Written by Alice Péretié
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Written by Alice Péretié
Rescued and released black-bellied pangolin (photo by Tessa Ullmann)
Maybe dragons really do exist, and perhaps more so in the form of a small and ancient creature. A shy and secretive mammal that humbly feeds on ants and termites, that adorns an armor of golden, bronze or gleaming black scales. Considered by some to be a sacred spirit responsible for the ever-blessed rains, this almost mythical animal is at the heart of many traditions across the world. Yet it is also tragically a prime target for the global, illegal and devastatingly efficient wildlife trade, with up to 2.7 million pangolins poached a year. Though of great importance within both ecological and cultural belief systems, the majority of the Western world was very much unaware of the existence of these animals until 2020 and Covid-19 hit. While links between wet meat markets, bats, pangolins and the current pandemic have not been confirmed, the past year brought pangolins to the attention of millions of people. And as the world’s most trafficked mammal, it’s about time.
Yet, these fascinating creatures may well disappear before the world gets to know how unique they truly are. Would you have guessed that pangolins have a tongue as long as their body, that they move noiselessly like friendly ghosts in the night (or day in the case of the black-bellied pangolin), that their main defence mechanism in the face of threat is to curl up in a ball and freeze? That the mothers carry their young on their back, and give birth to a single pup each year? Though perhaps, by now, you may have gotten a glimpse of them as pangolins took the international spotlight in 2020. If that’s the case, you’ll probably also have come to read or know that out of the 8 extant pangolin species ranging across Africa and Asia, all of them are threatened with extinction over the course of the next two decades.
Rescued white-bellied pangolin who, despite a terrible machete injury, survived after round-the-clock care from the SPP team (photographed by Alessandra Sikand)
Like a vinyl disc stuck on repeat, this story sounds all too familiar. One of animals, driven to the brink of extinction, continuously over-harvested for their body-parts. Perhaps the most infamous example is that of rhinos, repeatedly hunted for their keratin horns, or of elephants decimated for their ivory tusks. In the case of these little pine-cone mammals, it is for their keratin scales, grounded to powder in the name of conferred medicinal attributes in Asia, and, to a much smaller extent, traditional African muthi. On one side, an international illegal and criminal network threatening a very ancient animal with extinction. On the other, an animal that plays an important role in ecological systems and is at the heart of traditional beliefs thousands of years old. But the similarities end here. Behind the trafficking of scales lies a truly complex and fascinating web embedding cultural heritage, notions of justice and inherent complexities. But also, solutions.
Chengeta works hard on the ground to dismantle wildlife trafficking, and to ultimately put an end to poaching. We train and mentor rangers across Africa with a comprehensive program that ensures frontline wildlife protectors are well equipped in terms of skills, organization, resources. In the last year alone, Chengeta provided investigations, analytics, mentoring and training to almost 1000 rangers across 6 countries in Africa to help keep rangers and communities safe in the face of illegal activity. And though Chengeta’s mission seemingly focuses on rangers, our main objective is to empower and enhance local communities’ actions and voices, operating at ground-level to intertwine conservation within local perspectives.
“Those not willing to co-operate with the law, those engaging in more criminal activities – we work towards shutting them down, either by stopping them or deterring them”, explains Rory Young, CEO and Founder of Chengeta Wildlife. Counter-trafficking involves heavy analytical and investigation-led work for both reactive and proactive protocols, with a strong focus on the latter. Proactive investigations work on a preventative basis, shutting networks down before they activate, and before they turn into something uncontrollable that can spread across borders to join international markets. Every step of the counter-trafficking process is carefully monitored, considered and planned.
The tracker dogs Chengeta employs have learned to detect pangolin scales as well as ivory – their competence is such that they can detect the rustle of a scale in the back of a motorbike, engine on. Rangers are trained to apply specific protocols in the event of a live seizure, and collaboration with local projects aims to increase knowledge about what to do with specific species like pangolins (identification, handling, etc.): it’s not just about arresting poachers. Rangers have an important role amongst their peers, facilitating active communication, community outreach, local education and engagement to spread awareness and prevent environmental crime. By protecting the community and its wildlife, the rangers’ presence is a deterrent to those seeking to transgress both social and cultural rules, and the law. “But fundamentally, the goal is to stop poaching, and not require rangers anymore”, says Rory.
