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The “war for wildlife” is becoming increasingly deadly, with up to 1,500 park rangers killed protecting megafauna such as rhinoceros and elephants in the last five years, i can reveal.
Huge amounts of money can be made from killing animals for their ivory or other body parts in Africa and Asia.
The resulting pressure put on poachers by organised criminal gangs is leading to increasingly desperate violent confrontations and an arms race between the hunters and those who protect wildlife.
Last week, two Britons were kidnapped – and later released – in Virunga National Park in DR Congo in an ambush that saw one of its rangers murdered.
This came just a month after the worst loss of life in Virunga’s history as a brutal attack left five rangers and a driver dead – bringing the death toll at the park to 170 in two decades.
Sadly, this poaching-related violence spreads well beyond Virunga with death, injury, machine gun fire and even torture becoming more and more common across Africa and Asia.
“The poaching scene is becoming increasingly bloody. In Gabon, until about four years ago I did not consider we needed to arm our rangers. Now in some of our parks we do not send unarmed teams out,” said Professor Lee White, a British conservationist who is in charge Gabon’s 13 national parks and 850 rangers.
“In the Minkébé National Park we had to deploy 120 military and are having exchanges of fire every one to two months,” he added.
Minkébé is Gabon’s biggest national park and has lost 80 per cent of its elephants in a decade.
“I think the increased violence is, in part, because of how badly poachers are treated by the organised criminal groups if they go back empty-handed – and because we are more effective at patrolling and arresting them,” Prof White said.
Until now, armed protection of his guards has been left to army and police.
But later this year they will be issued with pump-action shotguns for the first time and they are being trained by British Army veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan in how to capture poachers.
“It is not just a story about some poachers killing a monkey. We are fighting serious crime,” said Hubert Ella Ekogha, a director at Gabon’s national parks.
The UK troop deployment to Gabon is one of several across Africa as part of a broader battle against terrorism – which increasingly relies on poaching for funds, experts say.
This month, British soldiers began work at two wildlife reserves in Malawi, training guards how to catch poachers of species such as elephants, lions, gorillas and rhinos.
This is the latest example of increasing vigilance by governments and reserves in the “range states”, as they seek to cut crime and funding for terrorism and to preserve what little is left of the megafauna that underpins their crucial tourist economies, in Africa in particular.
Only this week, the Kenyan government announced plans to introduce the death penalty to help crack down on poaching.
“The fight against poaching is becoming increasingly violent. Law enforcers are becoming increasingly sophisticated and poachers are responding accordingly,” said Enrico Di Minin, of the University of Helsinki. “The economic benefits of killing iconic species for their horn or ivory are huge. This triggers high poaching levels. It’s basically a war for wildlife,” he added.
The rise in violence in the poaching war is fuelled by growing demand from the increasingly affluent populations of China, Japan and Vietnam, which is pushing up prices of illegal wildlife products.
They regard animal parts, such as horn and ivory carvings, as status symbols and believe that when ground into a powder, some confer medicinal benefits – none of which have been scientifically proven.
Put simply, the demand for illegal wildlife goods is coming from Asia and the Far East, while much of the supply is provided by Africa, according to Dr Mark Jones, of the Born Free Foundation.
“The job of being a game ranger, particularly in Africa, is becoming increasingly militarised,” he says, in recognition of the damage poaching is having on nature and society. “For a long time, wildlife poaching had been seen as being a low risk and high return activity and has attracted the attention of criminal gangs and networks,” he said.
Against this backdrop, the death toll has mounted. In the past five years, the International Ranger Federation has registered more than 500 park ranger deaths, many of them at the hands of poachers.
But Sean Willmore, president of the federation, estimates that the true number is “two to three times higher as not all ranger deaths, particularly in Africa, are recorded”. This means the toll for the period could be as high as 1,500 – as the registered death toll exceeded 100 for the fourth consecutive year.
Dig Up the Roots
Although governments and park rangers are getting tougher, the soaring demand for rare wildlife products is pushing prices so high that poaching will inevitably persist.
“As prices go up, the criminal gangs will be prepared to take greater and greater risks in order to obtain them,” said Dr Jones.
And there is another major problem: much of the poaching is carried out by local people such as the ethnic groups that speak Bantu languages and the pygmy population – while the criminal king pins keep their distance.
“We have to cut the heads of these networks. Arresting the poachers, who are essentially cannon fodder, is not effective. There are too many poor rural Bantu and Pygmies willing to take their places,” said Prof White.