Locally trained dogs sniff out black market wildlife trade

by: Craig Lucie Updated:

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ATLANTA —

Dogs that are a first of their kind are being trained in metro Atlanta as federal agents.  They're sniffing out some of the most expensive items on the black market - items involving wildlife smuggling.

The dogs are trained at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Detector Dog Training Center in Newnan.  It's a sprawling campus with eight training rooms and a kennel with room for about 80 dogs.

The dogs are trained to sniff out shipments of all kinds of illegal wildlife.  Their main focus is high-dollar items like elephant ivory and rhino horn.  Both are known as white and black gold on the black market.

Wildlife smuggling is a growing and profitable business at ports around the United States.

"Rhino horn is probably worth more than cocaine per weight," said James Mason, who is a USDA training specialist at the facility.

The illegal trade is pushing wildlife, like the black rhino, close to extinction.

Channel 2's Craig Lucie recently traveled to the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania where he saw a guard protecting black rhinos from poachers. A guide told Lucie the rangers patrol 24 hours a day.

Now, a different kind of monitoring is being done in the United States.

Viper, who is a black Labrador retriever, is one of the first graduates from the training in Newnan.  He's already working in the cargo area of Miami's International Airport.

Viper's job is to walk the conveyor belt and furiously scratch a box when he smells something suspicious. In the warehouse, when he smells something, he alerts on it by sitting.

Wildlife inspectors in Miami displayed confiscated items, like endangered turtle shells, shoes made with python skin, elephant tusks and a black rhino horn, worth $1.5 million.       

Viper, who was recruited for training from the Atlanta Lab Rescue Group, is one of four dogs working in this pilot program.  If the program is a success, more dogs will be trained.

The four dogs working now are based in the ports of Miami, Louisville, Chicago and Los Angeles. Still, they are mobile and could spend time at any port that needs assistance.

"Viper is able to go around the country, so if we have intelligence that things are coming through (the Port of) Savannah, we are going to be in Savannah," said Amir Lawal, the wildlife inspector at the Port of Miami.

The program aims to save the endangered animals with man's best friend. The dogs are federal agents like none other, who always aim to please.

"(Viper) is the greatest dog," Lawal said.  "I feel like he's training me sometimes."