Conservation, News, Poaching

Shobani, a ranger, carries an aged Belgian FN FAL assault rifle. Anti-poaching units are usually poorly equipped to deal with poachers who are occasionally armed with light machine guns and RPGs.

Agoyo Mbikoyo was a ranger at Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Agoyo Mbikoyo was a ranger at Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Agoyo Mbikoyo was cut down by a poacher’s rifle on April 25, 2015. He crawled, mortally wounded, back to his unit’s campsite before succumbing to his wounds. A member of a ten day patrol to track elephants in Garamba’s southern sector, Mbikoyo’s unit was camped far from help. The Congolese Armed Forces and other park rangers quickly responded by helicopter but were too late to save the wounded ranger. Mbikoyo was a seven year veteran of the park. Buried on the 26th of April, he leaves behind his wife and children.

Mbikoyo’s death demonstrates the transformation of poaching from a crime to a war. Poachers tracked down Mbikoyo’s unit, waited in ambush, murdered, then fled back into the jungle. Unfortunately, this an increasingly common narrative in Africa’s national parks. A 2014 National Geographic article by Laurel Neme recounted the capture, torture and murder of Habimana Buzara, a park ranger in Virunga National Park, by 80 Mai Mai militia. Since 2006, over 150 rangers have been gunned down in Virunga alone and over 1,000 killed in all African parks collectively. Even the Virunga’s chief warden, Emmanuel de Merode, was ambushed and shot four times. Merode survived and is still in action in the park.

Violent attacks on park rangers and officials have risen directly proportional to the increase in poaching rates throughout Africa. The rate of rhino poaching has increased over 9000% in the past 8 years. This expansion correlates with the increase in demand for ivory and other goods harvested illegally from wildlife.

The harvested goods most commonly meet these ends: pseudo-medicinal use, creation of jewelry and distribution in traditional magic markets. Most of the world’s illegally harvested ivory is trafficked and sold to Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Here, the ivory – harvested from elephants, rhino and other species – is carved into extravagant jewelry or crushed into powders and ointments for medical use.

A woman grinds down ivory into a fine powder. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

A woman grinds down ivory into a fine powder in Hanoi, Vietnam. The powder’s reputed use is diverse. Sometimes it used as a party drug and other times as a cure for cancer.
(Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Crushed ivory is often sold as a ‘cure all’ (some Vietnamese believe it capable of curing cancer) and is often implemented in traditional Chinese medicinal practices. Believed to cure hangovers and create highs, powdered ivory has become a status symbol with rich individuals dropping the powder in their drinks as a party drug . Claims of ivory’s power have been rejected by dozens of medical studies by multiple universities and organizations including the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Despite the rejection of these claims, ivory continues to sell in China for at least $2,100 per kilogram. Single tusks and horns can fetch anywhere from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The prices and continually increasing demand for ivory has stirred the increase in poaching and attacks on anti-poaching units.

Poachers, once independent operators,now operate as elements of crime and terrorism syndicates. Terrorism groups that use poaching to fund their operations include: Darfur’s Janjaweed, Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabaab. These dangerous and powerful groups entered and now dominate the ivory trade because of the massive profit that can be reaped. They outfit their poachers with military-grade arsenal and professional training.

In contrast, anti-poaching units are often under-equipped, ill-trained, outnumbered and uninformed. Poachers, confident in their ability to fight rangers, no longer fear the anti-poaching units they used to avoid. Instead, poachers now ambush and engage ranger units without second thought.

Shobani, a ranger at uMkhuze National Game Reserve, patrols a transect.

Shobani, a ranger at uMkhuze National Game Reserve, patrols a transect.

The war against poaching seems precarious given the overwhelming odds faced by the rangers and the animals they protect. However, many advances are being made to combat poaching effectively. Well funded institutes, such as the Lindbergh Foundation, are currently engineering drone technology fit for anti-poaching operations. Parks are beginning to receive more funding for proper equipment and training from companies like White Paw Training. Independent organizations like the IAPF are recruiting men and women from across the world to fight. Movie stars, athletes and musicians are participating in advertisement campaigns made to reduce consumption of illegal animal products in counties such as Vietnam and China.

The war on poaching’s greatest asset is the men and women, like Agoyo Mbikoyo, who are willing to sacrifice for the cause. They stand resolute in the face of death in order to preserve the existence of the natural world. Men like Damien Mander of the IAPF sacrifice their life savings to support anti-poaching efforts. Women like Angleina Jolie and companies like Netflix produce films to raise international awareness on the topic. Athletes such as Yao Ming spend countless hours to eliminate the use of endangered animal products in their home countries. Most powerfully, men like Agoyo Mbikoyo give their lives to a cause they believe in.

These men and women, coupled with organizations, technological advances and the increasing international interest in the preservation of endangered species worldwide, will continue to stand steadfastly against poaching. Men, elephants, rhinos, mountain gorillas and more will still die. It is a war, one that cannot be waged without bloodshed. Poaching will never be entirely defeated. However, it can be curbed through the combination of the above advances.

International awareness raised by the famous will push companies and countries to pass legislation banning the trade of goods from endangered species (as multiple airlines and countries recently have). Representation for anti-poaching efforts by national figureheads will assist in the decline of consumption of these goods (such as with shark fin soup in China). Startup companies bent on the destruction of poaching will continue to receive funding to advance anti-poaching technology (AirShepherd).

While these forces choke the demand for ivory and other such products, rangers will continue to cut off the chain of supply and men like Agoyo Mbikoyo will sacrifice their lives to fight off the poachers that prey on the voiceless and are intent on nothing other than malevolent destruction.

There is hope.

 

 

Update

African Parks has recently announced that three men (one ranger and two members of the Congolese Armed Forces) were killed in a firefight with poachers on June 17, 2015. Read more about the incident here.

 

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