Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Canines in Conservation

Dogs have been trained to assist us in so many different ways; from retrieving game for hunters to acting as eyes for the blind, they work for our love and affection. They are also companions for many of us, providing entertainment and comfort in our households. We often think about the ways that dogs help humans, but their assistance in the conservation of other species is not as well known. There are many organizations that employ teams of dogs in conservation efforts to work alongside scientists, park rangers, and customs officials.

Fido has been man’s chosen hunting partner for centuries due to their loyalty and keen ability to track scents. This super sense of smell doesn’t have to end in a dead animal; it can also be applied to the preservation of other species. Many scientists have found that dogs are more efficient and effective than other methods in ecological research. Why are dogs so effective? The main reason they surpass field biologists and ecologists in population surveys is their superior sense of smell. They can detect scent 100 million times better than humans and can find multiple odors up to a quarter mile away1,2!  So when evidence of an animal is hidden from our vision, a dog can smell it out, leading to more accurate estimates of a population. They also are able to cover ground much faster on four legs than a team of humans3.

The assessment of population numbers is one important way that conservation canines assist scientists with ecological research. They can be trained to locate live wildlife, for example flushing out birds or finding nests, which allows the researchers to easily count individuals. They can facilitate the detection of carcasses, allowing scientists to assess potential environmental impacts of human artifacts such as pesticides or wind mills. Dogs can also be trained to herd animals of interest in order to capture and mark them for further tracking. The predatory instinct of a dog can be utilized to assess the behavior of other species as well. Scientists can study the behavior of an animal when a dog is present, acting as a faux predator. This assessment of anti-predator behavior can be more efficient than waiting for an interaction with the natural predator to occur 4.

Humans often use dogs to guard property or protect against other humans, but they can also be used to protect against other species. The presence of dogs can help manage human-wildlife conflict by deterring wildlife from human areas 4. The Anatolian shepherd was bred in Turkey to protect livestock from wolves, and the breed is now being employed in Namibia by the Cheetah Conservation Fund. This organization is providing local herders with these dogs to reduce conflict between people and cheetahs. With the Anatolian shepherds guarding their livestock, the local people have stopped shooting and poisoning the cheetahs 5.
The canine ability to detect animal scat is extremely useful in determining many characteristics of an animal population. The location of scat can help establish the distribution of a species in an ecosystem and provide insight into their use of resources. It is an especially useful research method when studying species living in dense forest or those that are more elusive for people to detect. Researchers at the University of Washington used dogs to detect grizzly bear scat in the Canadian Rockies and determine whether the bears were coming close to areas of high human density. They also analyzed the scat for hormones and parasites to assess physiological health and determine whether the bears in close contact to humans were more or less healthy than those that stayed away. 

The performance of the dogs used in this study was compared to a variety of other ecological monitoring methods. The results of the scat detection showed the same distribution of grizzly bears as radio collaring them, but at 3% of the cost. The dogs were also able to detect 3 times as many individual bears in every square km than did a hair snag technique 6. This demonstrates how scat detection dogs are an excellent low cost and non-invasive alternative to collaring or trapping animals in order to learn more about their ecology. These feces finding dogs have been used to monitor many different species including lizards, jaguars, gorillas and even whales6, 7! Human scientist struggle to find whale scat in the murky water, but a lab named Tucker’s ability is particularly impressive. He demonstrates his skill in this video:

Dogs are helping to conserve elephants in several different ways. There are many teams of anti-poaching dogs throughout Africa helping rangers track down the humans killing elephants for their tusks. One unit in East Africa working with the organization Big Life, trains dogs to follow the human scent on materials or even footprints left behind at a poaching site. Dogs have led rangers to the poacher’s door as long as a day after the elephant was killed. This impressive ability has added another deterrent to poachers since many are afraid of the skills of these hounds 8. Some anti-poaching dog units are also being trained as attack dogs to help protect rangers.
Other pooches are working with customs officials to fight the ivory trade by sniffing out elephant tusks traveling illegally through airports and shipping ports. The dogs are able to search luggage much more efficiently than humans and to do so without bias. The addition of two sniffer dogs, Cooper and Lumi, to the Gabonese government’s detection team has motivated the other law enforcement agents to work harder in friendly competition with the dogs 9. Using dogs to combat the trade of illegal wildlife could make it harder for corrupt officials to allow ivory trinkets or endangered animal skins to pass through customs. It’s difficult to bribe a canine who knows a play reward awaits the discovery of these wildlife products.
Countless pups are employed to help us and the many other species we are working to conserve. Their abilities far exceed humans in detecting invasive plants, illegal snares, and evidence of animals. They can travel quickly over large areas and be used in remote places, as long as a handler can keep up! The dogs' sense of smell is even refined enough to distinguish between scat from two individuals of the same species. The possibilities are endless for training dogs for future employment in conservation efforts! Amazingly, the only payment that these pups require comes in the form of fuzzy tennis ball or a bout of tug of war with their human partner. Dogs are certainly the best friend of man and through conservation work they can be a friend of wildlife as well.

Here are a couple of organizations training and implementing teams of dogs in conservation efforts:

1Syrotuck, W. G. 2000. Scent and the scenting dog. Second edition. Arner Publishing, Rome, New York, USA.
2 Bryson, S. 1991. Search dog training. Howell Book House, Chicago.
3 Mecozzi, G.E., & Guthery F.S. 2008. Behavior of walk-hunters and pointing dogs during northern bobwhite hunts. Journal of Wildlife Management. 72, 1399-1404.
4 Dahlgren, D. K. et al. 2012. Use of dogs in wildlife research and management. Pgs 140-153 in N. Silvy, editor, Wildlife Techniques Manual, Vol. 1, 7th ed. The Wildlife Society Inc. Washington D. C., USA.


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