Rangers in the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Kenya
Night falls, and on a hilltop the team of armed men hunker down so that their silhouettes don't stand out against the moonlight. Infra-red 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 mobilise 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 with the latest 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 a gunshot wound.
To an outside observer, these men look like nothing less than 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 conservancy.
However, that doesn't mean that they aren't engaged in a bloody and desperate conflict.
"We are fighting a war – a long war – against people who are organised 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 new battle is being fought across Africa with ever-increasing brutality – one between those seeking 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 now 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 dizzy heights.
Ivory often trades at the same price per gram 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 specialise in the trade of illegal drugs, human trafficking or weapons.
A wildlife ranger demonstrating the weaponry used to defend animals from poachers in Kenya’s Lewa Wildlife Conservancy
These days, poaching, I learn, is not conducted by bow and arrow. Instead, an AK-47 is the 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 £11 billion (€13 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 organisation 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. In 2007, it was 13. It's estimated that around 25,000 elephants are being poached per year for their ivory – an average of one every 20 minutes.
The previous night I had gone on patrol with another unit of poacher hunters, this time from the Ol Pejeta conservancy, located a short distance from where their comrades in Lewa are based. 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 placed in the surrounding villages that a poaching raid was being planned. Everyone was combat-ready.
These men had the latest weaponry, too – all top-of-the-range equipment. They also had no illusion about the dangers they were facing. In the last decade, a third more wildlife rangers have been killed in Africa than British troops in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. They made graphically clear to me exactly how unambiguously hot this war has become.
"A report came in on the radio that the poachers were active," Ol Pejeta unit leader Jackson Kamunya told me about his most recent operation. "We mobilised 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 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 (NSFW)
This month, at a conference hosted by David Cameron and supported by Prince Charles, the world is gathering in London 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, 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 is that if action is not taken – urgently – then present projections indicate there will no longer be enough rhinos left for a sustainable gene pool. Elephants face being wiped out 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 grizzly 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.
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