5 Ways Saving Wildlife Has Turned Into All-Out Warfare
Right this second, there are men with AK-47s fighting a guerrilla war over rhino horns and elephant tusks. Everything about poaching in Africa is utterly insane, even if you put aside the fact that the poachers are quickly driving animals to extinction.
We talked to Asgar Pathan, a ranger working for Care for the Wild, about his job battling poachers in the Kenyan bush, and we learned that even the most heavy-handed pro-wildlife documentaries barely scratch the surface of how crazy things have gotten ...
Poaching Is Just as Violent as the Drug Trade
So why is this a life-and-death game played by men with machine guns? Why do people continue to kill elephants for their tusks, even though the penalties for doing so go all the way up to life in prison? Well, like you see in the drug trade, the increased risk drives up the price of the ivory (Mufasa could've sold that elephant graveyard and retired a billionaire), and the same goes for rhino horns. And in a poor country like Kenya, that much money coming in through illegal channels leads to a whole lot of violence.
Hope your placebo-boners are worth it.
When you hear about someone whose job is to stop "poachers," you might assume it's some good-hearted animal lover reminding hunters that they're about to shoot the wrong creature. The reality is something closer to all-out war.
In 2013, over 13 tons of ivory were seized in the city of Mombasa alone. That sounds like a lot, but the loss was a drop in the bucket -- around 22,000 elephants are killed by poachers a year, producing nearly 3 million tons of illegal ivory. Those 13 captured tons did about as much financial damage to the industry as an overdue library book would to Robert Downey Jr. There are mountains of money to be made -- rhino horn is literally worth more than its weight in gold on the black market.
And worth almost half its weight in printer ink.
Why in the hell are horns and tusks in such huge demand? Are people turning them into gaudy hood ornaments? Well, ivory is always wanted for jewelry and carvings, restrictions notwithstanding, while rhino horn is sold illegally for medicinal uses in Asia, causing both demand and price to skyrocket (but not, as commonly believed, because people there think it's an aphrodisiac).
The risk of prison discourages casual poaching but simultaneously encourages poachers to straight up murder people rather than get caught. So now they go into the bush armed like Ted Nugent on a dinosaur safari.
Speaking of which ...
You Will Be Ambushed
Poachers carry surprisingly sophisticated weapons, on par with the local military. We're not talking about dudes running around in soccer jerseys with machetes -- they're decked out like the mercenaries from Predator. So we have to be pretty well-armed ourselves. The Kenyan military lends us not only soldiers, but also drones and helicopters.
We've bombed zero elephants, that we know of.
But even though we have better resources, the poachers have power in numbers. We always plan where we are going a day in advance, but then again, so do they. And a specific part of their planning involves staging ambushes, which they can easily pull off if we aren't careful.
A few months ago, some of our guys spotted a few poachers while out on patrol. The poachers bolted, and they gave chase. However, our guys didn't know that they had arrested many of these poachers' friends over the past year, and that this was all a setup. The rangers were led into a trap, where the poachers' comrades lying in wait opened fire and killed two of them.
Which is a really ineffective way of making us want to arrest you less.
As if the poachers themselves weren't dangerous enough, there are also opportunistic bandits stalking around, waiting to bushwhack us. We carry a lot of expensive weaponry and technology, and occasionally some contraband ivory or rhino horn that we've seized. That makes us a big fat target for greedy and/or desperate thieves. And then there are the illegal foresters -- yes, even the trees have poachers here. And they'll totally kill you, too -- the day before this interview, we caught six of them making charcoal for their families, and every single one was wielding bows and poisoned arrows (not guns, as those tend to be noisy).
And then there are the booby traps. Those are meant for the animals, of course, but the thing about traps is that they're remarkably indiscriminate about what triggers them. Anything can get snagged, from non-target animals (such as hyenas), to rangers, even to poachers who forgot where they put the damn things. In our territory alone, there are thousands of snare traps made with anything from telephone wire to the steel belts embedded inside tires, so be glad if the biggest hazard you face on a workday is "slippery bathroom tile."
Snares: Because you were never a fan of walking anyway.
On any given day, we have to take down around three or four of those snares, some of which are hidden so thoroughly that we occasionally completely miss them. The traps won't kill a human, but they can certainly slice open your skin or dislocate a bone, which isn't fun when you 1) now have to be untangled from the thing and 2) are stuck in the middle of the damned jungle.
That said, it's amazing how fast the animals learn to spot the traps -- the less-well-hidden ones are almost a waste of time, because the animals are smart enough to avoid them. Some gorillas have even figured out how to dismantle the traps set out for them, which kind of makes me wish we could hire them.
Informants Can Get You Killed
Just like a police narcotics squad, we rely on informants to get us the information that you can't find by walking into a bar with a hidden tape recorder and subtly shouting, "ANYONE KNOW WHERE I CAN SCORE SOME RHINO HORN?" It's turned into its own cottage industry; the informants get a small reward for each poacher they lead us to, or for tips on which areas we need to monitor.
This works way better than our original plan for "poacher ivory" bounties.
We also have a few informants buddying up with the poachers themselves, to supply us with better information. But some of them wind up actually becoming buddies with the poachers, and that's when things get dangerous.
When an informant rolls on us and starts working for the poachers (typically because they offer more money), the poachers arm them with the one thing more dangerous than a gun: a satellite phone. With that, a scout can inform poachers where we currently are and where we're planning on patrolling, giving them enough time to avoid us. Or, you know, to set up an ambush.
Plus, the Ambush app is pay-to-use, so they end up having to poach more.
All the informants and backstabbing and outright murder makes this job a little like The Departed if everyone had AK-47s. We had one informant tell us where some poachers planned to be and then turn around and tell those same poachers where we were going to ambush them. It turns out those poachers were his rivals, and he figured setting us up to fight each other would clear out a lot of hassle for him. And here's where we have to stop and remind ourselves: This is all over rhino horn.
Animals Will Try to Kill You
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.
"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.
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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