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Outgunned in the War on Elephants

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 6, 2013


There’s a devastating report in today’s New York Times on the mismatch between military-trained and armed poachers, and the park rangers who stand between them and Africa’s last remaining elephants.  Jeffrey Gettleman reports:

Just before dawn, the rangers were hunched over in prayer, facing east. They pressed their foreheads into the dry earth and softly whispered Koranic verses, their lips barely moving. A cool wind bit at their faces.

Djimet Seid

Djimet Seid

All of a sudden, Djimet Seid, the cook, said he heard “one war whoop — or maybe it was a scream.”

And then: “K-k-k-k-k-k-k,” the angry bark of a Kalashnikov assault rifle, opening up on fully automatic.

In an instant, an entire Chadian squad of rangers was cut down with alarming precision by elephant poachers who were skilled at killing more than just animals. Crouching in the bush, the poachers fired from a triangle of different spots, concealed and deadly accurate.

“If you go look at the infantry books, it’s exactly how you do a first light attack, exactly,” said Rian Labuschagne, a former paratrooper and now the manager of Zakouma National Park in southern Chad. “Our guys didn’t have a chance.”

Out here, among the spent bullet shells and the freshly dug graves, the cost of protecting wildlife is painfully clear. As ivory poaching becomes more militarized, with rebel groups and even government armies slaughtering thousands of elephants across Africa to cash in on record-high ivory prices, a horrible mismatch is shaping up. Wildlife rangers — who tend to be older, maybe a bit slower and incredibly knowledgeable about their environment and the ways of animals, but less so about infantry tactics — are wading into the bush to confront hardened soldiers.

The tactics employed by these new poachers are particularly alarming:

In Zimbabwe, poachers are spreading deadly poisons on elephant carcasses to kill vultures. By taking out the birds that serve as a natural early warning system that a kill has been made, the poachers make it even more dangerous for rangers because they have no idea when the poachers are around. In Mozambique, the authorities said that poachers have recently begun using land mines.

Kenya, which is considered tame compared with some of these other places, has lost six rangers this year, more than in recent memory. One of them was Florence Hadia Abae, pregnant and the mother of a small boy. In March, she was following the footprints of suspected poachers near Tsavo National Park, a fabled tourist destination, when a poacher popped out of the bush and shot her in the face.

One of her colleagues was killed in the same ambush, shot in the leg, then finished off with a short, brutish stroke of an ax.

“They had no idea what they were walking into,” said Rob Dodson, a British conservationist working near Tsavo.

What all this portends is the end of wild elephants in Africa:

Zakouma’s rangers are trying to make a last stand. The park’s once-great herd of elephants has been nearly exterminated. Ninety percent of it has been poached off in the past 10 years, one of the most drastic declines of an elephant population anywhere in Africa.

In 2002, there were 4,350 elephants; now maybe 450. Chad has endured several rebellions in recent years, sucking away resources from wildlife and creating instability along the Sudanese border, which allowed hordes of poachers to pour across. There has been only one confirmed birth of an elephant calf in the past two years.

“With all the shooting and stress,” Mr. Labuschagne said, “they don’t breed.”

Read the whole article here.


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