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“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.
By Rory Young.
My name is Boetie Van Niekerk, I am a South African professional hunter looking to buy ivory or rhino horn. I am arrogant, suspicious, and patronizing. I am also greedy and am looking for serious, long-term suppliers and “if you look after me, give me a good price and no hassles, I will keep coming back for more”. I can, of course, “buy as much as you can supply and want as much as you can sell me as quickly as possible”.
I use “middle men” or “buyers” to deal with “sellers”. You can’t just approach me directly. First, you talk to one of my junior middlemen who will meet and talk with you at length to establish who you are, what you have to offer and how much you want for it. He is an old toothless wonder with bad body odour but fancy clothes and a new watch and a smartphone. You are impressed by his stories of how “big” his boss is and how he pays too much money but can’t get enough. If he verifies that you are a genuine and serious seller he will then pass you on to one of my more senior, trusted, sidekicks. He will insist on inspecting what you have. That will be a big negotiation in itself because no one trusts anyone. However, after lots of backwards and forwards, and maybe some arguing, it will be done.
It will be necessary to verify who we are too and once we get round to talking about meeting with me to do the sale, we will have a brief chat on the phone, mainly to reassure you that there is a real “bigshot” foreign buyer behind the junior guys and you are not just being set up to be robbed of your ivory.
Eventually, when you are happy and I am happy, we will arrange to meet at a location we both feel is safe. Invariably a place as isolated and quiet as possible, with several approaches by road; a crossroads in a rural farming area is good, with enough cover to avoid being seen with the contraband, but with a view of the surrounding area. The meeting will of course take place late at night so that any vehicles can be heard or seen approaching from a distance and so that we won’t be observed “doing business”.
When we finally meet, both parties will almost certainly arrive late, having had people check the location secretly, to ensure that it is not a set-up by rangers or police officers or an ambush by thieves.
When we meet, I, of course, let my men do the initial talking. They will speak in the indigenous language of the area, and, as I don’t understand a word of what is being said, my buyers will repeatedly refer to me as this “white prick” or “this shithead”, so as to make you feel that they are on your side really and want to get you a good deal asap, because they hate my guts. All very reassuring for you. You actually outnumber us too, but not enough to encourage you to try to rob us. You are not sure if we are armed or not.
Eventually, I will get impatient with all the blabbering and will rudely interrupt. I want the stuff and I want to go. It is early morning and I am tired. Let’s get down to business…
I snatch at it greedily when you produce it, inspecting it, clearly knowing my business; and you hungrily eye the bulging bag at my feet. After weighing it and examining it we talk price. I argue that I already have lots of ivory as I have been buying in other areas, but eventually we agree on what I believe is a good price, as my middlemen have told you I will, but which you all know is outrageously high.
Money changes hands, the ivory is handed over, I mention one word, and suddenly your world takes a dramatic and terrible turn for the worse. You are suddenly on the ground with a boot on your neck and the muzzle of a gun in your face. Your hands are pinned. There is shouting, bright lights and other people have appeared from nowhere. You catch a glimpse of your friends trying to run, but being slammed to the ground by three men.
I am in reality neither South African nor a criminal, and, although I really am Caucasian, I do actually speak one indigenous Bantu language and can understand a lot of what is being spoken in others. I was born in Zambia, raised mostly in Zimbabwe, and have spent most of my adult life in wildlife and rural tribal areas in Central and Southern Africa.
I am an anti-poaching and anti-trafficking trainer and advisor. My work is done “in-ops”, so I show the rangers how it is done by actually doing it with them on the job. Once I am happy that they have understood the theory in the classroom and have shown themselves proficient in practical exercises, we go out and find and arrest traffickers and poachers, taking down whole networks, if possible.
Going undercover amongst traffickers is extremely dangerous. It is frightening and requires a steady nerve. The ability to believe that you truly are a criminal, and to play the part with convinction, is key. Undercover ops also require excellent teamwork, quick and effective planning, and, above all, incredible trust and confidence between the people working undercover and their support team.
It is never the size of the threat nor its intensity that I find worrying or reassuring. It is the level of control that I and my fellow rangers or trainees have in any given situation.
We are not adrenaline junkies looking for the next big fix. In fact, all of the instructors whom I work with and all of the experienced and properly trained rangers who participate, abhor any unnecessary risk-taking or recklessness. An experienced officer knows that to be effective, to stay alive and healthy and avoid disruption to the community and environment, he needs to get the job done in as professional a manner as possible.
Whilst operating openly in the parks is dangerous work, undercover work on the other hand is, as far as I am concerned, the most nerve-wracking type of work I have done. In the areas I work, there is very little or no technology available to make our work easier. We often end up sitting alone with criminals, out of comms with our fellow rangers. Often this is necessary and deliberate as we need to build trust.
