How a Rapid Response Unit in Kenya is Targetting Elephant Poachers


Emilia Hungerford, The Independent

Date Published

See link for photos

Every year 30-40,000 elephants are killed to supply ivory to illegal markets in Asia. In 2012, the Laikipia-Samburu Ecosystem, located in north central Kenya and considered one of East Africa’s most spectacular wildernesses, became one of the worst hit areas in Kenya as the poaching crisis swept across the continent. Yet four years on and poaching levels have decreased in the area by as much as 90 per cent. This is down to the success of the anti-poaching Rapid Response Team (RRT) – a team of highly trained rangers supported by the Kenya Wildlife Service & Criminal Justice System.

The idea came about after an emergency conference in 2011 held by the conservation charity, Space for Giants, in response to the poaching crisis. Together local community conservancies, the Kenya Wildlife Service and Kenya Police decided to form a team of rangers that could respond quickly and efficiently to poaching incidents. It was this collective response that has been at the heart of the success of the RRT.

The Rapid Response Team is based at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, a 90,000-acre wildlife conservancy in Laikipia County, which has one of the highest number of black rhinos in East Africa and is home to the only three northern white rhino left in the world. The team comprises of armed Kenyan Police Reservists and in the event of a major armed poaching incident, the team is collected by helicopter and deployed to the site of an incident. “Back in 2011 it was like the Wild West,” says Max Graham, founder of Space for Giants, “with poachers acting with impunity. But today these teams working in close collaboration with the Kenyan courts have been able to make a real difference.”

The team also operates a dog unit with highly trained dog handlers who manage the attack (Dutch Malinois breeds) and sniffer dogs (bloodhounds). Each of the dogs has a different specialty – from tracking the scent of a poacher, to detecting ammunition and attacking and detaining potential suspects. Ol Pejeta’s K9 unit was one of the first private conservancy dog units in Kenya and they currently have a team of nine dogs, who support the armed rangers.

“What is unique about these teams is their training and the use of a helicopter allowing them to reach the incident sites sometimes within minutes” says Daniel Mwaniki, Deputy manager of Security at Ol Pejeta. The RRT receives specialized training from 51 Degrees Ltd in areas such as weapons handling, combat operations and advanced first aid. The team are fully equipped and armed and trained to deal with potentially hostile situations across the landscape.

“In my opinion this success can be emulated in other elephant range states provided they have highly trained and equipped rangers,” says Daniel Mwaniki. The Giants Club, founded by the presidents of Kenya, Gabon, Botswana, and Uganda, with Space for Giants to combat the poaching crisis, is aiming to do just that.

Later this month, President Kenyatta will be hosting the Giants Club inaugural Summit and one of the key issues being discussed is scaling up the anti-poaching Rapid Response Teams in Kenya, Gabon, Botswana and Uganda. Together, these countries contain more than half of Africa’s savannah elephants and three quarters of the continent’s remaining forest elephants.

If the success of the Rapid Response Teams in Laikipia can be emulated in these elephants range states then there’s a real chance of reaching the goal of the Giants Club – to protect 40,000 elephants by 2020.