Two heavily armed poachers walk watchfully down a forest track. A barrage of gunfire comes from the bushes to their left. The poachers return fire, but are outgunned and outnumbered, and fall spinning on to the soft mud.
Kenyan rangers warily emerge from their hiding place in the undergrowth to check the bodies, remove the rifles and pat them down for useful intelligence. A British paratrooper strolls up to congratulate them on a “successful ambush”, which was mocked-up for this training exercise.
For the first time in many years, the British Army is playing a pivotal role in training under-equipped Kenyan rangers to fight the increasingly militarised poachers who have devastated the country’s elephant and rhino populations.
With conservationists warning that Kenya’s elephants could be virtually wiped out within a decade, anti-poaching efforts are seen as more critical than ever. But the rangers, underpaid and inferior in both numbers and weaponry, have to date had limited success in deterring poachers lured by the vast financial rewards that outweigh the risks of being caught or even killed.
“These are brave, brave men,” Captain Ben Neary, who led this first training course, said of the rangers. “We [the Army] have the luxury of operating in big groups. These guys do four-man patrols for up to six hours with very little support.”
Over three days at the British Army base 200km north of Nairobi, paratroopers more used to facing down insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan than poachers, drilled 50 rangers from the Kenya Wildlife Service and Kenya Forest Service in patrolling, snap ambushes and first aid.
Although the two “poachers” were “shot dead” in the final exercise, Captain Neary insisted that the emphasis is on arrest and disruption of poaching activities. Nevertheless, sometimes rangers have no choice but to shoot, he said, and the paratroopers have “taken training right up to the point where they are using lethal force pre-emptively.”
If a group of poachers “is known to be very volatile, very aggressive… sometimes arrest isn’t possible,” he said.
If at times the rangers appear to be fighting a war, it is perhaps because they are. They frequently face well-trained poachers armed with machine guns and sophisticated night vision and satellite equipment to track the animals. The fight is increasingly uneven, and scores of rangers, equipped with outdated rifles, have died in the line of duty.
Many of those on the course said they had been involved in a gunfight with poachers or illegal loggers, while some had laid ambushes that had failed, or only partially succeeded.
But mostly the poachers are never seen, stealing into parks during the dead of night and outwitting the dozen or so rangers patrolling that particular area. By the time the rangers hear the gunshot signalling that an elephant or rhino has been killed, it is too late.
Benard Ngeywo, 32, a sergeant who took part in the training, said the skills they had been taught were crucial in giving rangers the confidence to take on the poachers. In a typical month, he said, rangers might arrest five poachers or loggers, but another 20 would escape with their lucrative haul thanks to their often intimate knowledge of the rangers’ tactics, and roaming grounds.
“Morale has been a bit low,” he admitted. “But this training has given us confidence. They [the poachers] are not going to escape now, we are sure of that.” Kenya is facing its worst wildlife crisis since the slaughter of the 1970s and 1980s that prompted an international ban on the sale of ivory. In less than 40 years, Kenya’s elephant population has declined from 167,000 to just 35,000, and wildlife experts warn that Kenya will lose most of its elephants if global demand, particularly in China, continues to soar.
Last year, 382 elephants were killed for their ivory in Kenya, but official figures are notoriously modest, with the actual death toll thought to be as much as two or three times higher.
Conservationists argue that the rangers only form a small part of the picture. Rangers are important, but other things need to be done, said Nigel Hunter, head of development at East African Wildlife Society, to reduce the emphasis on what he calls the “guns and boots” element. “You need really good information networks, intelligence. You need local people on your side, and not on the other side,” he said.
But when the financial rewards are so high, it is an uphill battle. The poachers who run the biggest risks can earn as much as $50 to $100 per kilogram (an average elephant tusk can weigh around 13kg), and the price goes up and up as it moves along the chain. By the time it reaches the end market – invariably the Far East – it can reach as much as $3,000 (£1,840) per kilo. Rhino horn, coveted for its supposed healing properties, is even more valuable, fetching as much as $65,000 a kilo.
Many are pinning their hopes on a new Kenyan wildlife bill that is awaiting presidential approval and could become law within just a few days.
It is expected to engage for the first time private landowners and communities, and would include incentives and financial compensation to encourage them to protect, and not kill, the animals. Some 60 per cent of Kenya’s game roams outside of protected national parks, and increasingly encroach on villages and livestock.
Perhaps even more crucially, the bill will overhaul the penalties imposed on poachers, and will include stiff jail terms and fines. At present, magistrates typically hand down small fines and let poachers off with a slap on the wrist.
But few expect miracles overnight. Even with tougher penalties, corruption is likely to remain a significant impediment to deterring poachers. In the past three years, less than 5 per cent of those charged with poaching have been prosecuted, and only a handful of those sent to jail.