And indeed: developing ranger skills, collaborating, gathering information, analytical work are essential components in dismantling networks, but local contributing factors, like poverty, lack of awareness, or hunger, must be addressed if we are to bring an end to the trade.
Bushmeat in a local market includes pangolin – a popular local delicacy (photographed by Tessa Ullmann)
One of the protected areas in which Chengeta is the most involved is the Dzanga-Sangha Protected Areas Complex in the Central African Republic (CAR), a landlocked tropical country in the Congo Basin. Here, pangolin trafficking is tied to the local and regional wild meat or ‘bushmeat’ trade in the area, which is part of why closing down networks is quite a complex affair. “Whilst we can shut down in some ways the networks for ivory poachers, with pangolins, it’s a lot more subtle”, explains Rory. He expands on the differences between complex versus simple crime: ivory poaching is a process involving many steps, and weaknesses lay in its complexity. Indeed, from the organization and planning of the poaching mission to supplying ammunition, training of poachers, finding porters for food and ivory, hunting, storing the ivory and getting it to market, much more forethought is required than for bushmeat poaching. Easier to slip, make a mistake and ultimately get shut down. A bit like robbing a bank versus stealing a watch on the street and running away.
For bushmeat, the hunt is much more straightforward. Someone goes in, finds and traps a pangolin, eats or sells the meat, and keeps the scales for a long time until a market opens. A hunt that doesn’t require heavy caliber weapons: pangolins are small and very concealable animals that can fit in a basket or a backpack. The situation grows more complex as we turn to the Congo Basin where pangolins are a popular local delicacy, and still relatively common – their alarming decline is fairly recent. “It can be quite surprising to people on the ground when we tell them about the threat to these animals”, recalls Dr Carolyn Robinson, Chengeta’s Director of Sociocultural Research and Community Research, and indeed – extinction doesn’t exist as a concept in many African belief systems. Two of the four Asian pangolins are critically endangered, their meat, consumed as a luxury dish, and scales used in traditional medicines. Which is why we are now observing a transcontinental shift in the supply chain as demand turns to African species. considered more abundant – for now. Indeed, white-bellied and giant pangolins were recently up listed from vulnerable to endangered status by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). But in Africa, and particularly central Africa, local communities have been hunting pangolins for millennia, and both people and animals have continuously evolved alongside one another, in a predator-prey dynamic that has been well tolerated by the species… until now.
Time is ticking for elephants and pangolins, and we simply don’t have time to wait for markets to shut down. “So we believe in attacking all steps of the process”, firmly declares Rory. And in that respect, Chengeta and our partners support the outreach potential and positive relationships with communities that rangers have as they work within the park.
Empowering communities involves slow conservation and long-term methods that ultimately reduce the number of criminal networks. Hunger and poverty coupled with barriers to accessing healthcare, clean water, and reliable income can be significant drivers for individuals who need to feed their children, send them to school, and don’t see other viable alternatives. “It’s too easy to demonize groups of people for the choices they make. A potential poacher is preyed upon by networks in the same way people in the west and other cultures are preyed upon if they are in a vulnerable situation”, explains Dr Robinson.
Close up of pangolin scales (photographed by Rod Cassidy)
Ask yourself this – how do you go about defining poaching, particularly when local communities have been subsistence hunting for millennia? Where does one draw the line, when contemporary laws about hunting species don’t necessarily make sense to those whose ways of life rely on access to the forest? It’s not about romanticizing or demonizing communities, simply observing a range of scales under which threats posed by hunting (and poaching) can be measured, as we try to shift perceptions. The trouble arises when scales start to overlap: in some areas, pangolins are targeted by criminally organized groups of people for the trade. In others, a farmer or hunter could have stumbled across a pangolin in the forest, and taken it to earn extra income by selling the meat at a local market.
From anthropological and environmental justice perspectives, poaching refers to large-scale illicit trafficking networks trading ivory, scales, rhino horns and other wildlife-related products. And that’s it – grey areas persist in terms of what defines poaching versus hunting. The next scale is bushmeat hunting (of ungulate and primate species, like monkeys and duikers, and other species) for international meat markets. More and more, there seems to be a new rise in demand for wild meat in urban areas, a growing threat that puts pressures on struggling wildlife populations. Lastly, subsistence hunting, smaller scale hunting for local markets and self-sustenance is observed as a lesser threat.
Whilst Chengeta works heavily on illegal networks and trafficking, this isn’t how the majority of the community experience animals in this area “Linguistically, in CAR, the word for ‘meat’ and ‘animal’ is the same. For example, with foragers, you come to understand that meat isn’t just meat: it has social, cultural, economic values, it’s indicative of how able you are to provide for your family”, expands Dr. Robinson. A study published in 2011 noted that Central African foragers who reported having less meat in their diet showed signs akin to depression from a medical perspective. Meat is a source of protein, of which is needed in sufficient quantities to be alive and functional: it’s also an important food group consumed by almost all ethnic and linguistic groups in the Congo Basin. They traditionally eat small animals, like porcupines, duikers, rats…and pangolins. “Telling them now that they mustn’t eat pangolins is a bit like saying to an Italian to stop putting tomato on their pizza”, jokes Rory…. which goes to show how incredibly important cultural perception is to make progress on the conservation front. “If someone asks me to consult for them on a project that would tell locals to stop eating bushmeat in the Congo Basin, I’d simply refuse”, explains Dr Robinson. It’s not for us to tell people what to do – which can be incredibly counter-productive – nor to take away a source of livelihood and income, particularly as foreign conservationists who may inadvertently perpetuate new forms of colonialism.
Instead, we listen, talk, and listen some more. More than ever we need to be able to adopt perspective and compassion towards people – and not just in conservation. Chengeta Wildlife Communities programmes works with communities to develop locally based, lasting solutions towards the protection of natural resources, including self-monitored hunter off-take studies with local hunters. Chengeta also works to promote and support another independent community programme, the Sangha Pangolin Project (SPP). The SPP is a a truly inspiring local research initiative located in the Dzanga-Sangha Protected Area – a small initiative with a huge heart and mission. “It’s imperative to understand local ways of life and perceptions before we start designing projects. We can’t just go in with assumptions and expectations, otherwise we run the risk of disappointing the very people we’d like to engage with”, explains Tessa Ullmann, researcher from the SPP. « The SPP does not focus on reducing pangolin meat consumption, but rather on raising awareness on the growing threat of the scale trade and discouraging people to participate in it ».
Empowering communities begins with understanding the perceptions of various ethnicities, be it towards conservation and those who practice it, pangolins, illegal trade and what it means if a species integral to their culture goes extinct. Culture is a continuously evolving and dynamic entity, adapting and responding to change much in a way that species do biologically. Thus, shifting perceptions at a local level to either find alternatives or spread awareness requires a lot of communication. In line with Chengeta’s approach to communicating with local communities, SPP led a conservation campaign designed to spread awareness about the pangolins’ plight from village to village. “What they are, who we are, why they need protection”, says Tessa. A simple, illustrative and poignant campaign that tailored the message to diverse ethnicities populating the Dzanga-Sangha area: no two villages are the same. The BaAka for instance, are hunter-gatherers who hold incredible knowledge and understanding of the forest, intimately tied to their understanding of balance. They immediately reacted to what ecological consequences would arise if pangolins came to disappear. Similarly, Bantu tribes were more receptive to the concept of legacy and whether their children and grand-children would be able to grow alongside pangolins in their lifetime.
“We ask people how they feel about individuals at the other end of the chain who earn a lot of money and benefits from depleting the forest as opposed to local communities. We ask, ‘What if some of the meat you hunted last week stayed in the forest or your community? There would be more tomorrow, which means children can be fed, school fees paid’. We must allow people to make their own decisions when faced with different perspectives”, explains Dr Carolyn Robinson.
