Inspectors dogged about wildlife smugglers

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