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Written by Jamie Joseph on Savingthewild.com
It’s twilight in Malawi when I catch Rory Young on the phone, camped out with his fellow rangers somewhere deep in the African bush. There is a sense of urgency in his voice, like he has many important things to tell me, but really there is so much more work to be done.
“Let’s just focus on the task at hand,” he interrupts me when I deviate, commenting I had read that when he was just 17 years old he was, at the time, possibly the youngest person to have ever earned his wings in the French Foreign Legion.
“There have been 81 poaching arrests in just under two weeks,” Rory continues. “If we had been shooting first and asking questions later we would have dealt with only a fraction of this number and would have almost certainly sustained casualties.”
Populations of elephants in Malawi have halved in recent years, and the government has now decided enough is enough. They have committed to burning their entire ivory stockpile, symbolically important, and there are plans to include conservation in the school curriculum, teaching children the importance of wildlife and the real value of wildlife to tourism and the country’s economy. There is now political will.
Zambian born Rory Young has been tracking Africa’s wild ever since he was a little boy. In Zimbabwe he successfully completed a five year rigorous apprenticeship to become a forest ranger, of which only 5% pass. After more than two decades tracking in the field, and suddenly in the midst of another poaching crisis, it was crystal clear to him that a lot of the people who had fought in the first war on poaching in the eighties were now retired, or had been replaced by younger, less experienced rangers who had grown up after the counter insurgency operations of his generation, and who had no training or experience in the very specific skills needed to overcome such a crisis.
This was the seed from which Chengeta Wildlife was born, an organisation that raises money to train wildlife protection teams, because, frankly, throughout most of Africa there simply aren’t the funds available to properly upskill rangers, and so the death toll continues to rise, for both animals and humans.
The key here is pragmatic doctrine. In the race to stop the blood flow, right across Africa ex military are taking military doctrine and trying to apply it to anti poaching.
“It does not work,” says Rory. “In anti poaching you do not have a military structure. Each man in a military unit plays his part, whereas in anti poaching the reality is the men need to be incredibly versatile because they are operating independently in small groups in isolated areas. Through our Chengeta network of expertise we have created a doctrine very specific to anti poaching, and then we further tailor it to each park. Part of this doctrine is teaching rangers all the skills that would collectively be taught to the military, or the police, or intelligence agencies; how to go undercover and gather information from other sources, how to do reactive investigations, how to analyse all of the information gathered and then take that information and plan future operations. We teach them all the tactics of pursuit, apprehension, post apprehension and interrogation and to then roll up the networks using the information from arrested poachers.”
In the Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve, for the entire 2014 there was 21 arrests. Under Rory’s guidance they made 21 arrests in half a day. And that is because they’re putting stop groups in the right places at the right time. They work out where the poachers entry and exit the protected area and their movements, especially choke points, and then they set up covert apprehensions. They’re coordinating with tracking teams, observation posts and undercover officers so that every step of the way they can catch them in various positions.
“This kind of anti poaching is not being taught throughout the vast majority of anti poaching operations in Africa,” continues Rory. “There is the assumption that if the boots on the ground isn’t working we should bring in the drones, or some other magic warfare, but there is no silver bullet. Just look at Kruger National Park (KNP), they are failing because they are trying to run it as a military structure.”
In Liwonde, where black rhinos are severely threatened, between February and March Malawi rangers made 33 arrests in two weeks with just 30 men, one old boat captured from poachers, and one and a half vehicles – they only had access to a second vehicle some of the time. Compare that with KNP, with thousands of men, helicopters, drones, vehicle fleets, army and air force support, and there was just 28 rhino poaching arrests in April, and that was a sharp improvement.
I question if that is because South Africa still doesn’t have an effective hot pursuit agreement with Mozambique, and most of the poachers are coming over the border from Mozambique.
