Marines aid anti-poaching elephant teams in Chad


By James K. Sanborn, Marine Corps Times

Date Published

A small contingent of Marines have deployed to Chad, where they are teaching local park rangers how to combat poachers who have decimated elephant populations over the past decade or so.

About 15 members of Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Africa 14.1 out of Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy, deployed to the central African country in late April. They are spending about a month training approximately 100 members of the Chadian Ministry of Environment’s Mobile Brigade.

The Marines, temporarily assigned to SP-MAGTF Africa 14.1 from 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, will teach Chadian rangers small-unit tactics, patrolling, marksmanship, land navigation and site exploitation.

While the mission is not expressly an anti-poaching one, it will help rangers combat heavily armed poachers who are more akin to soldiers than hunters and have decimated elephant populations in the Zakouma National Park. The elephant population there numbered 4,000 in 2005. By 2010 just 450 elephants remained.

“This is a first time partnership, conducted under Department of State foreign assistance authorities, with the Chadian rangers, whose primary mission is anti-poaching. However, they have collateral duties of border security and countering illicit trafficking within the sovereign territory of the Republic of Chad,” said 1st Lt. James Stenger, a task force spokesman.

“This in turn leads to greater regional stability by building partnership between U.S. and foreign forces,” he added.

The training gives the U.S. military a foot in the door in an area plagued by instability and radical terrorist organizations. Chad is part of the Sahel region, a geographic band spanning Africa from east to west. It is an area of topographic transition, where heavy rainforest gives way to desert. Several extremist groups operate within this volatile strip, including the terrorist organization Boko Haram, which calls neighboring Nigeria home. The brazen Islamist group outraged the world recently by kidnapping scores of young girls whom the group’s leader has said he will sell. Nigeria, in fact, has declared a state of emergency in at least one state that borders Chad.

Other volatile countries in the Sahel include Mali, where French troops continue fighting radical Islamists. Four were recently killed in a bomb blast. South Sudan, just south of the Sahel, stands on the brink of civil war. Marines with SP-MAGTF Crisis Response based in Morón, Spain, evacuated embassy personnel from the country’s capital, Juba, in December.

The “Pacific pivot” has occupied a large portion of service leaders’ rhetoric about post-Afghanistan operations. But Africa is also claiming an growing number of resources and attention.

Although future Marine deployments to Chad are possible, the current mission is not a recurring one, Stenger said.

That said, these types of mission are not uncommon. Members of Marine Forces Africa have previously worked in Chad to help its military learn maintenance and repair skills. Marines have conducted similar exchanges with nearby Gabon.

“MARFORAF Marines have also worked with elements of the Gabonese National Parks Authority, and elements of [their] Gendarmerie,” Stenger said.

There Marines worked to increase inter-agency cooperation between Gabon park authorities and the gendarmerie, a military unit charged with police duties.

As in Chad, thousands of elephants have been killed there in recent years — the poaching driven by rising prices for ivory on the Asian black market. China in particular drives demand for elephant tusks, which fetch thousands of dollars per kilogram and are used for everything from art to traditional medicine.

The increased demand for endangered animal products, including elephants and rhinos, has made the illicit trade in wildlife the fourth largest in the world. It generates $19 billion per year, putting it just behind behind narcotics, counterfeiting and human trafficking, according to the World Wildlife Federation.

“While AFRICOM has not been tasked to support anti-poaching efforts and combat wildlife trafficking, some DoD activities can provide incidental benefits to these ongoing efforts,” Stenger said.