The assassinations of Mother Nature’s guardians


Fred Bercovitch, Mongabay (Commentary)

Date Published


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The risk of murder is higher for environmental activists and wildlife officers than for police officers. Protecting the planet is a dangerous job. Schoolyard massacres and suicide bombers make the headlines, while the near daily assassination of Mother Nature’s Guardians is often missed. People who put their bodies between an elephant and a bullet or between a timber poacher and a tree, those who are trying to preserve our shared environmental heritage, are targeted for killing at an astounding rate.

In the United States of America, between 1980 and 2014, an average of 64 law enforcement officers per year have been feloniously killed. In 2014, 51 officers were killed by gunfire in the line of duty. According to the FBI report released on 16 May, the number is declining; forty-one officers were killed on duty in 2015. Tragically, a rebound seems to be in place with 17 police officers killed to date while doing their job. In the UK, since 1945, 250 police officers have been murdered in the line of duty, or about 3 to 4 per year. In 2014, 29 wildlife officers were assassinated in the line of duty, as well as at least 116 environmental activists not employed as rangers. The annual death toll from murder among Mother Nature’s Guardians is higher than that among police officers and is getting worse.

In March 2016, Ms. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, an indigenous Filipina appointed by the United Nations to be a Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, said, “The pattern of killings [of environmental activists] in many countries is becoming an epidemic.” In November 2015, INTERPOL released a report connecting poaching, people smuggling, drug trafficking, illegal weapons trading, and corruption with organized crime. On 2 November 2015, the United States House of Representatives passed on a voice vote H.R. 2494, The Global Anti-Poaching Act, which is currently dormant in the Senate, for unknown reasons because the subject is not a partisan topic. Section 4, paragraph 5, of the bill states that the U.S. will support “The development and institutionalization of national systems to provide insurance to rangers and their families and compensation for those rangers killed in the line of duty.” Section 6(a) notes that “The President is authorized to provide defense articles, defense services, and related training to security forces of Africa for purposes of countering wildlife trafficking and poaching.” War has been declared upon wildlife officers, as well as on the fauna and flora of our planet. We are losing the defenders of wildlife. Poachers, illegal militias, terrorists, and crime syndicates have allied themselves with corrupt politicians to deprive us not only of our natural heritage, but of those who are protecting the planet in our name.

The U. S. State Department has shifted $100,000 to the Justice Department in order to increase the training of judges to combat the illegal wildlife trade in southern Africa, and has granted the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (George Mason University) $400,000 to identify the leaders of the criminal networks responsible for spearheading the massive illicit trade in wildlife and drugs. However, where are the U. S. Government funds for the wildlife officers and environmental activists who put their lives on the line to protect our planet?

Richard Leakey was lucky. In 1993, while piloting a small airplane, the engine stopped running. He crash landed the vehicle, crushing his legs, but he survived. Both legs had to be amputated below the knee. At the time of the crash, he was in charge of the Kenya Wildlife Service and had launched a program to combat wildlife poaching by converting the ranger patrols into paramilitary units, armed with weapons to battle the poachers. He had been threatened and vilified for his efforts and although the cause of the crash is unclear, circumstantial evidence suggests that it was an assassination attempt. He was not only declaring war on wildlife poachers, but he knew too much about the connection between the illegal trade in wildlife parts and corruption at the highest levels. Under political pressure following the crash, he left his job, established a new political party, and was elected as a Member of Parliament.

