The Copperheads, an elite task team of specially trained officers, were established to combat the theft of non-ferrous metals, which is rife in Cape Town and across South Africa. 

Since its start in 2007 the Customs Operations Detector Dog Unit has grown from two handlers and three dogs to 63 officers and 51 dogs now operating in five ports of entry in South Africa. The team has close ties with the NFTCC (Non-ferrous Theft Combatting Committee), a forum involving the SAPS, Business against Crime, Eskom, Spoornet, Telkom, Metrorail and other industry role-players.

The four legged crime fighters were the first in the world to be trained to be Dual Application Dogs. Instead of being trained or “imprinted” to detect only one scent, they are able to detect a combination of scents including copper, narcotics, cigarettes and cell phones. Following up on leads, both the investigators and rapid response units in the team can arrest perpetrators and hand over cases to the SAPS for criminal prosecution. Copper has a much higher value here than in the other member states of the Southern African Development Community and smuggling across the border has increased significantly. Scrap metal dealers are also visited to ensure that they are not buying stolen metal. 

The dogs also became first in the world to be able to sniff out bones from endangered pieces such as the rhino and lions.

Adding to the arsenal to combat the theft of metal is a high-tech cargo scanner that was unveiled at the port of Cape Town in July this year. At a cost of R38 million (£1,67 million) the scanner has the ability to detect 1 mm copper cable, rhino horns, cocaine and other illicit goods for which it is calibrated.

The scanner, which uses radiation and x-ray technology, was installed in a reinforced concrete structure to contain radiation. Customs officials working from the operations room are able to screen the contents. When a decision is taken to open a container, sniffer dogs are deployed into the cargo.

Not only will the scanner stop the export of stolen metal and rhino horns, it will also be a source of revenue ensuring that the right amount of customs is being paid on exported goods.