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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.
In ops somewhere in Africa.. A little surprise party being prepared for some unwanted visitors..We have begun making arrests and seizing weapons. Several separate successful ops. Here are two suspects with weapons and contraband. Aluta continua!
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! 🙂
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.
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
On my way to do further training of Zimbabwe Republic Police and scouts in the Nyaminyami area I received a message from a third party to “report to Office of the President in Kariba” (OP is the Zimbabwe Central Intelligence Organization- the local secret police goons).
After a full and thorough interrogation I was told that I was “not allowed to train anyone and if I did I would be arrested”. When I protested that I had been given a two year residence permit in order to train anti poaching personnel, that I was training police with the authority of Police HQ and with the permission of the appropriate authority for the area, I was told to shut up, that they were “above the police”, and that even if I had done nothing wrong they would find a reason to arrest me and throw away the key unless I stayed “away from the area and did no training in Zimbabwe”. No explanation was given and they clearly didn’t care if it was obvious that they are involved in poaching or trafficking. They were so stupid, arrogant especially incompetent that they actually bragged that two Europeans working for NGO’s in the Kariba area were keeping them informed of all activities in the parks and adjacent wildlife areas, and that if I did any anti poaching work with the police or parks that they would know immediately.
I ceased all anti poaching training, ops and other assistance in Zimbabwe and we only used Zim as our base of residence, continuing our efforts all over Africa, while we planned to leave in good time, staying well away from the Kariba area and not saying a word about Zimbabwe.
Unfortunately CIO didn’t stop there and we began to hear via third parties that CIO were making more threats against me, obviously to ensure I didn’t come back to the area. They wanted me and anyone like far away from Matusadona and Nyaminyami. I subsequently heard that another well-known international anti poaching organization was told to stay away and also threatened.
Aside from the worry that I might be “picked up” or disappear without my family knowing every time I landed at Harare airport on my return from anti poaching training and ops in other countries, we had to sit and watch the number of reports of elephants being poached in the Matusadona, Nyaminyami and other areas sky rocket to the point where there are now almost daily reports. Previously in one of the main areas we had been training and advising we had reached a point where there had been zero eles poached in many months.
We finally scraped together enough to get out and are determined to redouble our efforts in those places where we are welcomed and where we are currently enjoying unprecedented successes. However, we left Zimbabwe with heavy hearts.
Now you know who is behind the poaching of the elephants in Northern Zimbabwe and why we left Zimbabwe. Mugabe’s government is desperate for cash and this is why they are going to the extremes they are, such as tearing wild baby elephants away from their mothers and herds and sending them to China. What people don’t realise though is that Mugabe’s political party and his secret police minions are desperate for cash too. CIO needs cash to pay its secret informers who spy on their neighbours and report any opposition. That cash has to come from somewhere and whilst the official government departments use legal but unethical means to raise funds, the political and secret security appartus and often the army use any means they can.
They (CIO and ZANU PF) are nothing less than an organized crime syndicate. They are behind the poaching in Zimbabwe and as they become more desperate they are going to “allow” more of it. Don’t be fooled when there is a report of Zambian poachers being shot. That is just them allowing parks or police to deal with the competition. When CIO is behind it no one does a thing. With their tentacles reaching every corner of every village they could shut down the poaching in Zimbabwe in a day.
Zimbabweans cannot talk about any of this or even comment on this post for example. It is one thing to take on National Parks for exporting baby elephants legally albeit unethically but they cannot breathe a word against CIO and mention the fact that they are the biggest and most ruthless mafia in Zimbabwe.
Edit: Thank you for all the words of support. My work with Chengeta Wildlife will continue in Malawi, Guinea and elsewhere. Where there is a political will to fight poaching and support rule of law this war can be won!
As long as we can get on the ground we will keep fighting this war. If you can, please donate. If you can’t donate, please spread the word. We are an organization with zero overhead and all funds go to our work in the field.
Originally posted in National Geographic as
Written by Patricia Raxter and Rory Young
Across the globe poaching and wildlife crime are decimating species, from charismatic megafauna like African elephants and rhinos to small and adorable pangolins to brightly colored parrots. An estimated 100,000 African elephants were poached for their ivory from 2011 to 2013. Since 2007, rhino poaching has increased 9,000 percent.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, Earth has lost 50 percent of its wildlife in the past 40 years. While habitat loss and environmental degradation clearly take their toll, poaching for human consumption has emerged as a key factor driving this loss.
As organized crime has penetrated the illegal wildlife trade, it has gotten more sophisticated and almost impossible to stop. We’re in the midst of an environmental crime crisis which could, if left unchecked, have irreversible consequences.
Increasingly, conservationists and policymakers are turning to technology solutions to combat wildlife crime, including drones, satellite imagery, predictive analysis, DNA analysis, hidden cameras, GPS location devices, and apps.
