Sniffing Out Wildlife Crime With Malawi's First Detection Dog Unit - PhMuseum

Sniffing Out Wildlife Crime With Malawi's First Detection Dog Unit

Julia Gunther

2020 - Ongoing

The Wildlife Detection Dog Unit (WDDU) is on the frontline of Malawi’s war against wildlife crime. The five dogs and nine handlers not only deter poaching and help preserve wildlife populations, they fight against the illegal wildlife trade which is suspected of having led to repeated outbreaks of viruses which are highly contagious, and deadly: e.g. MERS, SARS, Swine Flu, and now COVID-19.

The WDDU is based near Kamuzu International Airport (KIA), outside Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital. KIA is both the country’s busiest airport, and was Africa’s second biggest wildlife trafficking hub, until the WDDU began their daily patrols there.

Thanks to their help, Malawi has, in the space of a few years, gone from one of Africa’s primary illegal wildlife trafficking centers to a nation with some of the strongest legislation in the world. What was a $40 fine for committing a wildlife crime is now a five-year sentence, on average. There are hundreds of arrests a year, with a custodial rate of 90%, and 2019 marked the first time that a non-African national was sent to jail for wildlife crime. This is a remarkable transformation for a small African nation which, until recently, was considered an ideal hub for wildlife trafficking.

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  • Wildlife Detection Dog Unit (WDDU) handler Martha and Tim, Kamuzu International Airport (KIA), Lilongwe, Malawi, 2020.
    The unit searches all incoming and outgoing luggage and cargo at KIA, as well as checking traffic at roadblocks around the capital, Lilongwe.

  • Wildlife Detection Dog Unit (WDDU) handler Benjamin and dog Nikita, Bridge Shipping, Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital city, 2020.

    Malawi has been identified as the point of origin for some of the largest intercepted illegal wildlife shipments of all time, including a single seizure of six-and-half metric tonnes of ivory in Singapore in 2002. And some seizures involve wildlife that does not exist in Malawi.

  • Head of the Wildlife Detection Dog Unit, Ian, holds a handful of bullets, one of the possible samples he plans to use during a training session at the cargo halls at Kamuzu International Airport, Malawi, 2020.
    In the background WDDU handler Martha, and dog Danna wait for their turn to go and search.

  • WDDU handler Peter and Tim, Lilongwe, Malawi, 2020.
    The WDDU consists of 5 dogs and 9 handlers, drawn from both the Malawi National Police and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife. The dogs are trained to identify the scent of ivory, rhino horn and pangolin scales, as well as illegal wood species, firearms and ammunition.

  • Wildlife Detection Dog Danna, Malawi, February 28, 2020.

    Danna, a two-year-old Belgian Malinois, was the last of 5 dogs to join the Wildlife Detection Dog Unit (WDDU) in Malawi.

    The WDDU consists of 5 dogs and 9 handlers, drawn from both the Malawi National Police and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife. The dogs are trained to identify the scent of ivory, rhino horn and pangolin scales, as well as illegal wood species, firearms and ammunition.

    The unit searches all incoming and outgoing luggage and cargo at KIA, as well as checking traffic at roadblocks around the capital, Lilongwe.

    The WDDU are on the frontline of Malawi’s war against the illegal wildlife trade. Their work not only deters poaching and helps preserve wildlife populations. Environmental crime is suspected of having led to repeated outbreaks of viruses which are highly contagious, and deadly: e.g. MERS, SARS, Swine Flu, and now COVID-19. 

  • Wildlife Detection Dog Unit (WDDU) handler Benjamin and dog Nikita search a container during a training session at Bridge Shipping, a cargo shipping company on the outskirts of Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital city, 2020.

    Malawi has been identified as the point of origin for some of the largest intercepted illegal wildlife shipments of all time, including a single seizure of six-and-half metric tonnes of ivory in Singapore in 2002. And some seizures involve wildlife that does not exist in Malawi.

  • Wildlife Detection Dog Unit (WDDU) handlers Benjamin and Kinord and Max walk through the imported cargo hall at Kamuzu International Airport (KIA), Lilongwe, Malawi, 2020.

