Rangers training in Samburu National Reserve.
Rangers training in Samburu National Reserve. All photos: Matjaz Krivic

On the Frontline With Rangers Fighting a ‘Just War’ Against Poachers

Rangers in Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve are fighting poachers and the impact of climate change – and it is far from a fair fight.

SAMBURU, Kenya – “If you run this slow from a group of poachers, you'll be massacred,” shouts Andy Martin, executive director of the Conservation Rangers Operating Worldwide (CROW) organisation. The rangers in training at the Samburu National Reserve in northern Kenya dutifully redoubled their efforts, following his directions under the sweltering sun.

The men and women here at Samburu – one of the world's most beautiful wildlife reserves – are manning the frontlines in the war against poaching. Their dedication, along with recent government legislation punishing poachers with life imprisonment and/or a fine of 20 million Kenyan shillings (£150,000), has helped turn the reserve into a success story. Much the same can be said for the entire country: Last year was the first in recorded history that not a single rhino was killed in Kenya.

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Rangers training in Samburu National Reserve.

Rangers training in Samburu National Reserve.

Unfortunately, however, that doesn't mean the war on poachers is as good as won. “Here at Samburu, no rhinos have been killed for the past five years,” said Gabriel Leparivo, one of the rangers at the park. “But not because the poachers are afraid of us or because of the harsh prison sentences. The much simpler and sadder explanation is that five years ago they killed the last one.” At 59, Leparivo is something of an elder statesman among the Samburu rangers. With his burly physique, he looks at least 15 years younger. He has worked at the reserve for over three decades; seen and survived everything.

“So much has changed since I first came here,” Leparivo said. “But the consequences of climate change are of an altogether different magnitude. Several rivers used to run around these parts. Now there's only one. It's gotten so hot and dry that the soil is turning to dust. Life has never been harder, both for the people and for the animals.”

In total there are 22 rangers, including four women.

In total there are 22 rangers, including four women.

Within the reserve, Leparivo is in charge of relations with the local community, which mostly consists of traditional herders. The ever-worsening drought, erosion and consequent loss of pasture lands led many of the herders to bring their livestock for grazing to the Samburu reserve. This brought about a marked worsening of the human-wildlife conflict. With climate change, it is not an exaggeration to say that the people and the wildlife of Kenya are now fighting each other for survival. And it is far from a fair fight.

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“Back in the 80s, when I was starting out as a ranger, we used to chase lone poachers,” Leparivo said. “Then the changes in legislation were brought about. But the entire continent changed as well – so many wars have broken out. Around here, we felt the consequences of the conflict in nearby Somalia. Organised groups of well-armed Somalian poachers, mostly affiliated with the various militias, began to make raids on our reserve. For us, those were the most difficult times of all. We were poorly equipped and trained, and they had a whole war machine behind them.”

A CROW instructor leads a training exercise.

A CROW instructor leads a training exercise.

Leparivo spoke to VICE World News while he was observing his younger ranger comrades train in martial arts. He went on to relate that the decades of fighting poachers had cost him a number of friends.

“Today,” he said, “the poachers who try to breach our borders are relatively few and far between. We got that situation under control. We also really grew as rangers, helped by the training provided by the CROW organisation. Now we can not only handle most imaginable situations, but we've also got pretty good at predicting. But times are still hard, since the greatest threat to wildlife now comes from within, meaning from our local Samburu community. The people here have begun to see the animals – especially elephants – as direct competition for water and farmland. Elephants are now often killed without even bothering to collect their tusks. Some have actually been killed out of revenge. Every other week we come across a fresh carcass. It is a horrible, horrible thing.”

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For a moment, Leparivo stopped polishing the black military boots in his hands and gazed at the ground. The Samburu's eldest ranger was convinced brute force alone could not preserve the precarious symbiosis between humans and animals. He was delighted to report that he had started to sense a great deal of progress in the local community's outlook.

“It's the people, you know,” he said. “Only the people here can prevent the parks and the reserves to be slowly turned into open-air natural-history museums. You could say wildlife preservation offers an enlightened business model. With the help of civilised tourism, the locals will be able to survive. This is part of the reason the recent pandemic came as such a horrible blow to us all.”

A ranger from the anti-poaching unit with a specially trained tracking dog.

A ranger from the anti-poaching unit with a specially trained tracking dog.