The responses of the awareness campaign were overwhelming: people want to help, want to get involved with protecting their livelihoods and legacies, and the next phase of involving the community is underway. “The Q&A at the end was fascinating, because it helped us understand what concerned each village the most, ranging from finding alternatives to their sources of protein to how they could be a part of putting an end to the trade”, Tessa concludes excitedly.
Tessa with two BaAka men looking at the notes they have taken as part of CPMP – an important way SPP engages with the local communities (photographed by Maja Gudehus)
In the early days of 2021, 8.8 tonnes of pangolin scales were seized in Nigeria. Whilst elephant poaching has plummeted in most areas of Chengeta’s operation, like CAR and Mali, “the pangolin scales movement is harder to measure”, explains Rory. Rangers have made increasing arrests, seized more and more scales, but it appears that the trade across the region (Cameroon, CAR, DRC) continues to escalate, and that the increase in seizures is perhaps proportionate to the increase in trade volumes. Counter-trafficking is working well, but pangolins are too easy and precious a target, which is why more than ever local livelihoods are crucial sentinels.
On the community front, progress is there – but slow conservation takes time. With guidance from Chengeta, the Sangha Pangolin Project developed an initiative to involve the local community in data collection to support research and understanding of current pangolin dynamics – the Community Pangolin Monitoring Project (CPMP). They work closely with the BaAka specifically – who better to involve than hunter-gatherers carrying incredible knowledge of the forest? The hunters, equipped with GPS trackers, collect data (sighting time, location, species, activity) and monitor the area, reporting unusual findings…More than just utilizing indigenous knowledge, the CPMP is a way to include the community in the conservation process, and to provide an incentive to keeping pangolins alive and in the forest. It was designed with the intention of providing an alternative activity involving pangolins that does not involve their consumption, going beyond tourism or solely relying on foreign conservationists.
Information like this is invaluable, as it provides insight into the presence of individuals specifically searching for pangolin scales – and as pangolins are fairly easy to catch, a target hunt increases pressure on the species. These targeted hunts expose the rise in demand for scales, and shine some light on how fast the trade is spreading. But they also reinforce the determination of the tribes we work with to put an end to it, facilitating social internal policing. “We’ve observed voluntary turnover of scales, in addition to confiscation, which not only highlights the fact that confiscation alone isn’t a valid metric in regards to anti-poaching, but suggests that communication on the ground does work”, says Dr Robinson. Local communities are much more willing to share information about poachers, particularly as they understand the notion of transgression and of being robbed.
In the absence of exact population numbers for pangolins in Dzanga Sangha, pangolin scale seizures offer insight into the scale of the impact of the trade. SPP’s analysis of the scale seizure currently held at Dzanga Sangha Reserve’s HQ, has helped gather information towards understanding trade dynamics, key towards efficiently implementing counter-trafficking. And indeed – the scales talk. More seizures occur in December, particularly over Christmas and the end of year when people are hunting more. This may indicate an increase in poaching of pangolins during a certain time of the year. According to the seizure analyzed by Tessa – which currently weighs in at approximately 109 kg – 97% of the scales belong to white-bellied pangolins: they’re nocturnal and easier to hunt, more targeted and more common (for now). Black-bellied pangolins are diurnal and stick to the treetops, which protects them from being over-hunted, and giant pangolins, the most cryptic of pangolins, are much harder to find. Over time, it’s crucial to keep analyzing seizures, to see if the number of hunted pangolins varies and to try and measure the impact Chengeta and SPP are having in the Dzanga-Sangha area. For now, more data is needed. Though anecdotally, it does seem like positive effects are emerging from the SPP’s exceptional work.
Collaboration, data, information and analytics sharing has never been so necessary. It’s thanks to incredible partnerships like those between Chengeta, SPP, WWF, the EU, and so many others, that the fight for the survival of fast-disappearing creatures is far from being lost. Pangolins are an ancient species, an important socio-ecological symbol illustrating the complexities existing between culture and nature, society and ecosystem. But also, they are a startling symbol of the desperate need to intertwine interdisciplinary realms of knowledge, perceptions and skills as we address their plight and networks that go well beyond solely scales.