    The unit regularly searches the cargo halls at KIA. The size of the hall and the enormous number of packages, boxes, and pallets are the perfect hiding place for illegal wildlife products, as well as a challenging training environment for the dogs and their handlers.

  • Back at base, Wildlife Detection Dog Unit (WDDU) handlers Agnes Qaba waits for Max to exit the unit’s transport vehicle after their shift is over, Lilongwe, Malawi, February 24, 2020.

    The WDDU kennels are tucked behind Lumbadzi police station, a short distance from Kamuzu International Airport.

    The kennels comprise a single-story brick building, housing four individual dog shelters, and a small office and outdoor kitchen. On the left side of the compound stand two outdoor kennels: large wire-mesh cubes. On the far side, two smaller fenced-in areas used for individual training and grooming. What looks like an oversized jungle gym and a so-called scent wall occupy the center of the space, used for training and exercise.

  • Wildlife Detection Dog Unit (WDDU) handler Agnes and Max search luggage belonging to arriving passengers at Kamuzu International Airport (KIA), Lilongwe, Malawi, 2020.

    24-year-old Agnes is the WDDU’s second-in-command. A former aviation secretary and records officer, she led the team that helped uncover one of the unit’s biggest ever finds in a Lilongwe warehouse: around a hundred small pieces of rhino horn, as well as a bag of pangolin scales, hippo teeth, several firearms, ammunition and ivory chopsticks.

    Although he initially managed to escape arrest, the WDDU’s discovery would lead to the capture of Yunhua Lin, leader of a wildlife smuggling cartel, three months later.

    Agnes later appeared in court, the first time a wildlife detection officer had given evidence in a smuggling case.

  • Wildlife Detection Dog Unit (WDDU) handlers Benjamin (left) and Kinord play with Danna while waiting for the next passenger to search at Kamuzu International Airport (KIA), Lilongwe, Malawi, 2020.

    The dogs are trained to expect a toy or food as a reward for finding what the handlers are looking for. At the WDDU they use dogs with high play and ball drives.

  • Wildlife Detection Dog Unit (WDDU) handler Kinord and Danna take a break from searching the luggage of departing passengers at Kamuzu International Airport (KIA), Lilongwe, Malawi, 2020.

    It is standard practice to bring two dogs on a search, so they can be switched out when one of them gets tired. On hotter days this has to happen more frequently.

    The unit receives funding from the German and US Governments with operational support from local NGO, Lilongwe Wildlife Trust. And the dogs, German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois were trained in Israel and Kenya. 

  • Wildlife Detection Dog Unit (WDDU) head Iain and Bubba search behind a bed during a mock raid in Lilongwe, Malawi, 2020.

    Mock raids are held at the house of a WDDU handler or at an establishment belonging to someone the unit knows. In these simulations, the unit tries to recreate, as realistically as possible, a surprise raid on the house of a smuggler or wildlife criminal. 

  • Wildlife Detection Dog Unit (WDDU) handler Benjamin and Nikita, walk past container stacks during a training session at Bridge Shipping, a cargo shipping company on the outskirts of Lilongwe, Malawi, 2020.

    A big part of the unit’s training is getting the dogs and handlers to be comfortable in distracting environments. The more both are exposed to big trucks and crowds of people, the more focussed they will be on the job at hand.

  • Wildlife Detection Dog Unit (WDDU) handler Agnes and Max search a mini bus at a police roadblock, Lilongwe, Malawi, 2020.

    Each vehicle provides a different set of challenges or obstacles for the dog and handler: a mini bus filled with live chickens, an open truck stacked high with dried elephant grass, a South-African citizen with a pepper spray gun. 

    In October 2019, the WDDU found twenty-five kilograms (fifty-five pounds) of bushmeat, mostly Common Duiker and Guinea Fowl, inside a minibus on its way into Lilongwe.

  • Wildlife Detection Dog Unit (WDDU) handler Hardwell Malonga takes a break from grooming Max in a holding pen at the WDDU kennels Lilongwe, Malawi, February 24, 2020.

    Grooming is key in strengthening the bond between handler and dog. Spend time together outside of the work relationship will allow each to read the other better. Last, grooming also provides some welcome downtime at the end of a busy day.


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