Leakey was lucky because he survived the attempt on his life. Others are not as lucky. One of the most prevalent myths and illusions in the Western world is that poaching for profit is the recourse of poor peasants and destitute villagers who are only trying to earn a living. Not true. The primary poachers are trained in guerrilla warfare and bush tactics, armed with night vision scopes and high powered weapons, often assisted by helicopters to expedite removal of their bounty. The poachers are linked with terrorists around the globe, as well as an intricate network of organized crime. Poaching for profit is not the same thing as poaching for bushmeat to put on the table to eat. The elephant killers are not interested in sharing the meat for consumption; they are killing 5 ton animals in order to extract two front teeth in order to sell to criminals and corrupt officials who are directly funding insurgents, jihadists, and rebel militias. Poachers recruit, sometimes forcefully, their foot soldiers from the local village. And the people cannot resist even though killing the wildlife in their backyards is counterproductive to their lives They are coerced into cooperating or forced to remain silent about the poachers. The illegal killers of wildlife have declared war on local villagers and wildlife officers. They are aiming at the Guardians of Nature. They take no prisoners. They shoot to kill. The human cost of the illegal trade in wildlife is a neglected topic in the conservation community. This is the story of the men and women who are putting their lives at risk in order to protect our children’s heritage.

The scourge transcends boundaries. On 11 November 2010, Pennsylvania Wildlife Conservation Officer David Lynn Grove was murdered by a convicted felon who was being arrested for deer poaching. The killer was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to execution. In May 2014 Zambian Wildlife Authority ranger Dexter Chilunda was assassinated by poachers in Liuwa Plain National Park. In January 2015, wildlife ranger Abdullahi Mohammed was murdered by poachers in Kenya. In April 2015, wildlife ranger Agoyo Mbikyo suffered the same fate while protecting animals in Garamba National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo. Between 1998 and 2015, twenty-three wildlife officers were assassinated by poachers in Zakoma National Park, Chad, with 27 wildlife rangers murdered in Africa in 2013/2014. The Thin Green Line Foundation has estimated that about 1,000 wildlife officers have been killed over the past decade.

In early October 2015, Garamba National Park was again a murder site. A 10-man patrol team surprised an elephant poachers’ camp in the western Azande hunting area while following the signal of an elephant that had on a radiocollar for tracking. The poachers blasted away at the rangers, who were outnumbered, but returned fire as they retreated. Four men, rangers Anselme Kimbesa Muhindo, Andre Gada Migifuloyo, and Djuma Adalu Uweko, as well as Col. Jacaques Sukamate Lusengo of the Congolese Armed Forces, were murdered. Their six companions successfully escaped when a support helicopter, under fire, was able to land and evacuate the team. The four dead wildlife patrol officers had 14 children among them.

The next month, in both Asia and South America, Mother Nature’s Guardians were deliberately killed. On Thursday night, 19 November 2015, 58-year old Alfredo Ernesto Vracko Neuenschwander, was shot in his house in Peru. He was a woodworker aiming to protect the forests and biodiversity of the Tambopata region. Illegal gold miners, who were probably responsible for his death. Less than two weeks earlier, in Cambodia, two wildlife officers were executed by poachers shortly after discovering chainsaws at an illegal logging site. The men, Sieng Darong and Sab Yoh, had been patrolling the forests for years in order to protect their natural heritage from deforestation and destruction. Darong left behind a widow and two daughters; Yoh left behind a widow and one daughter.

The terrorists in search of animal victims have few qualms about killing people. On 29 January 2016, a 37-year old British helicopter pilot, Roger Gower, was fatally wounded after his aircraft was brought down by gunfire. He was conducting an anti-poaching aerial patrol mission, flying above the Maswa Game Reserve, adjacent to the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania. His mission was to try to find poachers who had recently killed three elephants for their tusks. While circling the area with a safari guide, Nick Bester, the chopper was pierced by a bullet from a .458 hunting rifle that also penetrated Gower’s leg and shoulder. He died shortly after landing the aircraft. Bester survived.

About 420 miles to the northwest of the murder site, two months later, in mid-March, poachers assassinated two wildlife rangers in Virunga National Park, home of the endangered mountain gorilla. The men were on patrol protecting gorillas when militiamen from the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda executed them. Their death brought the number of rangers killed in action while trying to save gorillas to 150 in ten years. Virunga National Park was the first national park established in Africa, beginning life as Albert National Park in 1925, named by King Albert I of Belgium after himself. The goal was to save mountain gorillas, a species first described by scientists in 1902. Less than 500 mountain gorillas live in the Park. The Director of Virunga National Park, Emmanuel de Monde, is a survivor of an assassination attack, who went back to work immediately upon recover from the unsuccessful murder attempt on his life. The two rangers killed in March were Fidele Mulonga Mulegalega, who was 25 years old and had only been on the job for a little over on year, and Venant Mumbere Muvesevese, who was 35 years old, and the father of three daughters and one son. His youngest child was one year old at the time of the assassination.

