#2. Animals Will Try to Kill You
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We're out there risking our lives to protect endangered wildlife, and it would be nice if they'd return the favor and let us pass through the jungle without trying to murder the shit out of us. But no. This is an important distinction between real wild animals and those seen in a cartoon. Elephants, buffaloes, and even lions are out there stalking us while we stalk the people stalking them. It's like a Scooby-Doo chase sequence without any of the whimsy. And if they feel threatened by our presence, they will charge without warning. They don't give one two-ton shit about the fact that we're there to help them.
International Elephant Foundation
"Dammit, Dumbo. We're dressed in camouflage and packing heavy artillery to help you!"
Luckily, rangers usually are not injured by the animals. However, the poachers often are, so maybe some unconscious part of them does understand that we're on their side, or maybe they've learned which groups of people pose the bigger threat.
In one incident, an elephant trampled a poacher who was going after its tusks. Elephants weigh several thousand pounds -- when an animal that big gets going, there isn't a damn thing you can do about it. Another time, a buffalo (which is strong enough to break a snare) gored a poacher against a tree, Pamplona style. And if you miss while shooting at a lion, you're going to immediately find yourself in the deepest shit of your life.
Figuratively, then literally.
So even though we're out there fighting the assholes who are driving these animals to extinction for money, we might find ourselves fighting for our lives against the same animals.
#1. Most Poachers Are Starving
And here's where things get even more complicated.
There are two types of poachers in the East African bush: those who are in it for the money, and those who are literally hunting for food. Believe it or not, many of them will trap and kill an elephant, haul away all the meat they can carry, but leave the tusks behind. At first glance, that seems insanely foolish; with the amount of money you can get for ivory or rhino horn, you could buy an entire McDonald's. But you have to remember there are no cars or carts out here, and these people are starving -- they need food now. Bringing back several hundred pounds of ivory means not bringing back several hundred pounds of meat for their families.
"Plus, the placebo-boners are what got me all the mouths to feed in the first place."
In the area we patrol, poaching for meat is quite common. So common, in fact, that doorstop delivery of illegal bushmeat is like the Amazon Fresh of rural Africa. In these areas, some people practice polygamy, which means very large families end up living on a comparatively meager income. And the weather patterns make rainfall erratic, so farming is a less-than-reliable way to put food on the table. Thus, either you kill whatever animal wanders into a trap and/or buy whatever meat you can, or your family starves.
Once, we caught a poacher who had just taken down an elephant. He pleaded not to be arrested, insisting he had only done it for the sake of his family, who had not eaten in days. We let him lead us back to his home with an armed escort and found that he was telling the truth -- he had a bunch of little children, none of whom had eaten in the past three days. Arresting a person like that would've been the most cartoonishly villainous thing possible, so we let him go.
But we declined his invitation to join in the feast.
And that's the sad truth; sure, there are a shitload of trophy hunters out there selling ivory and horns, but most of these "criminals" are desperate, starving people just trying to survive. So our job isn't simply protecting animals from people -- it's protecting them from the bad people, while realizing that even the worst of the poachers don't have much else going on in terms of opportunity. And all of this is driven by the fact that people thousands of miles away think ivory looks nice, or that rhino horn will somehow cure every chronic illness. Now try to explain that to future generations when they ask us where all of the elephants and rhinos went.
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