Inspectors dogged about wildlife smugglers

Fish & Wildlife Service has canine help in fight against illegal wildlife trafficking at O'Hare and Midway

Bonnie Lane in Elk Grove Village seems an unlikely place to be sniffing around for elephant tusks and black rhinoceros horns brought into the United States from Africa, but Lancer the G-dog "nose" his way around cargo facilities.

Lancer, a 4-year-old yellow Labrador retriever, is newly assigned to the Chicago area after recently graduating from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's first training class of wildlife detector dogs.

While canines have been used for years to help authorities find fugitives and missing children, track down smuggled narcotics and identify explosives at airports and train stations, Lancer's mission is to intercept illegally trafficked wildlife and animal parts from protected or endangered species.

The value of the illegal wildlife trade worldwide is at least $5 billion a year and potentially exceeds $20 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Lancer represents the newest weapon at a key entry point to the U.S. — O'Hare International Airport — in the war against the growing international trade in threatened animal parts, officials said.

The smuggled goods range from exotic live reptiles, birds and fish from threatened populations to trophies of lions, leopards, elephants and other beasts illegally shot by hunters to smaller items, including tiger parts and rhino horns, that are destined for the black market for purported medicinal or other purposes, officials said.

O'Hare serves as a waypoint for smuggling rings operating in Africa, Asia and other parts of the world, authorities said. Law enforcement agencies place a strong emphasis on monitoring the freight warehouses near the airport that work with air carriers to transfer millions of tons of international cargo each year.

The beat patrolled by Amanda Dickson, a Fish & Wildlife inspector who is Lancer's handler, includes O'Hare and Midway Airport as well as air cargo and U.S. Postal Service facilities. Four other inspectors, who are not paired with wildlife detector dogs, also cover the territory.

Dickson and Lancer made the rounds last week at a customs broker warehouse in Elk Grove Village, near O'Hare. The company, Coppersmith Inc., at 760 Bonnie Lane, specializes in handling game trophies and other legally imported animal parts for hunters and importers.

Dickson determined that the shipment she examined was legal and properly documented with the required paperwork.

On other inspections in the Chicago area during his short time on duty so far, Lancer has alerted authorities to scents that led to ongoing investigations against alleged smugglers, Dickson said.

Lancer is trained on five scents — elephant ivory, rhino horn, sea horse, sea turtle and python. Officials said wildlife detector dogs can be trained to identify additional scents.

"The dogs are trained to ignore dirty laundry, food and other things in people's luggage," said Dickson, 30, of Minnesota, who has been working for the Fish & Wildlife Service for 2½ years.

Wildlife detector dogs also are not thrown off the scent by smugglers' efforts to camouflage the smell of prohibited items by wrapping them in aluminum foil or trying such ploys as dousing the shipping crates with deodorant, toothpaste or cleaning chemicals, she said.

Dickson and Lancer are certified as a team and they likely will stay together for the dog's five- to seven-year working career, she said. Lancer was trained at a U.S. Department of Agriculture facility in Newnan, Ga., near Atlanta. Starting in January, Dickson and Lancer went through a 13-week training course together.

Dickson is still working on building up Lancer's endurance to work. The key is to make it not seem like work to the dog.

"I have to keep it fun and exciting for him," Dickson said. "You've got to keep it a game for the dog so he doesn't lose motivation."

Dickson said she has established a strong connection with Lancer and "we can read each other's excitement level. You learn to pick up cues, which helps him to lock in on a scent that he has picked up but hasn't quite figured out where it is coming from."

The visit to the Coppersmith warehouse was more than a good practice session for Lancer. In addition to conducting routine and random inspections to search for illegal shipments, the Fish & Wildlife Service inspects declared shipments of animal parts to ensure that the items actually are what they are described to be and that the paperwork is legitimate, officials said.

Even with what appears to be a legal shipment, prohibited animal parts have been seized from crates, officials said. Coppersmith once received a legal shipment of crocodile to process, but included inside the crate was a shell from an endangered sea turtle, said Lisa Gingerich, branch manager at the company. The shell was turned over to authorities, she said.

Lancer once detected a black rhino horn that was packed in a box of foam packaging pieces. Dickson had planted the rhino horn in the warehouse to test whether Lancer was on his game and looking for the proper scents. The horn had been smuggled into the U.S. from South Africa when authorities seized it during an inspection, Dickson said.

The widespread belief in Asia that rhino horn can cure cancer has led to massive poaching in South Africa and pushed the price of rhino horn to rival gold, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Last year, authorities in the U.S. arrested seven individuals and executed 13 search warrants in five states as part of an undercover investigation of illegal trafficking in rhino horn, officials said. Agents seized 37 rhino horns and products made from horns, including dagger handles and ceremonial drinking cups.

The billions of dollars that change hands each year across the world through the illegal shipment of wild animal trophies and body parts are second only to the illegal drug trade, said Ryan Colburn, supervisory wildlife inspector at the Fish & Wildlife Service office in Chicago.

"We live and breathe this job, and we take even the smallest finds personally,'' said Colburn, 35, who lives in northwest Indiana. "Someday I want to take my kids to be able to see a rhino in the wild."

Three other Labs that were recently certified are now working in Miami; Louisville, where UPS operates its central air hub; and Los Angeles.

The bad news for traffickers is that scent-trained dogs can hone in on the veritable needle in a haystack much more effectively than human inspectors popping open boxes.

"Lancer is an important tool that will help us, because the bad guys never stop," Colburn said. "Lancer can sniff out a thousand boxes in the amount of time it would take an inspector a week to open."

If more progress is to be made in halting illegal hunting of big game, poaching and the sweeping international trade of protected species, officials say they need to dry up the demand for such commodities by demonstrating that traffickers will be caught and buyers will at the very least lose their money and have the items confiscated.

During the visit to the warehouse in Elk Grove Village, Lancer became excited over a crate stored high off the floor on a rack. He bounded onto the shelf and intently probed the crate. It contained wart hog tusks, which are a form of ivory, and the skulls and horns of an impala and a kudu, a species of large antelope from eastern Africa.

None of it was prohibited and all were documented. To keep Lancer focused, Dickson did not reward him for finding the objects.

"The dogs learn to ignore those scents and pay attention to the ones they are trained to locate," she said.

About 5,000 species of animals and 29,000 species of plants are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

Conserving protected species is a huge challenge and victory remains elusive, officials acknowledged. They encourage travelers to educate themselves before heading to safari vacations so as not to unintentionally support the illegal trade of animals. The service offers tips for travelers at fws.gov/le/tips-for-travelers-species-list.html.

"Every day we are on the ground, we are getting closer to the threshold of success," said Tina Shaw, a Fish & Wildlife spokeswoman. "Every shipment we stop is a win."

But due to the federal budget sequestration, it's unclear when more wildlife detector dog teams, beyond the four now in place, will be trained and assigned, officials said. The initial cost to train the four teams was about $90,000, officials said.

"Because of sequestration, we're not going to fill any wildlife inspector positions through the end of the year," said Edward Grace, assistant director of the law enforcement office at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. "Wildlife trafficking is at crisis levels, with the survival of species like rhinos and elephants at stake, and we're basically losing resources to fight it."

Contact Getting Around at jhilkevitch@tribune.com or c/o the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611; on Twitter @jhilkevitch; and at facebook.com/jhilkevitch. Read recent columns at chicagotribune.com/gettingaround.

CHICAGO

More