Two crime-fighting canines being deployed to fight the illegal wildlife trade met their new conservation colleagues at ZSL’s London Zoo headquarters today – named Buster and Bess, the duo are preparing to join the conservation charity’s team of experts protecting the Critically Endangered pangolin in Thailand.
The pangolin-saving Labradors recently graduated from a training programme with the Metropolitan Police and will fly to Thailand in April to officially become part of the ZSL team - working alongside conservationists, border force operatives and in-country law-enforcement.
“Not all heroes wear capes: some walk on all fours and have extremely powerful noses,” explained ZSL Pangolin Technical Specialist Georgina Gerard. “Protecting species is a core priority for ZSL, so we were excited to welcome Buster and Bess to ZSL headquarters today, to meet some of their new colleagues and showcase their newfound skills - before they jet off to start their new life sniffing out wildlife crime and protecting pangolins.”
During their visit to ZSL’s conservation zoo, Buster and Bess, who passed their police dog sniffer training with flying colours, shook paws with Georgina and ZSL Thailand Country Manager, May Moe Wah, showed off their expert detection skills, visited the iconic zoo’s Humboldt penguin colony and were presented with cuddly pangolin plushies for their travels - from the zoo’s range of fundraising soft toys.
The new paw enforcement will complete their training in Thailand, where the scents they’ve been training with will be mixed with pangolin scales until they come to associate the two - and then learn to recognise the scent of vulnerable pangolins alone.
Once up to speed, Buster and Bess will work with expert handlers from the local community - sniffing out live pangolins being smuggled through airports, ports and roads, so that they can be rescued and released back into the wild.
All eight species of pangolin are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and considered threatened with extinction. Although a total ban on commercial trade in pangolins was introduced in 2017, the world’s only scaly mammal is victim to highly unsustainable levels of poaching and illegal trade for their meat, scales and other body parts – with 200,000 pangolins believed to be trafficked every year.
Explaining why Buster and Bess will be such invaluable members of the team, ZSL Law Enforcement Specialist Grant Miller MBE said: “Intelligence has been telling us that live pangolins are being trafficked all across Thailand - mainly by road. Some vehicles even have purpose-built concealed areas to transport the Critically Endangered species. The question was, how to stop it. Before joining ZSL, I worked at UK Border Force, so I have first-hand knowledge of how effective these dogs can be in helping to deter and detect smuggling - they’re as highly trained as Olympic athletes, so we know they’ll be perfect for the job.”
Led by ZSL, the crime-fighting venture is a collaboration with the MET Police and United for Wildlife and is made possible through funding from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund and DP World, with the deployment of Buster and Bess in Thailand following on from ZSL’s previous work introducing sniffer dog units to hotspots for illegal wildlife trade in Mongolia.
As part of its mission to restore wildlife by protecting critical species, restoring ecosystems and helping wildlife and people live together, international conservation charity ZSL has long worked to champion the conservation of pangolins - through engagement with local communities, and conservation organisations in Thailand, Nepal, Cameroon and China. It also hosts the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group and runs pangolin conservation projects in Thailand and Cameroon which support anti-poaching patrols and law enforcement.
Stephen Biles of the Metropolitan Police said: “We pride ourselves on being world class leaders in training and so we were absolutely delighted to provide support to colleagues in Thailand with this unique project. Police Dog Handler, PC Rob Eldridge and Dog Training Instructor, Sean Turner, have diligently worked outside of their core shift hours, sacrificing personal time to focus on Buster and Bess to get their basic skills in place. Buster and Bess have worked incredibly hard with their trainers to get to this point and we all look forward to hearing about the next phase of their training and the positive impacts they’re sure to have in Thailand.”
David Fein, Chairman of the United for Wildlife Financial Taskforce, said: “Illegal wildlife trafficking is a major transnational organised crime, estimated to be worth up to $20 billion a year. It threatens protected species such as pangolins with near extinction, threatens public health and robs vulnerable communities of their lives and livelihoods. We are proud to support the deployment of these hero canines in the hope that pangolin trafficking across Thailand and around the world can be brought to heel.”
ZSL believes nature can recover, and that conservation is most effective when driven by science and innovation. We call for science to guide all global decisions on environment and biodiversity and build a healthier future for wildlife, people and the planet. Find out more and support ZSL’s world leading, collaborative science and conservation work at www.zsl.org