After serving 18 years in the French army as head of the dog-handling unit, I decided to put my skills to good use for a cause close to my heart: the protection of animals and our environment. When I saw a documentary about elephant poaching in 2016, I reached out to IFAW to see if we could work together.
And so my adventure began. Two years later, on 8 August 2018 I left for Cotonou. Benin, together with Burkina and Niger, is home to 3,000 elephants of crucial importance, since they are the last viable population in West Africa, highly threatened by poaching. IFAW’s objective is thus to extend the security assignment of the Cotonou canine brigade to the fight against ivory trafficking and that of other target species such as pangolins. While doing that, IFAW also helps ensure the health and well-being of the working dogs is taken into account, as every individual life matters.
My mission: to train law enforcement and customs officers to work with detection dogs to go to key trafficking areas, such as airports and shipping ports, and sniff out products from protected species, mainly focusing on ivory and pangolin scales. Detection dogs are essential allies in disrupting wildlife trafficking, as they can detect ivory, facilitate seizures, and even contribute to the arrest of smugglers. Depending on the breed, a dog's sense of smell is 1,000 to 10,000 times stronger than that of humans!
In collaboration with the Beninese government, I took a position at the Cotonou canine brigade where there were already 24 dogs that were trained to detect explosives and drugs. From experience, I could see that in order for the kennel to become a space that respects the monitoring needs and well-being standards for working dogs, a lot of work had to be done. The first things to tackle were to introduce proper dog care, organize recreational outings for them, and resume dog-handler training. Quite normal activities to me, but because in Africa the relationship between man and dog is very different from the one I am familiar with, we had to focus much more on changing the way the handlers see their dogs: moving from a tool to a friendly ally. I can clearly see the situation at the kennel is now gradually changing.
I felt it was also important to profile the working dogs as companions outside of the brigade to raise awareness amongst communities. Several times a week, we take the dogs out for a walk in the neighborhood. The fear of dogs is really widespread here, but now people have slowly gotten used to our little procession through the streets. Although people remain defensive, some dare, even if still from a distance, to engage in conversation to find out what these dogs are doing. It's already a small victory for these dogs, but I think for the brigade as well.
Over the past year, together with two local construction companies, we also worked hard to renovate the canine brigade and construct additional facilities such as a canine training unit and a vet unit. Thanks to the generous support of our supporters the Cotonou canine brigade now offers excellent working conditions for the dogs but also for their handlers. All the Benin detection dogs receive proper training and care as any routine check-ups and other veterinary care the dogs can get directly on site. For the daily care practices, we have partnered up with organizations like Morin, Ceva Santé Animale, and Almo Nature who each provide products that contribute to the health and well-being of the dogs.
The new training program IFAW set up at the canine brigade provides for the participation of eight dog-handler teams. The dogs started their training over the summer, but this is only the beginning! The young adults will be trained for 6 months, and the puppies for 10 months, before they can be deployed to sniff out wildlife crime. The dogs need constant training and care to achieve their mission: to help disrupt trafficking networks and protect wildlife.
Next time I will present how we select and train our detection dogs and their handlers, and how we team up in practice – so stay tuned!
-Frédéric Chappée, Project Manager, Detection Dogs Benin