streams: roughly 88% of it travels to the lungs, while the other 12% goes to a nasal cavity devoted entirely to smelling.
The average person has roughly 5 million olfactory receptors that catch scents and communicate them to the brain; the average canine has between 125 and 300 million.
In March 2014, Jin Kai sniffed out several suitcases containing ivory, pangolin scales and other illegal animal products during a routine luggage inspection in Guangdong’s Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport.
During training, positive reinforcement helps sniffer dogs learn which scents to concentrate on, and the dogs’ handlers reward correct behavior with food or play—in Jin Kai’s case, a game of tug-of-war. Many programs start with strong odor concentrations the canines can detect easily, then progress to lighter, more difficult scents.