Detection Dogs Assisting Conservation Management of the Endangered Pygmy Hippo by their Smell

My name is Mariska Snelleman and I am delighted to join the team of IBREAM. I am very excited at the prospect of supporting IBREAM’s pygmy hippo monitoring program with the help of detection dogs. This project is a novel and unique approach in threatened species monitoring where we will use the dogs superior sense of smell to help monitor threatened species and explore alternative methods that will make diverse field monitoring possible.

Mariska and Max working close together

I received a MSc in Biology from Leiden University. My master’s thesis focused on distribution of cheetahs and leopards in Ghanzi District, Botswana. I began working with conservation dogs in 2010, being the first person in the Netherlands to introduce conservation dogs to the Netherlands. All with the help of my beloved dog Max, a highly motivated, engaged and energetic dog that I adopted at the age of 10 months. My professional interests include studying the potential of canine olfaction and perfecting laboratory discrimination experiments, for example I have explored the possibilities to use detection dogs as a method for wind turbine monitoring bat fatalities. In 2020, the Dutch Conservation Detection Dog team has expanded to four canines, all handled by and living with their owners. Recently, a successful pilot has been performed to see if dogs could detect specific odour profiles in faeces from domestic horses in their oestrus periods, to help predicting the optimal time of fertilization in an artificial or natural way. I hope to extrapolate this method to a variety of endangered species in the near future.

The dog team members Lily, Vito, Croky and Max

For IBREAM’s Pygmy Hippo conservation program, we will investigate if dogs can be used as a reliable additional method next to the genetic sex determination assays that are being developed in our lab. Can dogs be used to determine gender of pygmy hippopotamus when presented with faeces from different pygmy hippopotami of both sexes living in captivity and in the wild? Initially, we will use faecal samples from captive individuals to develop a rigorous training method to achieve high sensitivity and specificity levels before using the dogs for testing samples from individuals in wild populations.

Faecal samples will be obtained from up to 10 adult males and 10 adult females, which will be collected by collaborating EAZA zoos. Male and female samples will be sent separately by post to avoid contamination and kept frozen at -18°C immediately after receiving them (each sample stored in separate air tight glass jars), until used in the dog scent detection training and experiments.

The samples will be divided into sub-samples, which will be exposed to a range of environmental conditions (using a greenhouse with high temperatures and humidity to resemble the rainforest) to increase the dog’s overall ability to discriminate samples of lower concentrations and various states of degradation.

This research will present a unique opportunity to evaluate if faeces of male pygmy hippos have a different odour for trained detection dogs than the faeces produced by female pygmy hippos. To my knowledge these dogs will be the first in the world to do this, starting with a ground-breaking trial with pygmy hippos. Once I have completed the validation phase I will be back to report the outcome of whether our Dutch Conservation Detection Dogs can work with us to take steps towards saving the endangered pygmy hippo.