“That’s not it,” replies the intense strategist. “Because there is a whole series of steps you can take. You can catch them at point of entry, at market, or exit point – there are many different places you can tackle poaching. But all of that requires intelligence. Shoot on sight is stupid. If we had been shooting on sight during this latest sting operation we would have shot a handful of poachers and that would have been the end of it. Every single poacher is an opportunity for information to get more poachers and work your way up the chain to the ringleaders.”
We go on to discuss the poverty link to the poaching crisis, and how vital it is that governments and NGOs address this problem. Poverty leaves the local villages living near wildlife vulnerable, with the fathers and sons recruited by criminal syndicates to do the dirty work and pay the highest price, often leaving behind widows and orphans.
The very latest figure – 81 arrests in 12 days, is impressive, and must be some kind of record, but I’m quick to point out that the conviction rates of poachers right across Africa is less than 10%. It’s no secret that evidence is often tampered with and mysteriously goes missing once in police custody, so how is Chengeta’s way of teaching rangers to handle evidence any different?
Says Rory, “We teach a complete doctrine, right through to the courts, making sure the dossiers are correctly put together so that the prosecutors have all the information they need. We maximise the ranger’s effectiveness. I’ve been training rangers for the last three years in Malawi, Zimbabwe and Guinea, and as far as I know we’ve never lost evidence. Malawi is in the middle of redoing all its legislation, they know they need to introduce much harsher sentences so that the law actually acts as a deterrent, however in the meantime a committee has been formed made up of judiciary, police, army, parks and wildlife, and intelligence services to make sure they get more convictions. The evidence that is now being handed over to the judiciaries is light years ahead of what it was before. “
Through the Chengeta training, the rangers are taught how to create a dossier with all the evidence and everything is signed off by two police officers, and the rangers get a copy of that. Then it goes straight to the prosecutor and they have to sign for it. Then everyone has a copy, and if something does go astray the organisation that lost the evidence can be charged with deliberately tampering with evidence.
However funds have recently dried up and Rory continues to work pro bona. As soon as more donations come in Chengeta can take on another six protected areas in Malawi, including one Transfrontier Park and a World Heritage Site.
Concludes Rory, “There have been requests from a dozen African countries to conduct the training. Right now our focus is fundraising to provide training to Africa’s least developed countries that need the most help.”
National Geographic story with Chengeta Director Rory Young: Anti poaching – high tech versus boots on the ground.
If you would like to support Chengeta Wildlife please visit their website here.
Each 30 day training session costs approximately US$18,000 which is spent on:
• Rental of vehicles and boats for anti-poaching operations (if needed)
• Fuel for vehicles and boats
• Daily rations for trainers and participants
• Shelter for trainers and participants
• Airfare and transportation for trainers to/from camp location
• Trainer remuneration
• Printed field guides and other education materials
• Training supplies when needed: compasses, water bottles, radios
Rory Young shared this photo of a poacher’s tracks.
From the large size I think that a man left these prints. Also male because the toes are close together. Women’s toes are typically more spread apart.
His toes are not digging in so I think he is walking and not running or jogging. Though for someone walking his stride is quite long, that tells me that he has long legs. So probably a tall man.
I know he is very fit with not much fat on his body because his straddle is extremely tight. Straddle is the side-to-side width of his feet from each other. An unfit person will usually carry fat on the inside of their thighs and that will make their straddle wider.
He is not carrying a heavy load. If he was carrying something heavy his toes would dig in more, his straddle would be wider and stride would be shorter.
If there was a measuring stick next to one of his feet showing the exact length of his footprint I could give you his approximate height.
So we have a tall fit man, walking confidently along with no clue that rangers are on his trail. Either he is a foolish man or he has been doing his poaching with no fear of reprisal for too long, because he is leaving a very clear trail in a sandy area making no attempt to conceal his tracks.
The second photo shows the arrested poacher and his two sons. Rory explained that while one of them was putting out the fish traps, shown in the photo, the other was setting snares and gin traps in the bush. The youngest was their lookout.
