Paws and Noses at the Forefront of the Fight Against Illegal Wildlife Trade in Central Asia

The fall of 2014 was difficult: an unpleasant incident occurred that however created an opportunity to tackle crossborder illegal trafficking in wildlife in Central Asia in an innovative way.

Detection dog at work at Tajik/Kyrgyz border post (Photograph by Joel Caldwell/Panthera)

Intelligence from our informant network pointed to illegal trophy hunts in Tajik National Park and trophies illegally exported from Tajikistan into Kyrgyzstan and onwards to Russia and European countries using illegal CITES documentation: 30-40 trophies each year. With Kyrgyzstan joining the Eurasian Customs Union, we worried that the illegal transport of wildlife, including poached trophies, was likely to be even harder to detect (see the TRAFFIC report “Wildlife trade in the Eurasian Customs Union and in selected Central Asian countries“) as wildlife products traveled through countries between which customs controls would now be lifted.

The prospect of a toy like a tennis ball is what motivates detection dogs to find the scents they are trained to locate (Photograph by Joel Caldwell/Panthera)

In late 2015, the Kyrgyz State Customs Service signed the first Memorandum of Understanding with a foreign NGO, ours  – Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization. And that’s how our unique collaboration started. We brought in the NGO Working Dogs for Conservation (based in Montana) and trainer Aimee Hurt to assist in cross training four detection dogs to detect snow leopard, argali and ibex. We could not have worked with a better team of dogs, handlers and local trainers. Each is wonderful and incredibly dedicated. The dogs went to work in the summer of 2016. The post at the border crossing between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan is inhospitable and desolate, characteristics hard on both the dogs and the morale of Border and Customs staff.

Wildlife Detection Dogs of the Kyrgyz Customs State Service are trained in the detection of narcotics and crosstrained to detect snow leopard, argali and ibex (Photography by Joel Caldwell/Panthera)

But on April 27, 2017, their sacrifices and hard work was rewarded: the team caught an illegal shipment of seven argali and four ibex trophies (see here for more information and pictures  Large consignment of argali and ibex horns were detained at the Kyrgyz-Tajik border). While both species are legally hunted on quota in the region, these had been hunted without permits in Tajikistan and were being smuggled across the border.

Thanks to support from our donors we are facilitating with the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity (ACBK) and Flora and Fauna International (FFI) a new collaboration between the Kyrgyz and Kazakh Customs detection dog units to detect illegal trade in saiga and saker falcon (Photograph by Joel Caldwell/Panthera)

Let this sink in: six years of intelligence points to events like this happening regularly, and finally people are caught for the very first time. And all thanks to a dog. The person transporting the horns, a middleman for one of the hunting outfits implicated, tried unsuccessfully to convince the agents and handler at the border to take a bribe. He was arrested and taken to the city of Osh in Kyrgyzstan. Another middleman of the hunting outfit then tried to unsuccessfully bribe officials in Osh to take money to replace the tags on the trophies to make them “legal”.

(Photograph by Joel Caldwell/Panthera)

An investigation is currently underway, and Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are working together to bring those responsible to justice: not just the middlemen, but also the hunting outfitters involved, one of which is based in Moscow, Russian Federation.

CITES, TRAFFIC and several European authorities were alerted and there are already suggestions to develop a EU enforcement strategy against hunters and outfitters operating in Europe that organize/participate in illegal trophy hunts. A similar strategy could be suggested for the US market. Some US hunters and outfitters have worked with the very same people implicated in this seizure, and the Wild Sheep Foundation has already indicated that this case goes against their values and plan to take action against outfitters involved in this type of incident. In the words of Jack Atcheson, Wild Sheep Foundation Conservation Committee Chairman, people involved in activities such as this are poachers and not hunters. We look forward to seeing their response.

We are in awe of all the institutions, their people and dogs responsible for this seizure and for hard work ahead to try this case. I am especially thankful to the Kyrgyz Customs State Service, the State Agency on Environmental Protection and Forestry of the Kyrgyz Republic and the Tajik Committee on Environmental Protection under the Government of the Republic of Tajikistan. We are grateful to John Krob, former adviser at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who played a great role in setting up this project and the people working in the shadows who I cannot name and our team on the ground. We would like to thank all of the donors and foundations who believed in the value of this project from the beginning, and especially the Judith McBean Foundation, Robert Kyosaki, National Geographic Big Cats Initiative, Trust for Mutual Understanding, and as of very recently, the UK Government through the Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund. We would also like to thank US Fish and Wildlife Service through their support to Working Dogs for Conservation. Finally, we are also thankful to all of those who believe in the power of a dog’s nose and of dogs and people working together.

The border between Tajikistan and Kyrgzstan is a trafficking route for narcotics and wildlife.
(Photograph by Joel Caldwell/Panthera)




Meet the Author
Tanya is a Cat Conservationist, member of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group and National Geographic Explorer in Central Asia. She is based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Her current work is focused on eliminating human-cat conflict across Central Asia, supporting community-based wildlife conservancies and understanding the scale of illegal trade in wild cats and their endangered prey species.