Malawi’s formidable Wildlife Detection Dog Unit (WDDU) recently underwent training to add another product to the repertoire of contraband they are able to sniff out as part of the nation’s fight against wildlife crime. 

Mulanje Cedar (widdringtonia whytei) is one of the country’s most threatened tree species which, last year, was placed under greater protection by the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species. Curbing the illegal trade in Mulanje Cedar is critical to preserving it for future generations.

Our canines are trained to use their keen sense of smell to search for, detect and indicate the presence of wildlife contraband. In addition to cedar wood, our five dogs are also capable of detecting ivory, rhino horn, pangolin scales, hippo teeth, leopard skin, elephant tail, firearms and ammunition.

Training a dog to recognise a new target odour typically takes three to four days of consecutive training in a process known as ‘scent imprinting’. During searches the dog is repeatedly exposed to the target odour and rewarded at source with their favourite toy, followed by play, when they show a change of behaviour as a result of detecting the odour. This process builds a positive association in the dog’s mind between the target odour and reward. Once the dog is reliably detecting the odour, the ‘indication’ is shaped such that the dog is only rewarded when it shows the desired behaviour, such as a freeze, sit or lie down position.

Experienced dogs become so accustomed to the process of scent imprinting that adding a new odour to their repertoire is relatively easy. Our dogs enjoy their searches so much so that they will take any opportunity to seek out targets – even when they’re not on duty – they know it’s a sure fire way of getting their reward and playing with their handler!

The WDDU is a partnership between the Malawi Police Service and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife, supported by Lilongwe Wildlife Trust and funded by the United States Government and GIZ.