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Society & Success

The sniffer dog man

Will Powell has been contracted by the African Wildlife Foundation under the Canine For Conservation programme, an anti-trafficking unit that combats the illegal wildlife trade by installing ivory detection dogs at seaports and airports in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda. PHOTO | COURTESY
Will Powell has been contracted by the African Wildlife Foundation under the Canine For Conservation programme, an anti-trafficking unit that combats the illegal wildlife trade by installing ivory detection dogs at seaports and airports in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda. PHOTO | COURTESY 

Will Powell’s story is a maze: He’s English, brought up in Hong Kong, went to school in the UK to study anthropology ended up in Nairobi briefly, Kigali managing the American embassy’s bar and restaurant where he fell in love with sniffer dogs and went to train in Bosnia where got a job to search for landmines. He left for Croatia and Guantanamo Bay’s US naval base. He did a brief stint in Honduras with the army, and on to Zimbabwe to train more mine dogs. He met his wife there, but the land issue in Zimbabwe happened.

They were thrown in jail and after release, they bought land in Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro where he set up a dog training facility. He has been contracted by African Wildlife Foundation under the Canine For Conservation programme, an anti-trafficking unit that combats illegal wildlife trade by installing ivory detection dogs at seaports and airports in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

JACKSON BIKO met him for a chat.

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When did the dog bug bite?

Rwanda. While watching some US contractors train the Rwanda People’s Army on how to take out mines, a sick dog whose trainer was trying to prick its ear to get blood to be tested for tickborne disease suddenly jumped at the handler and mauled his legs, and everybody ran away. I jumped on the dog and grabbed its neck and bit it on the neck until it let go of the trainer.

That’s a story in journalism: “Man bites dog...”

(Chuckles) So the trainer was sent for treatment and when he came back he was grateful that I had saved his life and asked me if I wanted to train dogs. I said yes. I was 22 years old then.I was sent to Texas in the US for training, but after six months I was sent to Bosnia after someone messed up and got fired. I went there not ready but everybody thought I was and this wasn’t like searching for ivory, this was landmines, you made a mistake you got blown up.

Is there a specific breed of dogs that is good for certain tasks like picking out bombs or ivory?

There are probably four or five different breeds that we use. There are some Shepherds, like the German Shepherd but traditional German Shepherd with a sloping back are used for shows. They are not great for work and are kind of lazy. We get them from Eastern Europe; Hungary, some from Poland, but lots from Hungary. They have a very square back, and they are really strong working dogs.

Then there’s my favourite which is not the easiest breed but it’s a dog from a Belgian Malinois, a skinny looking German Shepherd type dog with a black muzzle and brown coat. They are driven, sort of ferocious working dogs. We also have the Spaniels, great at airports and around people. They are happy, easy going, busy dogs, but they don’t look aggressive and they don’t upset anybody.

Having worked with dogs for a while, obviously you have to get into their minds. Which means you have to think like a dog.

Thank you. (Chuckles)

How do dogs think?

(Sighs) Every dog is different. They are like people. There’s no much depth to it, but they understand people. They understand who is a nice guy, who is not, who is afraid of them, who is not. They know what they like, some dogs will love a toy, others won’t.

What have you learnt about being with dogs?

Dog are really honest. Working with dogs is really a great thing. Imagine working with 20 colleagues who love you. It’s about the connection. People always say it’s just a dog, it’s not a human.

The trick is to treat dogs like you would your child; compliment them, talk to them when you want them to do something, pat them, touch them, play with them.

Ever since you started working with dogs, what’s been your greatest moment of pride?

They are many. This programme started two years ago and last year, the Canine Unit at JKIA intercepted 18 pieces of raw ivory worth Sh6.4 million in transit from Maputo to Bangkok.

In June, KWS intercepted 500kgs of pangolin scales at JKIA. These interceptions have proved that these highly - skilled dogs can detect the smallest amount of wildlife contraband like ivory or rhino dust. And unlike humans, they can’t be corrupted.

What have these dogs taught you about yourself?

Patience. That and the simple pleasures of life because for them it’s all about fun stuff. When I’m playing with dogs, when I’m training dogs, that’s when my wife says I’m happier. You know, life is good.

Is there a particular dog you remember the most and why?
It’s like your kids, you can’t say one kid is better than the other. But I mean, some… (Chuckles). But back from my demining days, there was a dog called Kimbo, he taught me everything I knew about the job.

How have dogs made you a better father?

I’m more patient and more understanding. Kids are hard. (Chuckles)

What do you think about dogs and humans? What’s their personalities? Are they alike?

Dogs are much nicer than humans. (Laughs) There are a lot of uncool people in the world today. A dog is basically selfish, but if you’re having a bad time or something, they come over and say hi, and make sure you’re okay.

How old are you?

44. If I were a woman you wouldn’t ask.

Oh, I ask women all the time. What do you do for down time?

You ask my wife, I don’t do anything else. It’s just me and my dogs. Which is part of my problem (Laughs).

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