The trio of international instructors, who have dedicated their time to the training of the local rangers for free, were not of the sort to hide before the scorching sun. Patiently and attentively, they went through the checklist: Knife-fighting, opponent neutralisation, jumping from a speeding vehicle, martial arts, patrol formations, marksmanship, weapon maintenance, offensive and defensive tactics. 

The 22 rangers in their care – 4 of them women – followed their every word. Discipline was high, almost military-like, but the general atmosphere was much more relaxed. 

“My profession – my mission – is to protect the weak,” said Martin, head of the international instructor team. Hailing from Piedmont in northwestern Italy, Martin spent some time serving in the Italian army, then took to sub-contracting for various private security firms.

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The natural world has always been his greatest passion. When he learned about the sordid background of the international ivory and rhino trades, he knew he needed to join the fight straight away. In 2007, he travelled to South Africa to undergo ranger training. He spent the next few years serving in private reserves all over Africa, only to become intimately acquainted with everything that was wrong — the intentional raising of wild animals for hunting purposes, rampant corruption and the rangers' collaboration with the poachers were some of the most chilling examples.

“I wanted to fill a void,” Martin said. “And I soon got my opportunity. In the US, where I had a company at the time, an organisation called Conservation Rangers Operating Worldwide sprang into existence in 2016. I knew the founders – hell, I used to work with one of them in Pakistan. In 2017, I was made executive director.”

A team of local and international rangers training in Samburu National Reserve.

A team of local and international rangers training in Samburu National Reserve.

The CROW organisation is organised around its carefully trained roster of volunteers. Currently, 50 ranger-instructors are counted among its ranks. All they ask for when approached by the national parks or reserves to help them drill their staff is lodgings and help with managing the local logistics. The rest is arranged and funded by them, including plane tickets.

“At CROW, we are always looking for highly motivated people; those driven by something other than the desire to make a quick buck. So I can tell you we've got some pretty special people with us by now,” Martin said. “A lot of them come from a military background. Most are obsessed with nature, especially the wild and all its animals…They say there's no such thing as a just war. But ours is.” With that, he re-joined his two instructor colleagues. The German instructor was a seasoned sniper, while the Italian was a fellow ex-member of the national military. Laughing in the sun, the three seasoned warriors reclaimed the training grounds for the benefit of the local rangers.

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The local rangers live along various entry points to the national reserve, with some situated within the reserve itself. The majority reside on the outskirts of a struggling small town called Archer's Post, located by the key road connecting central Kenya to the north.

A CROW instructor leads a training exercise.

A CROW instructor leads a training exercise.

A decade ago, the World Bank chipped in towards building the rangers' lodgings, but they have deteriorated since. There is no running water; the rangers' families have got used to drawing the ever saltier liquid from a deep well. There is also no electricity, though a pair of small solar panels provide sufficient power to maybe charge up a cell phone or two.

This means that the rangers are sharing the life of the local pastoral communities, completely cut off from the urban centres and often completely reliant on the elements.

“When I applied for the job, I knew very little about poaching and the situation at the national reserve,” said Eunice Lenyakopiro, one of the four women taking part in the CROW training exercise. “All I wanted was to help protect the animals. I've always felt a strong connection to them.”

“I’ve learned such a great deal,” she said. “These training exercises make me feel much more confident and prepared to take on the ones trying to destroy the ones we protect. You know, it's a war out there.”

Rangers from the anti-poaching unit during their night patrol in Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya.

Rangers from the anti-poaching unit during their night patrol in Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya.

Lenyakopiro, a former runner, joined the reserve in 2014, just like her husband Joshua Kakai Lesorgol. During our visit, Lesorgol was still badly shaken by the morning's find of a dead young female elephant. She had been killed by local herders who shot them with automatic rifles.

“I used to be a shepherd myself,” he told VICE World News. “I used to come across the wild animals all the time. But I wouldn't dream of killing one. I simply can't understand how anyone would do such a thing. The elephants are our best friends, it is one of the foundations of our Samburu culture. Killing an elephant is taboo.”

Lesorgol is considered to be one of the preserve's most trusted young rangers. “We need more men,” Lesorgal told VICE World News. “Our capabilities are stretched. We're working virtually non-stop. We also need more weapons, vehicles and gas. We're neither adequately trained nor paid for our work. It's hard. But all that doesn't begin to touch my motivation. I do what I do because of my profound love of nature. And also because I want to provide a good education for my children. Nothing in Kenya is free of charge, and it is only in schools that our kids can learn the true importance of nature preservation.”