In some regions, new technologies are already making an impact. For example, organizations seeking demand reduction are skillfully using such technologies to change the habits of Chinese consumers, the world’s largest market for wildlife products.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) has reached hundreds of millions of Chinese through social media applications like Wechat. IFAW’s augmented reality elephant, “Laura,” is spreading awareness of wildlife through “live” interactions with Chinese consumers, most of whom have never seen a living elephant.
At the supply end of the chain in Africa, where elephants are poached by the tens of thousands each year and rhino poaching has reached historic levels, drones are increasingly being pushed as an integral part of the solution.
Anti-poaching drones have already been deployed in Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, and Namibia.
Tech challenges staged by the U.S. government, private industry, and conservation organizations aim to inspire thinkers and technologists to crack some of the difficulties associated with drone use: their operation in austere terrain, their energy and power needs, range limitations, streaming capabilities, and cost.
The push to adopt new technologies to combat poaching arises from what has been characterized as an arms race between poachers and wildlife rangers. It’s not uncommon for poachers to be armed with automatic weapons, silencers, copious amounts of ammunition, and even night vision goggles. They may even have access to satellite phones and hand-held GPS devices to coordinate with traffickers and stash trophies.
Some poachers, like the Sudanese Janjaweed and other heavily armed gangs on horseback, the Lord’s Resistance Army, and RENAMO, have been trained in military tactics, enhancing their capabilities and intensifying the threat to park rangers and local communities.
Perhaps the most highly developed and tested drone program, to combat rhino poaching in South Africa, was created at the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS).
Working with AirShephard, a nonprofit focused on aerial solutions to the poaching crisis, UMIACScut rhino poaching entirely in one area in South Africa that previously had lost as many as 19 rhinos a month.
The program combines big data analytics and satellite imagery to understand better how poachers, wildlife, and rangers use the environment and which factors increase or decrease the likelihood an animal will be poached at a specific time and place.
To predict when and where poaching will occur, the analytics rely on algorithms that take into account such details as the phases of the moon, road networks, water holes, past poaching incidents, and the satellite-tracked movements of animals.
New data are acquired daily from drones, tour operators, rangers on patrol, and GPS collars on individual animals. In aggregrate, the analytics reveal patterns of poaching attacks and can predict with 90 percent accuracy where poachers will strike.
According to UMIACS, most rhino poaching occurs near a roadway on or near the full moon and between 6:30 and 8:30 at night.
Using this information, rangers are pre-deployed to areas holding rhinos and other vulnerable animals. When the drone spots potential poachers, it signals a command center that alerts rangers, who immediately can move in to prevent animals from being killed and arrest the criminals.
These tools have amazing potential, but they aren’t a silver bullet or a panacea. The usefulness of drones for tracking poachers in real time is limited by several factors.
Drones require skilled operators, significant infrastructure support, and robust and voluminous data.
The powerful UMIACS package tested in South Africa involved a team of outside experts to: analyze data about past poaching events, generate algorithms to map out flight plans, operate and maintain the drones, and analyze and transmit the data to ranger forces.
Also needed, and sorely lacking in many African countries, if drone programs are to succeed: well-trained and well-equipped ranger forces to intervene and make arrests.
It’s not uncommon for ranger forces to lack vehicles, weapons, communications equipment, and even basic supplies like water bottles and boots. In some countries, rangers go months without being paid. Most important, rangers often don’t get essential basic training.
There are other constraints on drones as tools to fight poaching. They can fly only for short periods, which limits their coverage area. Although they perform well in open terrain, they’re much less effective in densely forested habitats. They don’t do well in rain, and dust and grit can hobble them.
To be truly effective, drones need thermal imaging capabilities to spot poachers hiding in the bush, sophisticated imaging technology to scan and zoom in on the land, and to be able to fly at altitudes where they can’t easily be seen. Boosting their capabilities in these ways is very costly.
Even if the software is donated, the whole package—the drones themselves, their operators, and the control station—can amount to $500,000 a year. Funding for such operations simply doesn’t exist in most parks and wildlife areas in Africa.
AirShephard is now trying to raise money to fund 40 to 50 teams across southern Africa. At the low end, these could run to $20 million a year.
Before conservation dollars are thrown at drone technologies, another question must be asked: How effective are they at stopping poaching of animals other than iconic megafauna like elephants and rhinos?
Sadly, the current poaching crisis may just be the beginning of wave after wave of attacks on various different animals, as sophisticated organized crime networks expand their interests and operations.
Pangolins, for example, are now the world’s most trafficked mammal, endangered in every part of their range because of the illegal trade. It’s unclear whether drones could have any effect on pangolin poaching—or the plunder of other small mammals, birds, and reptiles that’s destroying ecosystems across the globe.
Another question: How would drones be used outside parks and reserves? In Kenya, 85 percent of wildlife lives in communally held lands. In these populated areas, how could a drone determine friend from foe?
