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Fight to save Kenya’s wildlife uses the tools of the drug war

Every day, 96 elephants are gunned down in Africa. Every 11 hours, a rhino is slaughtered. And every few years, Kenya loses a wildlife park ranger at the hands of a poacher.

“Encounters between the poachers and the rangers almost always turn fatal on one side,” said Paul Mbugua, a spokesman for the Kenya Wildlife Service, which has lost 13 rangers to poachers in the last three years — four this year alone. “It’s like fighting a guerrilla war.”

As a resurgence of illicit ivory and rhino-horn trafficking leaves a trail of blood across Africa, this East African nation is borrowing a page from America’s war on drugs. Sniffer dogs, normally used to ferret out cocaine shipments, are being put to work in Kenya to track down hidden tusks and horns passing through Kenya’s seaport and airports.

“They are very good,” said Cpl. David Sang, head of the Kenya Wildlife Service’s K-9 unit based in Mombasa, a leading transit route for smugglers. “A dog’s sense of smell is very high.”

Indeed, even ivory, referred to as “white gold” in China, carries its own scent. So do rhino horns, which sell for close to $30,000 a pound — as much as $390,000 for the horns of a single white rhino — on the black market, according to the African Wildlife Foundation.

The dogs have become a key tool in Kenya where rangers are being outgunned and outwitted by ruthless, well-armed and well-financed poachers trying to meet the growing demand for ivory and rhino horns in Asia.

But the unprecedented demand is presenting an economic and security challenge for Kenya, which attracts about $1 billion a year in wildlife tourism revenue.

The assault on wildlife comes as Kenya faces a new threat as evidenced in the recent terrorist attack at an upscale Nairobi mall.

Weeks before the September attack, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at a White House conference on combating illegal wildlife trafficking, warned that Asian criminal interests and those of terrorists groups, like the Somali militant al-Shabab, which claimed responsibility for the mall attack, had begun to coincide.

U.S. intelligence, Clinton said, revealed terrorists groups are “exploiting some of the same porous borders and global criminal networks that carry arms, drugs and victims of human trafficking, creating ungoverned space.”

As Kenya launched a national awareness campaign to save its elephants, Clinton and daughter Chelsea also unveiled their own campaign. The $80-million, three-year initiative in partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society is focused on curbing demand for illegal ivory.

The Clintons’ commitment comes as the Obama administration moves to add the southern white rhino — the last rhino not protected — to the U.S. endangered species list. The administration also has committed to intensify training of African game officers and promote an anti-poaching campaign in the United States.

A plan earlier this month to destroy nearly six tons of warehoused ivory the U.S. has been collecting for more than 25 years, had to be postponed to Nov. 14. It was a casualty of the U.S. government shutdown.

By crushing the ivory, U.S. authorities hope to send a strong message to traffickers that ivory has no value other than on an elephant’s tusks.

However, whether that will be enough to temper the appetites of blood-thirsty poachers is debatable.

This past summer Kenya formed an inter-agency anti-poaching squad involving police and rangers.

Twice in recent history, Kenya has burned stockpiles of ivory. But even with close to 100 tons currently under lock and key, no decision has been made about its fate, said Mbugua, of the Kenya Wildlife Service.

Deciding what to do with the ivory isn’t a top government priority, he said, but curbing the illegal trade is.

“We don’t want to encourage the ivory trade, and because of that... selling has not been our position,” he said. “We have been thinking of using the ivory in a better way. We have been toying with the idea of building a monument using the ivory.”

Conservationists and others say economic growth in China with more people able to buy the expensive animal parts, rising prices for horn and ivory, and folk beliefs in Asian countries are behind the escalation in poaching.

“When you have an extra 1-million people with a lot of money to spend, and all of them want items of value, and if items of value happen to be ivory or rhino horns, then you can see we are in trouble,” said Mbugua. “It’s just a question of economics. Once there is high demand and the supply is low, what happens is the price will shoot up.”

Some Vietnamese believe rhino horns — made of the same material as fingernails — cure aliments such as cancer. Scientists refute the belief.

Mbugua said the rising price of black market ivory also is encouraging poachers.

Meanwhile, at Moi international airport in Mombasa on Kenya’s south coast, a camouflage-clad handler coaxed and cajoled his four-legged companion. He kept a steady grip on a rope as the black-and-brown canine sniffed out a target.

Moments later, Tony, a 75-pound Kenyan-bred German Shepherd, spotted a metal briefcase sitting in a luggage cart, raced after it and attacked before ranger Edwin Koech grabbed the case to reveal the illegal contents inside.

Kenya’s sniffer dogs this year alone have helped authorities arrest at least 39 suspected poachers. Among them were19 Chinese, nine Vietnamese, six Tanzanian, three Thai, one American and one South Sudanese, Mbugua said.

“The dog cannot be fooled. You cannot bribe it,” Mbugua said.

The dogs, which have been used for about a decade, are called in when scanners at both the airport and seaport fail to detect the illegal trophies, or when inspectors suspect something is amiss after looking at scanners.

“The dogs make work easier,” said Sang, the K-9 unit head. “Work that could be done by 10 men in one day can be done by a dog for maybe five minutes easily.”

So far, no dogs have been lost in a battle that is increasingly employing a high-tech arsenal of GPS tracking, aircraft, night-vision goggles and even high-caliber guns.

But that isn’t where the sophistication ends. Poachers have gotten more sophisticated too, concealing horns and tusks in suitcases lined with mattress cuttings, wrapping them in wax and even disguising them as Macadamia nuts.

“Previously, we used to beat them at their game. We applied a lot of intelligence work to establish who is poaching, where are the gangs of poachers,” Mbugua said. “But now there is a difference in the modus operandi of these poachers.”

That change, say conservationists, is putting Africa’s elephants and rhinos near extinction.

“Since 1980, African elephant populations have declined by 65 percent from 1.2 million to 420,000 elephants in 2012,” said Mary Dixon, a spokeswoman with the Wildlife Conservation Society. “WCS estimates 96 elephants are killed each day in Africa. About 35,000 were lost in 2012 alone.”

Last year, Kenya lost 384 elephants. So far this year, 246 elephants have fallen to poachers who use everything from spears and poison arrows to high-caliber guns.

Tolls are high in other African countries too.

Recently, Zimbabwe lost 41 elephants in Hwange National Park after the watering holes they frequented were laced with cyanide.

In South Africa, 668 rhinos were poached last year, and 446 in the first six months of this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said. Across Africa, that’s one every 11 hours, said the International Union for Conservation Nature, an environmental organization.

The poachers are becoming more brazen too. In August, they killed a pregnant white rhino in Nairobi National Park on a day when there were more than 250 vehicles inside touring the expansive reserve.

Kenya now plans to implant microchips in the horn of every rhino in hopes of saving them from poachers.