(I have told Rory that if we ever walk together in the bush I will be jumping from rock to rock and will drag a big leafy branch behind me so he won’t know all my secrets.) 🙂
In the final minutes he discusses the time he was shot at when crossing from Central African Republic into Cameroon.
Give it a listen over the weekend. The sound quality is a bit rough for short periods, but recovers quickly.
Let’s be honest; Malawi has been hit harder by poaching than many countries. However, although one of the poorest countries in Africa, it is also known for its friendly, hard-working and peaceful people. It has been known for many years as “The Warm Heart Of Africa”, a title that suits the beautiful place perfectly.
I was fortunate to live in Malawi as a child. I remember clearly the first time I tried to track lions on my own. I was eleven years old and a pride had passed along the river that ran along the bottom of my aunt’s garden on their farm North of Mzuzu, close to the Tanzanian border.
“Farm” was hardly an apt description, although they did grow tobacco. My cousins and I spent our days chasing around the bush looking for animals and playing with the children from the local villages. There were a variety of pets, including a four-foot African rock python, two tiny grysbok deer, a duiker, a crazy African Wild Cat, amongst other orphaned creatures that constantly came and went.
I had spotted the lion tracks while looking for snakes with a couple of Tumbuka kids and, whilst I had decided that it would be a damn fine idea to follow them, my friends declared me mad and left. So, off I went.
Fortunately for me I didn’t catch up to the lions before it started getting too late and I was forced to turn back and head home. Thank goodness I did or I most likely would not be writing this now. Anyone who has seen a lion’s reaction to just a child’s voice from a game-drive vehicle, or when seeing them through a fence, will know how appealing children are to them, in the worst possible way..
I have many vivid memories of Malawi from my childhood, some sad and many happy. One thing I will never forget is the majestic beauty of the place and the stunning diversity of habitats and animals. From montane forests, to the magnificent lake, to the teeming wildlife. Where in the world could an eleven year old come across lion tracks at the bottom of the garden on the banks of a wild river with gorgeous mountains rising up behind?
The wildlife no longer exists along that river, or anywhere in that district.
I saw a poacher for the very first time in Malawi. He was driving a truck loaded with skins and meat past my uncle’s property across the border into Tanzania. I remember the ivory carvers who openly plied their trade on the main street of Blantyre. Even with those signs, I would never in my childhood have imagined the terrible scourge that would obliterate the once mighty herds of elephants that roamed freely.
Many countries in Africa are in this situation, but Malawi is different in some important ways. It is saying no to poaching and taking a real stand. Firstly, the country needs tourism, 60% of the country’s foreign currency earnings. There are no diamonds, there is no gold, and there is little local industry. Tourism is one of the few ways for the country to earn sorely needed foreign currency.
Secondly, the country and its parks are relatively small. They are not gigantic areas that have just been left to themselves. They can be effectively protected more easily than some of the massive wildlife areas in neighbouring countries that would require legions of rangers to patrol them.
Thirdly, and most importantly, it has the political will. The government, at the highest levels, actually wants to put a stop to poaching, and to teach its people the importance of wildlife. The country recently decided to included teaching in its schools on the importance of wildlife and the reasons that poaching is wrong. Incredible.
I recently conducted a training course for the heads of the anti-poaching units for all the parks in the country. At the passing out parade the minister of tourism stood up to make his speech. I almost fell over when I heard it. He openly and honestly listed the failings of his country in the past to protect its wildlife, even listing the decline in numbers of key species. That was nothing though.. he then announced that we had uncovered a couple of rangers involved in poaching, something we were of course keeping secret from the outside world, and he told the gathered crowd that they would be made an example of and shown “no mercy”. Wow, after all my years in wildlife and conservation and running around this continent, this was the first time I ever heard a politician speak like this. I was then asked to step forward as he would like to thank me personally for my work and for the support and work of the organizations that paid for and arranged me to be there, Chengeta Wildlife and Lion ALERT.
