Home Opinion and Features Conservation canines to take bite out of plant poaching

Conservation canines to take bite out of plant poaching

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Dogs have been trained to detect drugs, blood, wildlife contraband, currency and even illicit cellphones. But now a new level of canine expertise has been unlocked – three Conservation Canine Unit dogs have been trained to detect endangered succulent plants in the Karoo.

The Canine Conservation Unit dogs are the only detection dogs being used globally to help combat plant poaching. Picture: David Ritchie, Independent Newspapers

DOGS have been trained to detect drugs, wildlife contraband, currency, blood and even illicit cellphones. But now a new level of canine expertise has been unlocked – three Conservation Canine Unit dogs have been trained to detect endangered succulent plants in the Karoo.

This is part of crucial efforts involving the South African National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi), the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), the SAPS Stock Theft and Endangered Species units and CapeNature to preserve succulent plants that have become endangered due to the insatiable demand of overseas markets.

“This initiative is the first of its kind in South Africa and is a significant breakthrough for the country’s conservation efforts. As far as we know these dogs are the only detection dogs being used globally to help combat plant poaching,” said a scientific co-ordinator for plant poaching response who is not named to protect their safety.

The co-ordinator facilitates the collaboration of the working group consisting of the EWT, SAPS, CapeNature and Sanbi.

Sanbi, in its capacity as one of the lead agents in implementing the plant poaching response plan, is also collaborating with various organisations to host plant identification workshops.

It works closely with law enforcement agencies, assisting them with the identification of confiscated plants and other critical information required for criminal investigations.

“We are also working with the EWT and CapeNature to support the initiative and ensure that South Africans are aware of the growing illicit trade of succulent flora,” said Emily Kudze, Sanbi senior scientific co-ordinator for illegal succulent trade.

Sanbi has already provided training to at least 20 traffic officers and SAPS members working in Vanrhynsdorp in the Western Cape, where plant poachers often pass through.

“We provided them with a fundamental plant identification course that covers the types of plants being targeted and the environmental risks posed by plant poaching, and the results were outstanding.

“Within two days of training, traffic officers intercepted poachers transporting succulents in their vehicles. Thanks to their prompt action, they successfully arrested the culprits,” the scientific co-ordinator for plant poaching response said.

Sanbi said it has also engaged members of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) about the issue.

“Training and engaging with the NPA shed light on the severity of the problem and helped us realise there needs to be stricter enforcement of plant poaching laws and more severe penalties for poachers,” said Kudze.

South Africa has a generally progressive governance framework for managing the use and trade of wildlife and wildlife products. Although there are some gaps between national and provincial policies that limit law enforcement, collaborative efforts are being made to update these policies and address the succulent poaching crisis, the organisations said.

Despite the backlog of cases awaiting trial, a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and challenges around apprehending poaching criminals higher up the chain, Kudze said law enforcement organisations are steadily closing in on the middlemen involved in the succulent poaching crisis.

“This is all possible because of the teamwork between the NPA’s Organised Crime Components and the SAPS.”

Sanbi said that to date more than one million plants have been confiscated from plant poachers.

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