Jaguar canines made into jewellery © IUCN

Jaguars, the largest felines in the Americas, play a crucial role in the ecosystem by maintaining biodiversity and a balance in the food web. Although they are a protected species, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) has seen increasing incidents of jaguars being poached for their skin, fangs, and other body parts. Trafficked across borders, these body parts are then primarily sold to make jewellery and traditional “medicine”.  

In recent years, investors in many South American countries have set up huge projects for agriculture, mining, highway construction, and other infrastructure. These developments give poachers easier access to previously isolated jaguar habitats, leading to an increase in jaguar deaths. 

Jaguar licking his paw
© Carlos Navarro

Operation Jaguar is a joint project of a consortium led by IUCN NL, IFAW and Earth League International and is made possible by the Dutch Postcode Lottery. The goal is to put an end to poaching and the illegal trade in jaguar parts so this apex predator can continue to fulfil its vital role in the ecosystem.   

As part of Operation Jaguar, detection dogs have been trained to use their superb sense of smell to help track down jaguar parts and ultimately disrupt wildlife trafficking. IFAW enlisted the help of Wesley Visscher of Scent Imprint Conservation Dogs, who trained his dogs Bruce, a Labrador retriever, and Boris, a Patterdale terrier, specifically in detecting jaguar parts.

Jaguar fangs © IUCN

IUCN NL then arranged support from ARTIS Zoo in Amsterdam, which has a jaguar enclosure and allowed the dogs to meet the jaguars from a safe distance. The zoo team also provided samples of jaguar teeth and urine to familiarise the dogs with the scent.  

During their training, Bruce and Boris were placed in different environments where they tracked jaguar scents from boxes, packages, cars and containers. 

“Since dogs are fond of playing, the scent sample is sometimes also applied to a toy. This way, the dog thinks that he is looking for his toy and will be extra motivated to find it,” says Wesley.

Detection dog Bruce signals that he has found a scent
© LPDreamPhotography

During a recent mission in November, a team travelled with the detection dogs to Suriname in South America. At invitation of the Surinamese government, the team was part of a special mission to combat the illegal trade in wildlife. Bruce and Boris demonstrated their skills in front of many interested law enforcement and judiciary officials. They were deployed to border and other control points, sea ports and airports, where they sniffed packages, luggage and vehicles in search of wildlife parts.

“Detection dogs are great at this type of activity. With their excellent sense of smell they can be trained to recognise about 10 different scents,” Wesley explains. 

Detection dog Boris is searching cargo from a ship © Scent Imprint Conservation Dogs

Though we can’t divulge too many details, the mission was a great success and won’t be the last of its kind. Dogs are loved by many, and it is wonderful to see how they can become critical members of our anti-trafficking teams, helping to expose poachers and smugglers, and making a real difference for jaguars.

Annelyn Close / IFAW

Banner Image: Jaguar licking his paw © Carlos Navarro

February 2022