He shook my hand, and, looking me straight in the eye, he said, “Please tell your colleagues that we do not take this for granted and we are going to show the world that we can win this”.
I train rangers to locate and arrest poachers and traffickers. Usually it is pretty thankless work and one often has to fight frustration and even depression because of the lack of support and the apathy of governments and even the men, but most especially the public and the leaders. This government however is determined to win and the rangers themselves are second to none.
I heard as a child the stories of the brave men of the King’s African Rifles fighting the Japanese in Asia. Nyasaland as Malawi was known in those days was renowned for the bravery and dedication of the soldiers who originated there and served in the two battalions raised by the British to fight in far away places. I have seen for myself why the Malawians were so sought after. They are tough, they are determined, they are hard working and they are brave. They also have an amazing sense of humour, which invariably shows itself when most needed to raise spirits. They may be poor in some ways but when it comes to spirit they are amongst the wealthiest.
Malawi doesn’t have money for drones and helicopters. They have realised they have to be clever they have to be willing to do what is necessary, and that is what they are doing. Working with the communities, they have a “revenue sharing system” which gives 25% of revenues from the park to the communities around the area.
During the recent training we actually took down a whole poaching syndicate, with buyers and traffickers and identified several others in their entirety. Rarely do you hear of such successes in countries with much better equipment and funding.
The difference is this; everybody at all levels in the Malawi Department of National Parks and Wildlife is determined to win. From the Minister down to the Director and on down to the men on the ground. There are a few bad eggs but they will be dealt with “mercilessly”, I have no doubt; and those wonderful rangers are going to carry on arresting poachers.
Why? Because they have the support of their leaders, they are good, brave, determined men and they are willing to learn from others how to get it done.
Thank you Chengeta Wildlife and Lion ALERT for making it all possible.
Rory does the dangerous physical work in the bush, but he also meets with high level government officials to explain our doctrine and training.
He is in the bush for 3 weeks for this training session, away from his wife and two young children, missing the first day of school for his kids this year. Three weeks must seem like forever to those two little ones.
He will only accept a subsistence wage from Chengeta to make our funding stretch as far as possible even though he is worth 10x that rate.
Marjet, Rory’s wife, is back home doing her budget stretching. She is often called on to help Chengeta too. Right now she is having Chengeta t-shirts printed for the Malawi rangers receiving our training.
Just wanted to take a moment to recognize the sacrifices that Rory and his young family are making to do this work.
A huge THANK YOU to Joe Chernov, Robin Richards and Leslie Bradshaw for creating the infographic below for Rory Young and Chengeta Wildlife!
Please share our new infographic with any media contacts you have and everywhere on social media!
Chengeta Wildlife supports and funds the training of wildlife protection teams in Africa.
Rangers and scouts are brave men who risk their lives to protect wildlife. They may face heavily armed poachers, sometimes ex-guerrilla fighters hired by ivory smuggling syndicates. These rangers need to have the best training and anti-poaching strategy possible and that is what we provide.
Rory Young is an expert professional tracker with knowledge and practical ability gained over many years in the bush. Since his childhood, he has developed an amazing database of knowledge and skills and a highly developed intuition to become one of the best in his field. By looking at human tracks or “spoor” he can form a description of a person. Approximate height, weight, age, how fast they are traveling, if they are fit, when they were in the area and if they were carrying a load. At times he can tell if they are carrying weapons. His training is highly sought after.
Young has formed an alliance with Jacob Alekseyev, an American living in Zambia. Alekseyev is a former Major and Federal Agent of the US Air Force, Office of Special Investigations. Together they have worked out a plan of action to stop poaching in the Zambezi River Valley.
Board of Directors
Sanjay Sabnani, Ben Fraser, Lisa Groeneweg, Rory Young
Board of Advisors