In Tanzania, it’s estimated that up to 60,000 people hunt illegally on the western side of Serengeti alone. Drone technology can’t defeat such an onslaught.
Despite the increase in arrests of poachers in Kruger and the efficacy of the drone program in one area of the park, rhinos continue to be poached at an alarming rate: Last year 1,215 were killed, 21 percent more than in 2013.
During one week this April, wildlife authorities found 31 poached rhinos in Namibia’s Etosha National Park, where drones have been used since late 2013. This suggests that drones may be pushing poachers into less well protected areas rather than contributing to an overall decrease in poaching.
A proven strategy is to combat poaching with skilled, intelligence-driven anti-poaching units that rely on networks of informants within local communities and deployment of trained undercover officers.
The goal is to understand every link in the poaching chain: Who kills the animals, and where and when, what routes poachers follow out of the kill zones, who conducts the trade in wildlife parts.
These programs also emphasize the importance of crime scene investigations to build solid cases against poachers and achieve convictions.
Investigative skills associated with tracking can be used to gather high value actionable intelligence on both non-state armed groups and criminal poachers.
With training, rangers can bring to bear evidence such as leftover food scraps, trash, cigarette and alcohol packets, footprints, tire tread marks, spent cartridges in determining where poachers originated, their group size, how long ago a camp was occupied, transportation methods, strike ranges, and how poachers’ support networks function. Such information can help build legal cases to bring down entire poaching networks.
Preventive, proactive intelligence-driven programs focus nurturing sympathetic sources within local communities and tapping their knowledge. This approach is safer for rangers and conservation professionals—and for wildlife. It’s also far less costly and is more sustainable than technology-driven approaches.
The Ruvuma Elephant Project (REP) is active in the wildlife corridor connecting the Selous Game Reserve, in Tanzania, and Niassa National Park, in Mozambique.
REP focuses on training game scouts and rangers, many recruited from local communities, in anti-poaching skills as well as in how to prepare cases against poachers.
REP teams patrol inside the parks to help prevent illegal activity such as setting snares, poison, and traps. They use financial incentives to develop a network of informers who share their knowledge (read: intelligence) about potential poaching and trafficking activities.
With such community support, REP has been able to identify poachers and financiers and make arrests.
In addition, through education programs, mitigation of human/wildlife conflict, and the development of local businesses, REP attempts to address some of the root causes of community participation in poaching.
These include poverty, unemployment, lack of understanding about the value of wildlife and conservation, and poor relationships between wildlife authorities and local communities.
Once the project got under way, the area saw a significant drop in poaching in a short period. According to Save the Elephants, the number of poached carcasses dropped from 216 the year before the project was put in place to 68 the next year.
In two years the REP recorded “the seizure of 1,582 snares; 25,586 illegal timber (pieces); 175 elephant tusks; 805 firearms; 1,531 rounds of ammunition; 6 vehicles; 15 motorcycles; and the arrest of 563 people.”
A similar intelligence-driven program in Malawi, Chengeta Wildlife working alongside the Department of National Parks & Wildlife (DNPW), provides 30 days of anti-poaching training to senior park staff in national parks and wildlife reserves, as well as 30 days of field training.
Malawi depends on tourism for 60 percent of its foreign currency earnings, so curbing poaching is crucial for the country’s economy and for the security of its human communities.
Outlined in “A Field Manual for Anti-Poaching Activities,” by Rory Young and Yakov Alekseyev, the training—which costs $18,000—has proved incredibly effective. During one exercise, an anti-poaching unit took down an entire poaching syndicate and identified key individuals in other important networks.
The training bears fruit because it is comprehensive, focusing on all aspects of poaching in an area.
Rangers learn to gather information on poaching activities before they set out on patrols—including who the poachers are and where they come from, which animals are targeted, which times of the day are favored by poachers, and which ingress and egress routes are used.
Rangers also learn how to investigate crime scenes, run informants, plan and conduct undercover operations, track and apprehend poachers in challenging environments, and contribute to successful prosecutions.
The recent training in Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve resulted in 81 arrests in just two weeks of the field training phase. To put this into perspective, only 21 arrests were made in all of 2014.
For cash-strapped wildlife departments, it’s essential for solutions to poaching to be cost-effective.
An important component of the Malawi program is its focus on creating in-house training teams so that the wildlife department doesn’t have to pay for outside expertise every time.
Patricia Raxter is an intelligence analyst with the U.S. Army and is currently writing her dissertation on wildlife crime in Africa at Old Dominion University.
Rory Young, Director of Chengeta Wildlife, is an expert tracker who has dedicated his life to wildlife protection. Young recently coauthored A Field Manual For Anti-Poaching Activities, which provides workable solutions to poaching.
Malawian ranger Kambanie Masamba and his fellow rangers arrested 81 poachers in just 2 weeks during our last training session. After their phenomenal success he sent the following message.
“You did your part and we did our part, once again thanks!”