Three days before the Virunga National Park Rangers were killed, on 16 March 2016, a Guatemalan environmental activist, Walter Manfredo Mendez Barrios, was killed by three gunshot wounds. He was murdered while trying to protect the Sierra del Lacandon National Park, part of the Maya Biosphere Reserve on the border with Mexico. He had been a community leader, president of the Lu Lucha Cooperative, and member of the Board of Directors of the Association of Forest Communities of Peten. He was also the father of six children, who were robbed of their dad because of his commitment to stopping the illegal trade in timber and wildlife. He was only 36 years old.

Less than two weeks before the Guatemalan environmental activist was killed, on 3 March 2016, in La Esperanza, Honduras, some 530 miles southwest of the Sierra del Lacandon National Park, Berta Caceres was shot to death at her home shortly after midnight. She was an indigenous leader, environmental activist, and tireless advocate for human rights who had been awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for galvanizing people against a gargantuan hydroelectric power plan that involved the construction of four dams in the Gualcarque River Basin. She had been forewarned that her continued protests could lead to rape or murder, but she had a calling regardless of the threats. Before her murder, she told reporters, “We must undertake the struggle in all parts of the world, wherever we may be, because we have no other spare of replacement planet. We have only this one, and we have to take action.” She leaves behind one grandson, as well as four grown children.

She was right; we must take action. This is not a Democratic or Republican issue; this is about protecting those who protect those who cannot speak for themselves. The plague is upon us and we need to marshal all that we can to stop it from continued spreading and devastation. Poachers, terrorists, criminal gangs, illegal militia, unethical politicians, as well as assorted vicious and violent hitmen, are plundering the planet as they assassinate Mother Nature’s Guardians. Distinguishing poachers from jihadists becomes more and more difficult, if not impossible, as they strengthen the bonds between themselves. The social network shifting financial resources and weaponry, funded by rape of the landscape, execution of environmentalists, assassination of wildlife officers, and the murder of wildlife, has to be confronted by an international effort.

On 24 April 2016, Garamba National Park was, one more time, the site of the assassinations of wildlife rangers. Three men, Diemba Richard, Anigobe Bagare, and Mafikuli Tsago, were killed, while two of their companions were wounded by elephant poachers. The officers were working for African Parks, a conservation organization that will compensate the families of the victims who gave their lives trying to protect the planet. While the killing of law enforcement officers in the line of duty generates massive press coverage and raises hackles on both sides of the political aisle, the murder of Mother Nature’s Guardians continues undiminished and under-reported. We are losing the defenders of wildlife along with the animals.

The illegal trafficking in wildlife and timber, along with that of drugs, people, and weapons, sustains a Brobdingnagian underground community. The United Nations has estimated that $100 billion of the global trade in timber is derived from illegal logging. Poaching of animals brings in about $20 billion per year in illicit funds, or about four times what the United States Government allocates to the U.S. National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey combined. In 2010, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, about $5,000,000 worth of tiger parts were illegally sold, along with approximately $8,000,000 worth of rhinoceros horn. We are not engaged in a petty clash with poor villagers poaching bushmeat for protein; we are at war against an armed militia controlled by organized crime syndicates that merge the illicit trade in fauna and flora with the illegal trade in people, arms, and drugs. Wildlife officers paid to protect Mother Nature, indigenous people striving to stay on the land that they have occupied for thousands of years, and environmental activists driven to save species are all in the cross-hairs of the poachers.

The youth of today and leaders of tomorrow are being robbed not only of their parents and grandparents, but of their natural heritage. Nearly 400 years ago, John Donne wrote:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself…
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.