Bark knights: Meet India’s wildlife super-sniffer dogs - Hindustan Times
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Bark knights: Meet India’s wildlife super-sniffer dogs

ByAnesha George
May 18, 2024 06:24 PM IST

They help forest officers track rare species and crack down on poachers. In their free time, they snuggle and play fetch. They have hearty retirement plans too.

Quarmy was a week into her new job when she cracked her first case.

Hira and Moya of the Wildlife Conservation Trust, at work in the field. (Ninad Bhosale) PREMIUM
Hira and Moya of the Wildlife Conservation Trust, at work in the field. (Ninad Bhosale)

She raced through the forests of the Kaziranga national park at night, leading her team to a cache of firearms stashed here by a poacher.

That was the German shepherd’s first big bust. Seven years on, she is a veteran, part of a pack of highly trained super-sniffer canines deployed within wildlife enforcement agencies across India.

Shera, also a German shepherd, led his biggest bust in 2020, when he uncovered a tiger carcass that had been hidden under 6 ft of sand in Shahdol, Madhya Pradesh. He has helped crack over 25 cases involving 40 poachers, over the past decade, and is set to retire this year.

“With their incredible olfactory sense, these four-legged detectives accurately and efficiently pick up even the tiniest traces of illicit wildlife products and derivatives in transit,” says Ravi Singh, secretary-general and CEO at the non-governmental organisation World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)-India. “Every additional boot on the ground, or in this case paw, can play a strategic role in protecting our wildlife.”

Around the world, canines are used in this way, sometimes to patrol forest areas, and at other times as part of wildlife-protection squads.

Fox terriers, for instance, are trained to inspect cargo containers for mice and rats on certain nautical routes, so that rodents do not end up being introduced to Antarctica via supply shipments. Labrador retrievers in Estonia are being used to tell flying squirrel turd and mouse droppings apart in real time. Terriers are helping wildlife officials find and protect sea-turtle eggs in the US.

While police dogs have been operational in India since 1957, helping sniff out explosives, narcotics and assisting with search and rescue missions, the wildlife super-sniffer programme was launched in 2008. It has since grown from two to 94 dogs (each one paired with two handlers). All these super-sniffers are trained by the international wildlife-traffic monitoring NGO Traffic and by WWF-India, at the border police forces’ dog-training academies in Haryana and Madhya Pradesh. A new batch of 12 such dogs will graduate from this academy in June.

Paw patrol

WCT’s Moya sniffs out a pangolin burrow. (Vikrant Wankhade)
WCT’s Moya sniffs out a pangolin burrow. (Vikrant Wankhade)

German shepherds, Belgian Malinois and Weimaraners are preferred in this field, for their inquisitive, intelligent and trainable nature.

Training begins when puppies are six to nine months old, and takes nine months to a year.

The academy runs a structured three-phase programme that begins with trust-building exercises. Here, basic commands are taught, and treats awarded at the end of each exercise.

In the second phase, the puppies are trained in scent detection and tracking, with a special focus on illegal wildlife products such as ivory, rhinoceros horns, tiger skins, leopard skins, pangolin scales and deer antlers.

In the final phase, the trainees are tested outside the institute, in drills conducted at a forest, railway station or staged environment.

Some NGOs have begun to train dogs in this field too. Wildlife Conservation Trust (WCT), which works with forest departments on data collection, has had three such canines since 2018. While the training modules are similar, with the NGO the aim isn’t tracking wildlife crime but rather tracking elusive species such as the pangolin.

Whatever the task, it is a life of danger, once the canines enter the field, though most of the threats admittedly comes from the wild. The dogs may encounter scorpions and snakes, and get scratched or cut as they run across rough terrain. They are typically accompanied, therefore, by emergency vehicles loaded with anti-venom shots and first-aid.

The handlers in turn are alert to even small changes in the dog’s body language, particularly while on a mission, says Aditya Joshi, head of conservation research at WCT. Each super-sniffer typically has the same two handlers through their career, which stretches from eight to nine years. (After they retire, they often live with one of the handlers; the deployment agency is responsible for the canine’s welfare through their lifespan.)

On rest days, when there is no mission to work on, the canines are taken on at least two walks, for exercise, and are given scents to find in test environments, in order to keep their skills honed. There are also play sessions. Like most dogs, they love to fetch, the handlers say. They are groomed regularly, in a relaxing schedule of bathing and having their coats trimmed, brushed and detangled.

Impi, WCT’s Weimaraner, also likes to snuggle with humans, loves to play with children, and hates being alone.

When it comes to work, he is a consummate professional, Joshi adds, laughing. “During a scent-detection drill last year, we were left confused when Impi identified a urine sample incorrectly. It was the first time it had happened, so we double-checked the labels, only to find that one of us had incorrectly labelled the sample,” Joshi says. “We continue to believe that the dog is always right; it’s the humans who are prone to more error.”

Playing fetch

Super-sniffer Tross on alert at the Jim Corbett national park. (Traffic India)
Super-sniffer Tross on alert at the Jim Corbett national park. (Traffic India)

There’s more terrain for the canines to cover. “We haven’t explored the full potential of sniffer dogs in the wild,” says Dipankar Ghose, conservation manager and interim head at Traffic India. “In India, they are deployed only on specific missions. But globally, such squads help with the early detection and mapping of invasive species in fragile ecosystems, and patrol crucial wildlife corridors.”

If the dogs’ full potential was explored, they could revolutionise data collection too, Joshi says. Impi will have retired by then, to a life of only play, but Joshi is hoping new generations of canines will work even more closely with humans, to study and protect the natural world.

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