NAIROBI, Kenya – Africa is getting tougher in its fight against poaching. New laws with stiff penalties, more military training for rangers and new technology like drones with thermal cameras are all helping to protect rhinos and elephants. A new law in Kenya that increases penalties for killing tourist-attracting safari animals is already bearing fruit.
A Chinese man accused of trying to smuggle ivory in a suitcase was arraigned in a Nairobi court this week. Under the law that came into effect on Jan. 10 and that the Kenya Wildlife Service had been lobbying for for years, the man could face up to life in prison and a $230,000 fine. In the past, such poachers and smugglers could walk out of court with a fine of less than $1,000.
"They have to think twice now," Paul Mbugua, the spokesman for the Kenya Wildlife Service, said of poachers and the new law. "You just try your luck on the poaching, but the moment we catch up to you, you are done."
Kenya's new law is being paired with increased training and deployment of advanced equipment.
Kenya's Ol Pejeta Conservancy will deploy drones later this year to help protect rhinos. Parks in Tanzania and South Africa are also increasing their use of surveillance drones. In South Africa's massive Kruger Park, where hundreds of rhinos are killed each year, rangers are hunting for poachers using a former military helicopter and night-vision equipment provided by a private company.
During a three-day training session last month on the slopes of Mount Kenya, a team of Kenyan wildlife agents crouched behind a veil of green bush as they waited for their target. When two armed "poachers" walked by, the 12-man Kenyan squad opened fire, downing the two role-playing animal killers. Standing nearby was a team of British paratroopers leading the training.
Col. Mark Christie, the commander of the British base that lies on the northwest side of Mount Kenya, a unit known as the British Army Training Unit Kenya, said the Kenyan wildlife officers used tactics similar to British troops, but noted the Kenyans maneuver better in the wild than his own troops.
During the exercise, about a dozen rangers from the Kenya Wildlife Service and the Kenya Forest Service crept through the woods, using hand signals to move as silently as possible. A mountain river bubbled in the background as the team set up an ambush and waited for the poachers to pass by. Using blank rounds, the rangers unleashed 30 seconds of gunfire on the two. In this deadly game in which both sides are armed, the rangers shoot to kill.
A KWS ranger who could give only his first name, John, for security reasons, helps protect rhinos on a private ranch near Mount Kenya. In November his team killed a poacher in a 1 a.m. battle that also saw one poacher escape, he said.
"Every day gunshots are reported," said the 26-year-old. "You must be very keen and see them first. Otherwise you are dead."
Five KWS rangers were killed in the line of duty last year.
Poachers, John said, mostly work at night, and mostly when the moon is close to full. His platoon of 36 have three sets of night vision goggles between them, but poachers often have such goggles, too, he said.
The joint exercise helped the sides enhance and exchange knowledge on counter-poaching tactics, Christie said.
"From what I see in the papers the problem isn't getting better. This is part of an overall plan, a small microchip of a U.K. contribution," Christie said.
Poachers killed around 280 elephants in Kenya last year, a huge number but down from 2012, when 384 were killed. Kenya's elephant population is estimated to be around 35,000. Other countries in the region, namely Tanzania, have seen tens of thousands of elephants killed over the last couple years. Wildlife experts anywhere between 20,000 and 30,000 African elephants are being killed per year.
In South Africa, a park ranger describes a war of attrition in which poaching syndicates dispatch what seems like an endless stream of triggermen, some with military training, to hunt rhinos for their horns. Officials said seven suspected poachers died in four separate confrontations with Kruger rangers last weekend.
"Currently, they're trying to overwhelm us," said Bruce Leslie, a conservationist-turned-combatant in Kruger National Park, South Africa's flagship game reserve. "They're just trying to send in the masses, the cannon fodder, if you like. Expendable people. It's the middle men that actually need to go to jail."
Rangers want to operate more effectively at night, a task made somewhat easier with the donation late last year of an unarmed, former British military helicopter that will allow pilots to scout with night vision equipment and thermal cameras. The Gazelle helicopter was given by businessman Ivor Ichikowitz on behalf of his family foundation and Paramount Group, a South African aerospace and defense firm that he founded.
David Mabunda, CEO of South African National Parks, noted: "He who owns the night wins the war. So far, the poachers have been owning the night." He hopes the new equipment will help swing the balance in favor of the rangers.
Kruger's rangers, who get help from South African National Defense Force troops, also use low-tech approaches, following poachers' tracks with the help of sniffer dogs and spending days in the bush with minimal gear.
Park officials say poachers often slip across the border from neighboring Mozambique. Periodic shootouts usually occur far from tourists, who can only tour about 7 percent of a park that is the size of some small countries.
Home to most of Africa's rhinos, South Africa lost 1,004 to poachers last year, more than half of them in Kruger. The horn is sold for high prices in some parts of Asia, particularly Vietnam, where some view it as a status symbol and a medicine despite no evidence that it can cure ailments.
The U.K. government next month will host a conference attended by Prince Charles on the illegal wildlife trade to improve the prospects for the world's elephants, rhinos and tigers.
Torchia reported from Johannesburg.