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When Jean pulls into a neighbor’s driveway in South Africa, he’s always on the lookout for footprints that seem out of place. Recently, on his way to a barbecue, he noticed some foot tracks at a friend’s gate.
Worried something might be amiss, Jean quickly telephoned his friend before heading up to the house. “It’s not paranoid, it’s just super vigilant,” he told Insider, explaining he’s basically always on guard now for the possibility that animal-killers could be looming near his home in Limpopo province.
By day, Jean is a field guide, going on walks with tourists to see the famed “big 5:” lions, leopards, rhinoceros, buffalo, and elephants.
By night, and whenever else his neighbors sound the alarm, Jean (who did not want to reveal his last name for security reasons) moonlights as an anti-poacher, tracking down intruders on farms and private game reserves in the area.
His citizen group’s tools and tactics include helicopters, roadblocks, and long stakeouts in the bush. The wildlife enthusiast says his methods are not unique in this corner of South Africa, which is sandwiched north of Johannesburg and west of Kruger National Park.
“Everybody I know is involved with it in some way or another,” he told Insider.
As illegal international markets hunger for rhino horn and ivory tusks, and the South African economy stalls, more citizens like Jean are taking matters into their own hands, creating a new kind of civilian counter-poaching force bolstered by military might.
Anti-Poachers Say They’re Fighting An All-Out War
Over the past decade, armed, civilian anti-poaching forces like the group Jean is part of have been popping up all over southern Africa where big game roams. They’re kind of like volunteer fire departments, except they’re sometimes armed and equipped with bulletproof vests and sniffer dogs.
Jean says when he first became a field guide, 21 years ago, he wouldn’t think twice about spending a night out in the bush — but no longer. “You can’t just get out of your car and go and walk,” he said. “Definitely in the last 10 years, anti-poaching units have sprung up all over the place.”
Anti-poachers say they’re fighting an all-out war. They know hunting down the people who poach is not an ideal solution to the conservation problem, but they also see no other way around the untouchable kingpins who control global rhino trade.
The African Poaching Business is Booming
Poaching for rhino horns has exploded since the early 2000s. Not only a status symbol for display, rhino horns are also rumored to be a traditional (but unproven) kind of cure-all medicine for everything from improving sex to battling hangovers. In Vietnam, they are even thought to have cancer curing properties.
According to WWF, rhino poaching has soared 9000% since 2007, spurred by this increasing demand. The tally of dead rhinos went up from just 13 rhinos in 2007, to 1,215 in 2014. Things have gotten a little better since then, but not much. According to data collected by Save the Rhino, 892 rhinos were killed last year.
Rhinos aren’t the only animals being killed. African elephant populations also suffered some of their sharpest declines in recent history, and African lion populations have also been decimated.
Part of the problem is that animals are increasingly competing with people for limited space and land. Much of the decline also comes down to the money that can be made from selling dead animal parts abroad. Rhino horn is estimated to be more valuable by weight on the black market than gold, diamonds, or cocaine.
New Kinds of People are Taking Up the Anti-Poaching Fight
Anti-poaching forces have patrolled in national parks for at least a decade now, but the trend of homeowners, farmers, and private reserve owners taking up the fight is a newer shift, driven in part by poachers being successfully pushed out of national parks by anti-poaching rangers. Most of the land owners are white (including the people who spoke with Insider for this story), while the poachers are usually black.
“We shouldn’t be arming up and militarizing ourselves,” Sean Hensman, who runs an elephant tour company in the northeastern corner of South Africa, said. Hensman has been working on beefing up his neighborhood’s “community policing” anti-poaching strategy in Limpopo Province, in collaboration with a US anti-poaching organization called Edge.
“I think if you were to solve poaching, the first thing to do would be to try and solve poverty,” he said.
Hensman says more needs to be done to make these animals worth more alive than dead. Jean offered that one way to do that might be to open up a legal rhino horn trade to the world, which is still a controversial strategy in conservation circles.
Anti-Poachers Use Guns, Dogs, and Helicopters
Hensman said that in recent years, more locals have been packing night-vision goggles for their patrols, using poacher-hunting technology like thermal imaging, drones, guns, and bulletproof vests.
Part of what makes this possible is support from groups like Edge (Ecological Defense Group, Incorporated), the organization that connects former US special operations combat forces with people on the ground in Africa to help coordinate and track more poachers. The group also ships over gear like flight suits and bulletproof vests.
“We want to stand behind those who are standing between the rhino and the poacher,” EDGE President Nathan Edmondson told Insider.
Edmondson says EDGE spends an average of about $500 to outfit an anti-poacher, also sending military vets to help train people on how to look into the bush, track poachers, and better coordinate their anti-poaching movements.
Edge isn’t the only group doing this.
Former Australian sniper Damien Mander, founder and CEO of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation, trains rangers across four African countries, and Sheldrick Wildlife Trust funds 14 different anti-poaching teams in Kenya.
The co-founder of another US-based anti-poaching group, PAMS Foundation, was shot dead in Tanzania in 2017, and another American conservationist and undercover investigator dedicated to anti-poaching efforts was found stabbed to death in his home in Kenya in 2018.
Anti-poachers remain hushed about their precise tactics and the number of poachers they’ve killed. One dog trainer with Invictus K9, who has trained roughly 40 dogs from the Netherlands to work alongside anti-poachers across six African countries, told Insider that whatever the outcome of an encounter with a poacher, the goal is always the same.
“We’re trying to outdo them,” he said. “It’s an arms race.”
Encounters may end in arrest, or death, depending on the situation. “At night when our eyes become useless, that’s when the dog nose really helps us,” he said. “The idea is to get the team close enough to the poacher that the team will then be able to make an arrest.”
Anti-Poachers Are Not Optimistic That the War Will Soon End
At least one anti-poacher has been killed so far this year. 22 year-old British solider Matthew Talbot died while patrolling through tall grass with local rangers in Malawi. But it wasn’t poachers who murdered him, it was an elephant that charged with lethal force, the BBC reported.
Definite numbers of deaths on both sides of this war are hard to track, but there are signs that anti-poaching works. The Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS) said in 2015 that the country had seen a 69% decrease in rhino poaching, year over year, thanks to increased coverage of wildlife areas by its reorganized anti-poaching “platoons.” (KWS counted 96 poached elephants in 2015, compared with 384 in 2012.)
A 2018 review published in the journal Sensors concluded that until “drivers of demand” (like trophy hunting, medicinals, and the international luxury horns and tusks markets) dry up, “there will be a continuous, urgent need for effective anti-poaching solutions that assure the survival of the rhinoceros and elephant species.”
Legalizing the International Ivory and Horn Trade is a Controversial Strategy
One untested strategy for drawing down the anti-poaching war would be to make the international rhino horn market a legal, regulated one. That would open up the stockpiles of rhino horn across South Africa to buyers around the world and bring the trade out of the black market, perhaps sparing some rhinos their lives (rhinos can be de-horned).
It’s not a strategy everyone endorses, regulators included. The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) banned international rhino trade in 1977. At a recent meeting in August, the group decided, amidst some protest, to keep the ban in place.
Many conservationists worry that an above-ground international market for rhino horns might only increase demand, and lead to more dead rhinos.
“I’m personally not a big fan of harvesting rhino horns,” Edmondson said, arguing that legalizing international rhino trade is a “pandora’s box” situation that could create unforeseen issues. “But I like anything that incentivizes people to keep and protect rhino,” he said.