In 2014, under a partnership between Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK), four detection Malinois dogs were provided and trained by American specialist trainers, Markor K9, and the Kazakhstan Customs Agency’s regional Dog Training Centre.

The four sniffer dogs: Dak, Arctic, Ginny and Aja, pre-trained to detect narcotics, were specially selected for training to find illegally-smuggled saiga antelope horns for the Kazakhstan customs service. After training, the dogs and their handlers were deployed to three different border stations in Kazakhstan. All the dogs later received follow-up training to hone their skills further.

In November, dog teams from across the country took part in the 12th Republican Cynologists Competition. After a series of intensive challenges that included obedience tests and searches of luggage, buildings and cable cars, FFI’s K9 team, Marat and Dak, were declared the champions.

Outside performance exercises for the dogs. Credit: ACBK/Ruslan Doldin.

American trainer, Jay Carlson, watches the dogs performance exercises. Credit: ACBK/Ruslan Doldin.

The illegal trade in saiga horns

While they may not look like your average conservationists, teams like Marat and Dak play a crucial role in protecting endangered species.

These specialist dogs are able to detect and deter the illegal trade of saiga horn along the trade route from Kazakhstan to China where it is used in traditional medicines.

Saiga antelopes have suffered a 95% decline in population over the last 20 years due to illegal hunting for their meat and horns. This is one of the fastest population declines for mammals recorded in recent decades, and the species is now listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN.

“Kazakhstan’s use of search dogs to detect the smuggling of wildlife was a first in Central Asia, and was also the first time this method had been used for saiga anywhere in the world. If the programme is extended and other search objects included, the dogs can play an important role in stopping the export of not only saiga horn, but also other species such as saker falcons, tortoises, snow leopard skins, and others,” says Ryspek Smakov, Head of the Regional Dog Training Centre.

Outside performance exercises for the dogs. Credit: ACBK/Ruslan Doldin.

Outside performance exercises for the dogs. Credit: ACBK/Ruslan Doldin.

The saiga custom dogs have had a positive start, with Ginny identifying two separate loads of hidden saiga horn on the country’s southern border. There are also signs that word has spread about the presence of the dogs at border check points and this has deterred would-be-traffickers. The illegal transportation of saiga horn across Kazakhstan borders has now become that bit more difficult.

FFI’s wider work with saiga antelope

FFI’s saiga conservation programme focuses on the Ustyurt saiga sub-population, which are the most at-risk, due to poaching pressure which has seen numbers fall from hundreds of thousands to just 1,270 individuals by 2015.

However, evidence suggests saiga can recover relatively quickly if strong protection measures are put in place. With effective anti-poaching protection, experts believe the Ustyurt population could recover to over 10,000 individuals in ten years. But timing is critical.

Saiga antelope. Credit: ACBK/Eva Klebelsberg.

Saiga antelope. Credit: ACBK/Eva Klebelsberg.

The sniffer dogs are just one element of FFI’s work with the Kazak Government’s Forestry and Hunting Committee and ACBK to combat the illegal trade of saiga horn, which also includes monitoring of saiga distribution and movements, ranger training and plans to establish an independent ranger team on the Ustyurt Plateau.

With thanks to the funders of the sniffer dog project and saiga programme: USAID, the Regina Bauer Frankenberg Foundation and the Disney Conservation Fund.