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The great dog detectives


At the arrivals hall of China’s Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport, passengers are bustling as usual. Jin Kai is carrying out a routine inspection of passengers’ luggage. Although Jin Kai isn’t the typical airport security officer you’d expect… she’s a Labrador.

Jin Kai is one of the first graduates from a detector dog training programme run by the Chinese customs Anti-smuggling Bureau, and as she walks along the endless stream of luggage, she finally sits next to a suitcase belonging to a passenger arriving. A signal that she believes she has found something. A customs officer checks the luggage and finds 13 ivory bracelets, weighing a total of 420g. That’s one illegal wildlife trade smuggler caught today.

Another passenger seems panicked as Jin Kai alerts her handler. The anti-smuggling policemen ask Jin Kai to check their luggage too. Jin Kai again sits down next to a suitcase. Inside the case there are ivory necklaces, pangolin scales and other endangered animal products weighing a total of 500g. Another successful day at work for Jin Kai.

These are the first seizures of illegal wildlife parts made by a detector dog in China as part of the programme set up by the Chinese customs Anti-smuggling Bureau in co-operation with TRAFFIC and supported by WWF-UK. It’s a positive sign that training dogs to identify smuggled wildlife goods is beginning to pay dividends in the battle against the illegal wildlife trade.

More about Jin Kai

Dog detective Jin Kai © Wayne Wu/TRAFFIC Dog detective Jin Kai © Wayne Wu/TRAFFIC

Jin Kai is the first official wildlife detector dog. She is an 18-month-old female Labrador Retriever as is her work companion Jin Li who is a three-year-old male. Due to their friendly nature and appearance, intelligence and playfulness they are perfect for this job.

After five months specialized training from the Anti-smuggling Bureau of Customs General Administration at Ruili Drug Detector Dog Base, Yunnan Province, China in 2013, Jin Kai, Jin Li and another Labrador – Duo Wei – were ready for action.

The dogs learn to discover endangered wildlife products expertly hidden during transportation, for example concealed in a passengers baggage or inside postal packages. Generally it’s fairly easy to train dogs to find drugs, explosives, tobacco and other contraband but wildlife products tend not to have obvious odors so the detector dog must be extremely focused. Motivation and high levels of concentration are essential qualities.

Jin Kai, is the most adept of the trained wildlife detector dogs, and works in the international baggage claim section of Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport, which is the gateway to Guangzhou, the largest city in South China. When Jin Kai arrives at work her first job is to check through the mailbags to find suspicious parcels. Jin Kai went on to her first job in service at Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport in December 2013.

Why use detector dogs?

The illegal wildlife trade is lucrative for criminals because of high profits and traditionally a low risk of detection and punishment, with China being a major destination in the global trade. In recent years many illegal wildlife products have been seized by custom officials entering China. Typical goods seized include elephant tusks, tiger and leopard skins, rhino horn, and marine turtle products. To allow for the growing demand of illegal wildlife products, smugglers have invented more and more elaborate ways to avoid being caught handling the goods, going to great lengths to hide contraband in their luggage, parcels and even on their body.

Jin Kai reacts to a suitcase at China Customs © Wayne Wu/TRAFFICJin Kai reacts to a suitcase at China Customs © Wayne Wu/TRAFFIC

The idea to use detector dogs at customs to seek out wildlife goods came following a meeting in Beijing, faccilitated by TRAFFIC and involving some of the world’s leading experts on the training and use of wildlife detector dogs. Following this meeting the China Customs Anti-smuggling Bureau began their wildlife detector dog training programme in co-operation with TRAFFIC, who previously facilitated the development of wildlife detector dog programmes in a number of countries including Germany, India and Thailand.


To aid training the dogs receive rewards. However not the typical dog rewards you might give your pet dog. Instead the dogs are rewarded with a bundled white towel for tug of war. During each training session the handlers wear a special suit to foster the concept of the dog entering “work” mode. The dogs are taught to examine every piece of luggage or parcel and give a subtle reaction to a suspect package so as to cause no alarm. This can be something as simple as sitting next to the suspicious parcel. They then receive their reward.

Jin Kai during training © Wayne Wu/TRAFFICJin Kai during training © Wayne Wu/TRAFFIC

The white towel is laid down next to the dog and the trainer plays tug of war with the dog. When the training session is finished the white towel is thrown back into the training area. This makes the dog associate finding wildlife products with receiving the white towel reward.

At the beginning of the training process each dog is assigned its own handler. The handler and their dog establish a strong bond so that the handler can guide the dog with simple commands and gestures. The dog must also understand their handler’s subtle expressions and actions in order to make the perfect detecting team. Dogs and their handlers also have to be physically fit as they spend a lot of time on the move and have to be ready to react quickly.

The life of a detector dog is not an easy one. The dogs must remain vigilant at all times. A photo of a Labrador among postal mailbags may look cute but the message to wildlife traffickers is clear: no matter where you try to conceal illegal goods, you can’t fool a dog detective.

Have you ever seen a dog detective in action? What do you think of my blog? Leave a comment.

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