Elephant Appeal: Rangers call in the paras

The British Army is training Kenyan officers to fight heavily armed poachers in a conflict that is becoming increasingly militarised.

Share

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.


To read more about The Independent's Elephant appeal click here

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Lada became a symbol of Russia’s failure to keep up with Western economies  

Our sanctions will not cripple Russia. It is doing a lot of the dirty work itself

Hamish McRae
The Israeli ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, has been dubbed ‘Bibi’s brain’  

Israel's propaganda machine is finally starting to misfire

Patrick Cockburn
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz