Rangers in Isolated Central Africa Uncover Grim Cost of Protecting Wildlife

Jeffrey Gettleman — The New York Times

December 31, 2012

All of a sudden, Djimet Seid, the cook, said he heard “one war whoop — or maybe it was a scream.”

And then: “K-k-k-k-k-k-k,” the angry bark of a Kalashnikov assault rifle, opening up on fully automatic.

In an instant, an entire Chadian squad of rangers was cut down with alarming precision by elephant poachers who were skilled at killing more than just animals. Crouching in the bush, the poachers fired from a triangle of different spots, concealed and deadly accurate.

“If you go look at the infantry books, it’s exactly how you do a first light attack, exactly,” said Rian Labuschagne, a former paratrooper and now the manager of Zakouma National Park in southern Chad. “Our guys didn’t have a chance.”

Out here, among the spent bullet shells and the freshly dug graves, the cost of protecting wildlife is painfully clear. As ivory poaching becomes more militarized, with rebel groups and even government armies slaughtering thousands of elephants across Africa to cash in on record-high ivory prices, a horrible mismatch is shaping up. Wildlife rangers — who tend to be older, maybe a bit slower and incredibly knowledgeable about their environment and the ways of animals, but less so about infantry tactics — are wading into the bush to confront hardened soldiers.

The outcome, too often, is not only firefights and battles, but also coldblooded murder, with dozens of African wildlife rangers killed in recent years, many in revenge-driven ambushes. Ivory poachers, it seems, are becoming increasingly wily and ruthless.

This summer, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a militia of infamous elephant poachers sneaked up to the headquarters of a wildlife reserve and killed 5 people and 14 okapi, a rare animal with a giraffelike neck and zebralike legs. One guard who narrowly escaped said the attackers sliced open the chest of a downed colleague and ate his heart. In Zimbabwe, poachers are spreading deadly poisons on elephant carcasses to kill vultures. By taking out the birds that serve as a natural early warning system that a kill has been made, the poachers make it even more dangerous for rangers because they have no idea when the poachers are around. In Mozambique, the authorities said that poachers have recently begun using land mines.

Kenya, which is considered tame compared with some of these other places, has lost six rangers this year, more than in recent memory. One of them was Florence Hadia Abae, pregnant and the mother of a small boy. In March, she was following the footprints of suspected poachers near Tsavo National Park, a fabled tourist destination, when a poacher popped out of the bush and shot her in the face.

One of her colleagues was killed in the same ambush, shot in the leg, then finished off with a short, brutish stroke of an ax.

“They had no idea what they were walking into,” said Rob Dodson, a British conservationist working near Tsavo.

In the Zakouma attack, which happened about 50 miles outside the park boundaries in September, five rangers were killed on the spot; one remains missing and is presumed dead. Mr. Seid, the cook, was seriously wounded. The attack appeared to be revenge for a raid on a poachers’ camp, and much of the evidence points to the Sudanese military. For years, wildlife groups have blamed the janjaweed — Sudanese horseback raiders who traditionally work in tandem with the government military — for wiping out many of Central Africa’s elephant herds.

But specific evidence recovered from the poachers suspected of killing Zakouma’s rangers strengthens the Sudanese government link, the Chadian authorities and human rights groups say. A few weeks before the attack, Zakouma rangers raided a poachers’ camp nearby and discovered one uniform for Abu Tira, Sudan’s notorious paramilitary service, which has been blamed for burning down villages and committing other atrocities. The rangers also found several elephant tusks and a stamped leave slip from the Sudanese Army granting four soldiers permission to go to the Chadian border.

Most incriminating, though, were the digital photos recovered from a phone showing stacks of elephant carcasses that looked similar to photos from a horrific massacre of hundreds of elephants in Cameroon this year, suggesting that the Sudanese poachers who killed the Zakouma rangers may have been involved in one of the biggest single elephant slaughters in decades.

“This is not some random group of thugs,” said Jonathan Hutson, a spokesman for the Satellite Sentinel Project, a nonprofit group that helped analyze some of the evidence. “They’re poaching for profit to fund mass atrocities in Sudan.”

Officials at the United States Africa Command, based in Stuttgart, Germany, have also been helping analyze some of the forensics.

At first, Rabie A. Atti, a Sudanese government spokesman, reflexively dismissed the evidence.

“Pictures can be fabricated,” he said.

But then he added, “If there is concrete evidence, and someone is proven to be corrupt, he can be taken to court.”

There is something noble but quixotic about the 50 or so Zakouma rangers, many in their 40s, some even in their late 50s, turbans wrapped around their wrinkled, sandblasted faces, tasked with protecting a spectacularly beautiful but extremely isolated stretch of savanna in the middle of one of the poorest, least developed regions on earth. Even the architecture of Zakouma’s headquarters, with its crenulated, fortresslike walls, belies a sense of siege.

“Death can come any time,” said Adoum Abdoulaye, a ranger at Zakouma. “I’m always thinking about it.”

And people here are used to it.

In 1998, Mahamat Abubakar, a veteran ranger, was shot and killed by poachers lying in wait. His son, Zachariah, took over, but two years later, Zachariah was gunned down in an ambush as well. His younger brother, Hissein, was then offered the job, but instead of picking up a Kalashnikov and trotting into the field, Hissein asked to be a welder.

“My mother couldn’t take any more,” he said.

Zakouma’s rangers are trying to make a last stand. The park’s once-great herd of elephants has been nearly exterminated. Ninety percent of it has been poached off in the past 10 years, one of the most drastic declines of an elephant population anywhere in Africa.

In 2002, there were 4,350 elephants; now maybe 450. Chad has endured several rebellions in recent years, sucking away resources from wildlife and creating instability along the Sudanese border, which allowed hordes of poachers to pour across. There has been only one confirmed birth of an elephant calf in the past two years.

“With all the shooting and stress,” Mr. Labuschagne said, “they don’t breed.”

Mr. Labuschagne, a tall, lean South African who has been the manager of Zakouma for nearly two years, wants to build a unit of highly trained — and younger — rangers to confront poachers. He has worked in many places in Africa but says there is something uniquely untouched about Chad.

In November, he flew a small plane to Zakouma from the capital, N’Djamena. In the middle of the country, a set of granite mountains rose up from the plains, jagged, gnarled fingers of rock reaching up, trees clinging to their base, mist shrouding their tips. It was a landscape prehistoric and breathtaking, inscrutable and mysterious.

“There are no people here,” Mr. Labuschagne said, stabbing his finger down. “In two hours, we’re going to pass one road.”

“The rest are just tracks,” he said.

A few chutes of smoke rose in the distance, the only sign of man.

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Related tag(s): Poaching Problems