Tessa examining giant pangolin scales from a seizure (photographed by Tamar Cassidy)
To some, pangolins may seem far away, unrelated, irrelevant. Physically, this may hold to be true, particularly as nature conservation is often perceived as niche, or for those who can afford it. But ultimately, this gentle, bizarre, wonderful creature highlights the intricate rapports between mankind and nature, mankind and culture, mankind and identity. And that is something that will hit home within every single one of us. To paraphrase the brilliant Sir David Attenborough, “it’s not just about protecting nature, it’s about protecting ourselves”. It’s the same struggle.
Virtual interviews with:
Conciatore, J., 2019. Up to 2.7 million pangolins are poached every year for scales and meat. [online] African Wildlife Foundation. Available at: https://www.awf.org/blog/27-million-pangolins-are-poached-every-year-scales-and-meat[Accessed 5 February 2021].
Dounias, E. and Froment, A., 2011. From foraging to farming among present-day forest hunter-gatherers: consequences on diet and health. International Forestry Review, [online] 13(3), pp.294-304. Available at: <https://www.cifor.org/publications/pdf_files/articles/ACIFOR1106.pdf > [Accessed 5 February 2021].
Kriel, A., 2019. The traditions and beliefs threatening the endangered pangolin. [online] Earth Journalism Network. Available at:<https://earthjournalism.net/stories/the-traditions-and-beliefs-threatening-the-endangered-pangolin > [Accessed 6 February 2021].
Turner, A. and Grant, D., 2020. The world’s most trafficked animal. Pangolins with Prof. Ray Jansen.. [podcast] The Wild Life Conservation Podcast. Available at: <https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/this-wild-life-conservation-podcast/id1513139424?i=1000474443033 > [Accessed 7 February 2021].
Alice Péretié is a Wildlife & Conservation Photographer and Storyteller passionate about exploring the ways in which to (re)connect people and nature. Website: aliceperetie.com
“Infra” or low frequency sound are frequencies below 20 Hz, the threshold of average human hearing. Many animals – mostly large ones – use infrasound to communicate over long distances because it travels further than higher frequencies. For example, blue whales – the largest animal – communicate over hundreds of miles and are the “loudest” animal in the world (“loud” being amplitude or the strength of the signal) – but they do so in the 10-30 Hz range similar to elephants, so we can’t hear them “yelling”.
In regards to localizing (higher frequency) sound, elephants most likely use the same system all animals use, which is that there is a very small time delay between the arrival of the sound to each ear because they are different distances from the source. Some animals like barn owls also have their left/right ear openings offset so that they can triangulate (three dimensions) a sound source, typically a rodent, with near perfect accuracy in total darkness.
But….elephants also use another aspect of low frequency sound to “hear”, which has to do with the tendency of low frequency sound to vibrate solids and liquids (simply look at a large speaker diaphragm or a glass of water when bass notes are played and you’ll see them vibrate). Careful observation by field scientists combined with GPS tracking and directional technology sensitive to low frequency sound indicate elephants can “hear” through their feet, that is, sense low frequency ground vibrations of the “elephant frequency” – elephants do not have hard hooves like horses or buffalo, but large, skin covered pads on the bottom of their feet. It has also been observed that elephants tend to orient their bodies in the direction of their “foot hearing”, which may mean they are using the distance separating their front/back/left right feet like they, and other animals, use their left/right ears to discriminate the directional source of the sound.
Below, anatomy of an elephant’s foot. Unlike horses or buffalo, elephants have a skin covered pad on the bottom of their foot, under which is a pad of fat and connective tissue that may help to amplify low frequency sound “heard” through their feet.
I learned as a child that there is a switch that you can just flick on that will block out the most pitiful scenes and the most horrible sounds. However, I also learned that when you use that switch there is a secret device deep inside you which turns itself on and records what you would rather not remember.
Later you learn that that terrible device can choose to remind you of anything it pleases at any time. One has to pay later for turning away by having it all come back. Sometimes it even decides to ignore your attempts to use it and instead turns up your senses and forces you to see, smell, hear and feel everything around you and even what has already been and gone.
Such a time came to me recently. In the picture you will notice the large elephant skull of a poached forest elephant. What may not be so noticeable is that she was a mother and I am holding the skull of her dead baby in my hands.
