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The African Ranger’s phone rings in the middle of the night. Her covert contact deep within the organised crime network of elephant poachers tells her 200 kg of ivory is about to be loaded into a container at the docks bound for the Middle East.
Should she act now to seize the ivory and arrest some of the middle-level criminals or track the container to its destination and use her trusted international law enforcement contacts to map the wider criminal network?
Such are the decisions being taken every day in Africa’s fight against the illegal wildlife trade.
Across the continent, former British military specialist intelligence soldiers are using skills honed in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan to help tackle the poachers and traffickers.
Retarius, a company using experience gained in counter-terrorist operations, delivers specialist training and mentoring to law enforcement and anti-poaching units in Cameroon, Benin and Zambia.
Employing former members of the UK intelligence community, the company seeks to help Rangers build up a picture of the poaching networks using informants and technical means.
“Our experience from tackling terrorist networks for the British army means we’re now able to help the anti-poaching effort,” says Stu Farrag, Director of Retarius.
“Of course, local Rangers know their communities and the environment better than us. But we’re able to train them in discrete methods and specialist skills to make best use of their knowledge.
“The long-term success will be theirs; our background in the military just helps give them the tools.”
Regular British troops elsewhere in Africa are on the front-line of the illegal wildlife trade. The British government announced an additional £1 million in aid for Malawi earlier this year, to help combat poaching, and British soldiers in the country have trained 120 park rangers in the Nkhotakota and Majete Wildlife Reserves.
Part of the extra funding went to the Wildlife Crimes Investigations and Intelligence Unit in Malawi, an initiative that has improved intelligence gathering markedly.
Last year 1000 kgs of ivory were seized and 114 arrests made, a ten-fold increase in detentions compared to 2015.
The illegal wildlife trade is rated as the fourth most lucrative transnational organised crime in the world, behind people, drug and weapon smuggling.
The troops long-term goal will ensure the rangers are better able to respond appropriately to the threat of poaching, that has driven the decline in many African animals including elephants, rhinos and lions.
The UK government has pledged £26 million up to 2020 to help fight the illegal wildlife trade.
The Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, said: “The illegal wildlife trade is one of the most serious issues of organised crime facing the world today. We cannot sit idle while criminals hunt some of the planet’s most magnificent wildlife and in the process kill those who seek to protect them.
“That is why the British Army delivers vital training to park rangers across Africa to combat those responsible and help protect these animals for generations to come.”
Comment from Captain Luke Townsend, a Specialist in Counter-Poaching Operations
The scale of the poaching epidemic in Africa is both novel and prodigious. In the last decade poachers have slashed populations of elephant and rhino in breathtakingly short periods of time.
Ranger work is hard, relentless work performed in difficult conditions and often thankless.
Asking rangers wearing flip flops, carrying field kit in shopping bags and bearing rifles they may never have fired, to apprehend ex-military poaching gangs is a tall order. Which is why the efforts of British troops in shouldering this burden are massively appreciated.
African leaders and park rangers have welcomed British help to stop the poachers, from individuals, to the government and including Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO), particularly the Prince of Wales Charitable Fund and Tusk Trust.
British involvement dates back to 2016, when the government of Malawi courageously agreed to assistance and the British Army joined forces with African Parks, a South African based NGO that manages protected areas.
Funded by the Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), we sent British troops, specially trained in tracking and bush craft, into three Malawian parks to support and train rangers. The soldiers work together with the rangers every day for three months.
It’s been a long road, not without bumps. We found that skills learned by rangers on short courses were quickly forgotten, but partnering over longer periods made the changes stick.
The effects from these initial partnering efforts are still being felt. But we are extremely hopeful for the future. In one of the parks, previously heavily poached, they have been free from the poaching of their ‘Mega-fauna’ (as the large animals are known) for over a year all thanks to the pioneering partnership between the British Army, Malawian Government and African Parks.
DfID is now investing millions of pounds in community development projects around these parks as well, which will only multiply the effect.
Malawi, has lead the way, and now it’s African neighbours are engaging with the project.
Defra have funded more work in the years ahead and with ongoing support from the royal family we look forward to doing our best to make a difference. It is through working together with the rangers that we strive to guarantee that our grandchildren will know a planet with elephant and rhino in the wild, not just in a museum.
Captain Luke Townsend has served in both the Australian and British Armies, was awarded the Nato meritorious service medal for his last tour in Afghanistan and has spent the last five years involved with Counter Poaching operations.