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The Race to Save Elephants Being Wiped Out by Organized Crime and Jihadists

The illegal poaching industry in South Africa has gotten so profitable that criminal gangs and even Islamist extremists are getting involved.
February 12, 2014, 4:20pm

Rangers in the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Kenya. Photos by Johnnie Shand Kydd

Night falls, and on a hilltop the team of armed men hunker down so that their silhouettes don't stand out against the moonlight. Infrared goggles have been issued and radio communications established with the two-man units patrolling through the surrounding bush. Their orders are clear: At the first sign of an incursion, they are to mobilize their vehicles, congregate on the danger zone, take the fight to those assaulting their land, and strike against them hard.

They have the necessary weaponry. Each man has been issued a top-of-the-line automatic rifle, in most cases the German Heckler & Koch G3. Along with the goggles, they have the latest webbing and medical equipment, including bandages, designed for the US military, to stem the bleeding from gunshot wounds.

To an outside observer, these men look like a front-line army unit. In fact they are wildlife rangers, ones tasked with the crucial job of protecting the endangered species housed amid the fertile beauty of central Kenya’s Lewa Wildlife Conservancy.

"We are fighting a war—a long war—against people who are organized and are growing in number, year by year and day by day," the men’s commander, Edward Ndiritu, tells me. "The poachers have started hitting every conservancy, every park. If we don’t act, these animals die."

A battle is being fought across Africa with ever-increasing brutality—one between those who seek to protect the continent’s wildlife and those who seek to hunt them to feed the seemingly insatiable global demand, not least in Asia, for endangered animal parts.

At the heart of this conflict is money, particularly the vast sums that can be made from trading in elephant ivory and rhinoceros horn. The emergence of an affluent middle class in countries like China and Vietnam—who still see these items as aspirational or medicinal—has driven prices to dizzying heights.

Ivory often trades at the same price per ounce as gold. Rhino horn is more than twice that. With such sums available, the profits to be reaped have attracted a whole new type of player into exotic animal hunting: criminal gangs who normally specialize in the trade of illegal drugs, human trafficking, or weapons.

A wildlife ranger demonstrating the weaponry used to defend animals against poachers in Kenya’s Lewa Wildlife Conservancy

The AK-47 is the poacher's weapon of choice. In Uganda, a helicopter was allegedly used to mow down some 22 elephants from the air. There have also been reports of explosives and fragmentation bullets. Basically, all the most effective instruments of murder are being deployed to feed a global trade now estimated to be worth up to $19 billion annually.

It's not just criminals getting involved; some of the world’s most disreputable military groups are also joining the hunt. Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army poaches extensively in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Al Shabaab, the Somalian al Qaeda offshoot behind last year's massacre at Nairobi’s Westgate mall, is so linked to the trade that one study of the organization described ivory as being its "white jihad."

The resulting upswing in the number of animals being slaughtered is stark. The South African government has just revealed that some 1,004 rhino were killed in the country during 2013, up from only 13 in 2007. It's estimated that around 25,000 elephants are being poached for their ivory every year—an average of one every 20 minutes.

The night before I set out with Edward Ndiritu and his men, I had gone on patrol with another unit of poacher hunters, this time from the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, located maybe 30 miles from Lewa. We quietly worked our way through the undergrowth, checking the perimeter fence for any sign of damage. There had been reports from their intelligence agents in the surrounding villages that a poaching raid was being planned. Everyone was combat-ready.

"A report came in on the radio that the poachers were active," Ol Pejeta unit leader Jackson Kamunya told me, speaking about his most recent operation. "We mobilized the helicopter. It meant we got there ahead of them so we could set our ambush. We could see them, all armed. Then everyone started shooting."

The strain this constant danger imposes on those on the ground is immense. Paul Nderito has been an armed patrolman at Ol Pejeta for two years. "Always I think I might die every day," he told me. "For the first few months I had nightmares every time I slept. But we have no choice. The animals are innocents. They do not know what they are carrying. They’re innocent like children, and so, like children, we must protect them."

An elephant slaughtered for its ivory

On February 13, at a London conference hosted by David Cameron and supported by Prince Charles, the world will be gathering to address what it can do to help combat the global poaching crisis. Some 50 world leaders are scheduled to attend, including many from across Africa, as well as from the Asian countries where the main consumers of ivory and rhino horn can be found. It's already being described as the "Kyoto of conservation."

Too often in the past the anti-poaching fight has been thwarted by weak laws, along with a lack of effective enforcement and inadequate penalties handed to perpetrators. The event will provide a unique opportunity to try to stem the trade and save the species being targeted.

That is why the newspapers I own—the Independent, i, Independent on Sunday, and _Evening Standard—_are campaigning to ensure an international plan of action is adopted to crack down on the global illegal wildlife trade. Over Christmas, our readers donated hundreds of thousands of pounds for conservationists working in the field to support anti-poaching teams like those I saw in action at Lewa and Ol Pejeta.

The reality according to present projections is that if action is not taken—urgently—there will no longer be enough rhinos left to support a sustainable gene pool. Elephants face extinction in the wild within two decades. The time for action is running out.

On one of my last days in East Africa, an official from the Kenyan Wildlife Service took me to see the grisly reality of the poachers’ work. He showed me what remained of an elephant carcass after it had been slaughtered for its ivory. The body had been butchered—the animal’s head sliced half off so that the tusks could be pulled from its skull.

"Every piece of ivory sold is an elephant that has been killed," he said as we stared down at what had recently been one of the world’s great living mammals. "We cannot stop this by ourselves. We need help."

Let us all hope they get it.

Evgeny Lebedev is the owner of the Independent titles and the London Evening Standard_. Follow him on Twitter: @mrevgenylebedev_

For more information about the Independent_’s elephant appeal and how to get involved, go to the campaign's homepage._