The worst is when a tip comes in at short notice and there is little time to reconnoitre, investigate or plan. Such missions are only undertaken when an experienced team is in place. They can easily go wrong and we occasionally find ourselves pursuing armed individuals in a vehicle or on foot.
Often, communities or syndicates will be closed to outsiders and we have to carefully work out who is who, and how we can break into the circle. That can take a lot of time and requires a lot of patience. We will send in men to try and gather information, identify possible informants and try to understand who is doing what, why, when and how. I do not like sending men into such situations, but often we have little choice. We try to make it as safe as possible by ordering them to withdraw as soon as there is the slightest suspicion or aggression towards them. We will hide teams at strategic points around the areas, both concealed and undercover to move in if necessary.
Although this type of work is stressful and dangerous, it is also exciting and, most importantly, it is highly effective. Along with running informants and interviewing suspects it is one of the best sources of intelligence and regularly results in successful operations.
Whilst I personally dislike ad hoc undercover ops in urban areas, I absolutely love pseudo operations in rural areas. This is when officers form fake poaching gangs and pretend to operate in an area, moving out of a park with (actually seized) contraband, weapons, and they dress and behave like any real poaching group. In some parks areas where the vegetation is very open, this is sometimes one of the most effective ways of getting close enough to attempt an interdiction.
Oh, and don’t worry that I may be letting the cat out of the bag by telling you all of this… Undercover and pseudo ops cause chaos for the poachers just by everyone knowing they are happening in an area. No one knows who they can or can’t trust and talk to. No one can approach anyone new to sell something. No one can ask for assistance from local people or even from other poachers…
Our work is funded through donations to Chengeta Wildlife. The work I describe above has taken place during in-ops training funded by Chengeta Wildlife We are having unparalleled success on the ground, working with different African governments and regional organizations. Rangers have to be able to do everything from undercover work to tactical tracking to crime scene investigation and much more. We train them in a comprehensive methodology that we developed. We help those officers who need the help the most, not just the “celebrity” conservation areas. If you would like to support our work, please donate or share our information.
Written by Rory Young – These thirty-odd men have just finished making 33 arrests during the in-operation portion of their advanced anti poaching and anti trafficking training organized and funded by chengetawildlife.org and lionalert.org in Liwonde National Park in Malawi.
To put that in perspective, they have made the same number of arrests of poachers and traffickers in just two weeks, with just two old vehicles and one old boat, as the whole of the hugely funded and massively equipped Kruger National Park does in one month with all of its drones, helicopters, army and air force support.
The officers are given the knowledge, skills and strategies to continue the work long after we leave.
The group’s arrest rate is equivalent to forty times that of the average Kenya Wildlife Service protected area.
We are only just getting started. We will be continuing our work through all the protected areas of Malawi in our partnership with the Malawi Department of National Parks and Wildlife as well as other countries. The officers are given the knowledge, skills and strategies to continue the work long after we leave.
Thank you to all those whose financial and other support has allowed us to do this work.
Please support the men and women achieving the most success with the very least, in the war to protect our rhinos and elephants. This project is entirely funded through private donations.
We can win this war!
The theory phase has been amazing. From Director General level down to AP team leaders, from all over Guinea, the work is being taken very seriously and the discussions have been animated and indicate a high level of motivation and the determination to make the most of the opportunity.
I have been impressed and touched by never ending thank you’s and requests for advice on numerous ops plans and other AP initiatives.
Still three weeks to go, including practical and intensive in-ops phases. Thereafter, these participants will go out and pass on the training immediately to another three hundred officers. It is clear that the impact of this training on poaching in all protected areas of Guinea will be massive.
I am delighted to also hear that the training will be used to create well protected green zones as quickly as possible for the safe reintroduction of species such as elephant and lion! Go Guinea!
Lisa Groeneweg has gone so far beyond what could ever be expected or hoped for by someone like me in terms of dedicated support and tireless effort and sacrifice.
Thank you also to Lion ALERT for working tirelessly behind the scenes to make sure it happens. David Youldon has ensured that our efforts are coordinated, managed and arranged professionally and without complaint and edited the field manual and so much more for no reward or recognition. This has been a model partnership between organizations, individuals and governments.
I have already been asked to return asap to advise on ops as they are planned and executed. How can we say no folks? It is so important to support a people trying hard to get it right. Guinea will reap the rewards for this effort in the future and I hope gain a reputation for much more than just the place where Ebola started.
In addition we have provided the departments and units with practical and objective field manuals, SOP’s and modules for further training and to ensure the skills are passed on as quickly and thoroughly as possible.