Frankfurt Airport welcomed its first dogs trained to sniff out endangered species on Tuesday. Uno, a chocolate labrador, and Amy, a German shepherd, will help airport customs officers combat a trade worth an estimated €13 billion ($19 million) last year.
Ten weeks of training taught the dogs to detect 15 different endangered species, including turtles, crocodile skin handbags, ivory, snakes and even tins packed with caviar from threatened fish. Customs officers hope the dogs will also help them find live animals crammed inside travelers' suitcases, including lizards packed in video cassettes and parrots stuffed into narrow plastic pipes.
Europe is the most important market in the €13-billion endangered species trade, World Wide Fund for Nature expert Volker Homes told German press agency DPA. Customs officials in Frankfurt, which handles 54 million passengers each year, found nearly 112,000 protected plants and animals in luggage last year, including some 5,600 living animals.
Smuggling is the biggest threat to numerous endangered species, including South American parrots and tropical reptiles, coral and orchids.
"In Europe right now there's a trend toward keeping reptiles," Homes said, calling the airport's introduction of Uno and Amy a milestone in the fight against smuggling.
Officials aim to introduce similar dogs at all of Europe's main airports. Pilot projects are already active at the smaller airports in Stuttgart, Vienna and Nuremberg.
For Uno and Amy, the hunt looks like play. At a press demonstration on Tuesday, the chocolate Lab gamboled happily after finding a turtle inside a grey plastic suitcase - and getting a treat from his handler, 38-year-old Guido Nickel.
But the search for endangered species is actually hard work, trainer Dieter Keller told reporters. While tracking, the dogs breathe in 50 to 100 times before breathing out.
"They can do 15 minutes at a time, at most," Keller said. "This is a huge physical challenge."