Cutting Down Game Rangers with Deadly Skill

By Gettleman, Jeffrey | International Herald Tribune, January 2, 2013 | Go to article overview

Cutting Down Game Rangers with Deadly Skill


Gettleman, Jeffrey, International Herald Tribune


Ivory poaching has become ruthless with rebel groups and even government armies slaughtering thousands of elephants, and the rangers protecting them, to cash in on record-high ivory prices.

Just before dawn, the rangers were hunched over in prayer, facing east. They pressed their foreheads into the dry earth and softly whispered Koranic verses, their lips barely moving. A cool wind bit at their faces.

All of a sudden, Djimet Seid, the cook, said he heard "one war whoop -- or maybe it was a scream."

And then the angry bark of a Kalashnikov assault rifle, opening up in full automatic mode.

In an instant, an entire Chadian squad of rangers was cut down with alarming precision by elephant poachers who were skilled at killing more than just animals. Crouching in the bush, the poachers fired from a triangle of different spots, concealed and deadly accurate.

"If you go look at the infantry books, it's exactly how you do a first-light attack, exactly," said Rian Labuschagne, a South African former paratrooper and now the manager of Zakouma National Park in southern Chad. "Our guys didn't have a chance."

Out here, among the spent bullet shells and the freshly dug graves, the cost of protecting wildlife is painfully clear. As ivory poaching becomes more militarized, with rebel groups and even government armies slaughtering thousands of elephants across Africa to cash in on record-high ivory prices, a horrible mismatch is shaping up. Wildlife rangers -- who tend to be older, maybe a bit slower and incredibly knowledgeable about their environment and the ways of animals, but less so about infantry tactics -- are wading into the bush to confront hardened soldiers.

The outcome, too often, is not only firefights and battles, but also coldblooded murder, with dozens of African wildlife rangers killed in recent years, many in revenge-driven ambushes. Ivory poachers, it seems, are becoming increasingly wily and ruthless.

This summer, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a militia of infamous elephant poachers, sneaked up to the headquarters of a wildlife reserve and killed 5 people and 14 okapi, shorter members of the giraffe family with zebralike legs. One guard who escaped said the attackers sliced open the chest of a downed colleague and ate his heart. In Zimbabwe, poachers are spreading deadly poisons on elephant carcasses to kill vultures. By taking out the birds that serve as a natural early warning system that a kill has been made, the poachers make it even more dangerous for rangers because they have no idea when the poachers are around. In Mozambique, the authorities said that poachers have recently begun using land mines.

Kenya, which is considered tame compared with some of these other places, has lost six rangers this year, more than in recent memory. One of them was Florence Hadia Abae, pregnant and the mother of a small boy. In March, she was following the footprints of suspected poachers near Tsavo National Park, a fabled tourist destination, when a poacher popped out of the bush and shot her in the face.

One of her colleagues was killed in the same ambush, shot in the leg, then finished off with a short, brutish stroke of an ax.

"They had no idea what they were walking into," said Rob Dodson, a British conservationist working near Tsavo.

In the Zakouma attack, which happened about 80 kilometers, or 50 miles, outside the park boundaries in September, five rangers were killed on the spot; one remains missing and is presumed dead. Mr. Seid, the cook, was seriously wounded. The attack appeared to be revenge for a raid on a poachers' camp, and much of the evidence points to the Sudanese military. For years, wildlife groups have blamed the janjaweed -- Sudanese horseback raiders who traditionally work in tandem with the government military -- for wiping out many of Central Africa's elephant herds.

But specific evidence recovered from the poachers suspected of killing Zakouma's rangers strengthens the Sudanese government link, the Chadian authorities and human rights groups say. …

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