By Dr Samuel Merson (ZSL Mongolia project coordinator) and Annie Cooper (ZSL Asia programme)
The day began as normal for Din, waking in his kennel at Mongolia’s national Detector Dog Training Unit and waiting for his handler Enkhtaivan to arrive for a typical mix of exercise, control training, and scent detection. Din is a Belgian Shepherd and trainee Border Detector Dog, whose hardy nature, quick wits and immense enthusiasm for work make him a valuable addition to the fight against wildlife trafficking.
But this day was different, as Enkhtaivan arrived with visitors: our ZSL Mongolia staff and Robert Gray, the Chief Instructor of the UK Border Force National Dog Team. ZSL organised the UK Border Force visit as part of our commitment to helping Mongolia strengthen its borders and shut down the illegal wildlife trade, which has devastated species that are vital for the steppe ecosystem.
Din was excited to demonstrate his skills. Completing obstacle courses, jumping onto platforms, and running through narrow tubes teach him to sniff out contraband on freight trains, lorries and in tight spaces. Control training ensures he and his handler work as a single, highly efficient unit. And scent training means that Mongolia’s dogs can detect a wide range of illegal goods, not just drugs and ammunition, but wildlife products, from the bones of snow leopards, to marmot pelts and oil glands from dwindling populations of Siberian musk deer.
The visitors were keen to see Din and Enkhtaivan at work. The UK Border Force was in Mongolia to review the Detector Dog Unit, and develop plans for a return visit later this year, when they will support training of new puppies and deliver refresher courses for ten dog handlers from Mongolia’s remote border posts. They also advised on upgrading the kennels and office building, so the dogs can ‘up their game’ in the fight against wildlife crime.
We also brought a second UK Border Force visitor to Mongolia: Guy Clarke from the team that implements the global Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). He reviewed operations at Chinggis Khaan airport with customs inspectors, and planned his own return visit to train 100 personnel from the police, customs and border defence.
We took the UK Border Force to three border points on the southern border with China, to review border operations alongside their Mongolian counterparts, and further refine plans for the training later this year. ZSL’s research had identified these border points as most vulnerable to wildlife trafficking – part of investigations with our national partners that have shone a spotlight on Mongolia’s wildlife trade, which is largely hidden from the outside world.
Although Mongolia’s enforcement efforts led to confiscations of 8,000 wildlife specimens in 2015-2018, a ten-fold increase in foreign trade – coupled with a growing involvement of organised crime in wildlife trafficking – have strained customs and inspections processes. Income growth has driven a surge in demand for fur (from wolves, marmots and snow leopards), and myriad products for bogus medicine (ranging from ‘blood antlers’ of red deer to bile from brown bears). Mongolia is also a transit country: even rhino horn and tiger skins have been confiscated, on a smuggling route from Russia to China.
For Din, the highlight of the visit must have been a contest at the Detector Dog Training Unit. Dogs from the police, customs, border defence, and the armed forces enthusiastically demonstrated their skills in control exercises and scent detection. Din even featured on national television, on Eagle News and Star TV. At the end of the day, Din and Enkhtaivan were happy to be in second place, despite being pipped at the post – by an explosive detection dog from the Mongolian Armed Forces.
This blog is based on an article published in Dogs Today, and describes components of a ZSL project funded by the UK Government Defra Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund.
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