Next time you settle into your seat before a flight, take a look out the window and catch a glimpse of your baggage loading into the plane. Do you ever wonder how everyone’s bags got out to the tarmac, and what kind of stuff might be in them?

Poaching and, by extension for most species, smuggling is one of the most pressing issues of our time. Rhino and elephant populations have been hit incredibly hard due to the perceived value of their horns and tusks, and animals like pangolins and hippos are also sought after for their scales and teeth respectively. Even lions are now coming under fire for their bones, which are ground up in place of a tiger’s in traditional Asian medicine.

While engaged in a decidedly illicit trade, wildlife traffickers tend to use conventional means of transportation to move live animals and animal parts around the world. Transportation hubs like airports and seaports sometimes unwittingly facilitate a $23 billion-a-year industry. This means that contraband could be stored in something as inconspicuous as a checked bag or a shipping container, or disguised in ground coffee or powdered milk.

Dog sniffing a shipping container.

Photo credit: AWF

Authorities are turning to a tried-and-true companion, whose remarkable sense of smell detects items that traffickers smuggle under our human noses with ease. Sniffer dogs are utilized around the world to identify scents that reveal anything from drugs to explosives to even bed bugs. The Nairobi-based African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) is using man’s best friend to root out wildlife contraband before it can make its way to the black market in trafficking hotspots like China, Vietnam and Thailand.

AWF trained canine units go through an intensive two-month training to learn the ropes of contraband detection. Belgian Malinois, English spaniels, and German shepherds are brought in from Europe, and the picks of the litter – intelligent, friendly dogs that like to play hide-and-seek – are paired with handlers in hopes that the two will form a bond. A human’s personality and handling style plays a large part in how the dogs perform in the field, so good chemistry is crucial to the team’s success.

Once training is complete, the teams are ready to take on smuggling in transportation hubs across Africa. The pairs work with official wildlife authorities and law enforcement to find animal parts that are often covered or wrapped to try to conceal the animals’ singular focus: the scent of the contraband.

Canine Detection Dog Graduation Day outside Arusha town, Tanzania, East Africa.

Canine Detection Dog Graduation Day. Outside Arusha town, Tanzania, East Africa. To address the challenges faced by African law enforcement to detect and seize smuggled wildlife products, African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) in 2014 launched its Conservation Canine Programme. The program trains and deploys detection dogs to trafficking chokepoints—airports, seaports, border crossings—to uncover illegal shipments of ivory, rhino horn and other wildlife products. Photographer: Cheryl-Samantha Owen

AWF’s Canines for Conservation program has been extremely successful, helping to confiscate hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of live animals and animal parts. While rhino horn and elephant ivory typically take center stage when it comes to wildlife contraband, the dogs have also detected live turtles and several large bags of pangolin scales.

As a responsible modern traveler, be sure to take ethical considerations into account when planning your trips. Book through a reputable agency or organization, and use your best judgment to avoid activities like elephant rides. Double-check with your guides when purchasing local jewelry that resembles ivory, and leave bones and other animal parts where they are if you find them in the wild. Besides, with sniffer dogs on the lookout for contraband, it’s highly unlikely you’d be able to sneak any home.

Plus, it’s a much better feeling knowing that sniffer dogs are using their energy to put an end to wildlife trafficking instead of uncovering a decoration that you thought would look nice on the mantelpiece.

The views and expressed opinions on these pages are those of the organizations listed, and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Expedia, Inc.  Any cited research mentioned by these organizations is sourced by them and has not been verified or independently evaluated by Expedia, Inc.