Who watched who die first? Did the little one see it’s mother struck down in agony? And as she fell did the mother foresee her joy would slowly starve to death in terror and terrible sadness next to her own useless rotting, faceless carcass? Or did the mother see her baby slaughtered before her?
The world has gone mad.
Sometimes the weight of the knowledge that if I get it wrong, if I don’t teach the rangers what they need to know and do to stop this insanity, I will be as much to blame as those who have gone out and butchered all this life is hard to bear. I wish so often that someone else was standing in my shoes.
I feel very, very weary right now.
Those at the Hubspot event didn’t gain a great deal of marketing knowledge, but some said it was the most informative and interesting talk they attended. Josh opened the floor to audience questions at the end of their talk. People lined up behind the mic in the center isle and there wasn’t time for all of the questions.
After the INBOUND interview Josh, Rory and I, (Josh introduced me as Chengeta’s co-founder and president) collected business cards from enthusiastic professionals in a diverse range of fields from animation to exceptionally talented PR professionals who we desperately need at this point. A representative from Dropbox immediately gave Rory terabytes of free storage for his uploads from the bush and offered to share Chengeta Wildlife’s cause on Dropbox’s social media platforms. She also offered access to their business features.
Josh is keen to take an even bigger role in our organization. He is extremely intelligent, passionate about our cause and willing to dig in and work with us wherever he is needed. We welcome him wholeheartedly!
Some key team members and supporters were at our event on the 11th and we were able to engage with them in a personal way. Others joined via our live stream session (thanks Leon.) Everyone was impressed with what we have been able to achieve with so little resources and our strategies to continue to abate catastrophic wildlife poaching across Africa.
Overall, the Boston events were all I was hoping for, we attracted some incredibly talented people to help us further our cause and garnered donations so our desperately needed work in the field can continue.
For those of you who kindly offered your help, I will be connecting with you ASAP. Thank you so much for reaching out to us! 🙂
I’m loading some of Rory Young’s video clips from our past training sessions. He may use some of these when he does his INBOUND15 interview/presentation in Boston next month. That event is not open to the public.
We are planning an event for any Chengeta Wildlife supporters who would like to meet Rory. We don’t have the details finalized, but it will probably be on Thursday, September 10th late afternoon or evening or sometime on Friday.
Since Chengeta supporters helped make these training sessions and videos possible I think we deserve the first peek at the videos.
The first one I’m sharing shows Rory and the Malawi rangers searching buildings after an undercover officer gained information about a poacher with a hidden weapon that could be used to kill large animals like elephants or rhinos. The best time to do this type of operation is when most are deeply asleep, around 3 or 4am.
To Rory Young and all Rangers who risk their lives to protect our wildlife and wild spaces, thank you for your hard work, dedication and courage.
We especially honour the world’s park rangers who have died in the line of duty over the past year. They have our deepest respect and gratitude.
and have needed to take a break in order to organize our new base in Europe. Thank you everybody for all the support and patience. We are all very grateful for the assistance and kind words that we have received regarding the Zimbabwe Central Intelligence Organizations harrassment and threats, our departure from Zimbabwe, my father’s passing away and the difficulties of changing home, country, continent and language.
“What doesn’t kill fattens” said Nietsche. We are already moving onwards and upwards and I can assure everybody that Marjet and I are more determined than ever to do whatever we can to help save Africa’s wildlife, its wild areas and to harmonize nature and communities.
Knowing that my family are safe and secure in a peaceful and stable country when I am out chasing around poachers is a huge relief to me and will allow me to focus on what needs to be done when I am out there rather than worrying whether they are okay.
There has been so much doom and gloom lately I thought you might appreciate a bit of a laugh… The following video “interview” was done by one of the rangers under my instruction in the middle of ops in a “hot” area which will remain unnamed. We were all exhausted tense and taking a break by having a little laugh on camera. (We have a lot more footage that we are preparing, including a lot of exciting stuff…)
Thank you all again and enjoy!
P.S. If you are struggling to get friends, relatives or neighbours to donate to our fundraiser then please try threats and blackmail!
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