Few people are aware of the reality of the illegal wildlife trade, the global scale of it that in many cases is driven by organized crime gangs who will not only kill their quarry but anybody who tries to stop them. Few understand the true meaning of Anti-Poaching and the darkness behind the fantasy.
An experienced operator in organized crime and Anti-poaching units wrote this article. It explains the situation faced by those on the frontline of this little war. For security reasons, the author decided to remain anonymous. We will call him “Ranger Alpha.”
From the very beginning, my involvement in Anti-poaching has never been about me, and this opportunity to share some of my experiences and thoughts with the readers of Insider Release is no different. My pursuit in this line of conservation has never been about me or receiving some sort of personal gain for me, it has always been about the wildlife, and having this opportunity to raise awareness on an international level is indeed a rare privilege. I have experienced some of the below firsthand and some of it was experienced by peers, the passion and skills of the people that fight poaching are beyond what most people would ever imagine.
I would like to think that the majority of the human race has heard about the poaching situation in Southern Africa, but in truth do I really know? In a perfect world perhaps if the majority were aware then perhaps the efforts to thwart the damage caused by the illegal wildlife trade would be slowed somewhat more. That said, I do know that many people are aware of the slaughter of elephants and rhinos for their ivory and horn, the poaching of lions, and how their parts are used for traditional medicines. Apparently, the “believers” like to put shavings of rhino horn in their whiskey to show status amongst other things to their peers.
But much smaller creatures are also victims, such as our little friend the Pangolin, one of the most if not the most trafficked animals in Africa.
The insurgencies in national parks are inconceivable, maybe the world knows a little about these majestic animals that are being wiped off the face of the earth due to traditional beliefs, corruption, and greed but I often wonder how many people know about the hundreds yes the hundreds of poachers diving every night off the coast of Southern Africa for a little defenseless Abalone shellfish…….. Probably not.
As with many romantic visions of doing good, there’s a certain fantasy about the preservation of nature. Yet, not many people know about the dangers faced by those incredible people who fight a war to save all creatures great and small, the targets of the illegal wildlife trade. It is a little-known fact that the private game reserve owners are doing everything in their power to preserve and save certain species, but the consequence is living with the knowledge that themselves and their staff may also become targets of those associated with organized crime and down-stream trading who will murder to minimize disruption to their illegal missions.
In my opinion, every person that is involved on the right side of the fight against poaching is a hero and nothing short of it. There are so many people behind the scenes that are involved that put their hearts and souls into making a difference, but there are a select few that put their lives on the line every day and sacrifice family and other things to protect mother nature. Some are paid but definitely not enough, perhaps enough to get by living as a single person, and some not at a cent as they volunteer, putting their own money into learning different skills and lending a hand every spare moment they get.
Imagine being an on-duty endangered species law enforcement officer. You have a team-mate plus one K9 because your whole unit only has two dogs for the whole metro area of a coastal city of 4.5 million people, so you are one team with one dog attending to potentially hundreds of situations. Imagine working for a national park in the same area and you have to apprehend armed poachers, and you are unarmed because the firearms your unit held were stolen out of the safe because your colleagues were held up at gunpoint and forced to open the armory safe, or out of two boats assigned to you only one works and you can only use it every so often because of budget restraints (but the ‘top brass’ drive executive/luxury vehicles) and are also not willing to spend on further professional training. Imagine being on an operation where you have 15 people trying to catch hundreds of divers in the water but 20 minutes before the poachers reach the area where you can apprehend maybe just a few, some members have to leave because its shift changed and they will be reprimanded for working overtime. These are just examples I have experienced in my career, and trust me there are a lot more.
Poaching doesn’t only happen in the bush it happens in big cities along the coastline right under people’s noses and they let it happen because there is nothing they can do about it. Imagine being an investigation officer and going to sleep at night fearing for your life because you are trying to make a difference. One wrong move and you pay the ultimate price. There are rangers and law enforcement officers that live in the same communities as poachers and the poacher’s bosses. If they are found out it’s easy for the poachers to approach them and give them two options “Give me information” or “You and your family die”. What would your answer be?
So not only are you on the front lines trying to protect mother nature and do it according to the law (and best you do it according to the law because in many instances I have witnessed, the law favors the criminal) but you are also on the front lines at home trying to conceal your identity and protect your loved ones.
What fuels this massacre?
A friend once said to me “I understand why poachers poach, I have a family and if I was on the bones of my ass I would do anything for them to survive”. That struck me because I then also tried to understand it from their point of view, being if you live in a poor country and can make life-changing money why not! But then you see what is actually going on, yes there are some desperate amateurs out there, but it takes skill to hunt, dive, coordinate and plan a poaching operation. These guys are experienced, they are professionals, and they do it for a living. It takes a certain type of person to end a defenseless animal’s life. Some don´t put the animal down with the first shot – they injure the animal, they will then track it, cut its hind legs tendons and the animal will drag itself until it comes to a stop, and the poacher will follow it hopefully not having to shoot it again so as not to give away his position. Some cows will have their calves with them, a calf will try and protect its mother while she is having her horn removed while still alive. The poacher will attack the baby with his machete injuring the baby. So what does the scene look like when someone arrives? An injured calf, a half-dead mother breathing blood, snout all mangled, with minimal chance of surviving this ordeal. The calf likely won´t survive in a rescue center because believe it or not they can die from stress and depression as they rely on their mother for growth (imagine if that happened to a human, imagine the uproar, imagine the press coverage) It takes a unique type of sick person to put an animal through that, and for what reward? For its horn! Can a person really be that hungry when they only take the horn and leave the meat?
Imagine laying static in the freezing cold, your body heat seeping into the ground beneath you with the chill off the ocean sneaking in under your thermal clothing while you wait for hours patiently watching divers rape the ocean, and then when they come out it is ‘go time’ and you attempt to sneak up on them a scout observes you and blows the whistle, they all just dive back into the ocean and swim away. There are no boats to assist because of budget constraints so you watch 30 poachers swim away swearing and laughing to taunt you, what an insult. These are professionals! They are not your average ‘Joe’, they know EXACTLY what they are doing. Imagine making a massive bust on an illegal abalone facility and it all moves to a government storage facility, only for the poachers to rob the facility a day or 2 later, shoot the security guards and make off with the catch that was confiscated from them. Now you start to think hang on maybe, just maybe these are professionals.
Trying to make a difference
The illegal sale of animals and animal parts funds gangs and terrorism, gangs that are involved in drugs, human trafficking, and farm murders to list a few. Imagine being the guys that are trying to apprehend these guys and what they go through. The fear of catching someone and they are let out on bail and recognized a few days later in your community. Think about being their opposition, the good guys, and being the thorn in the side of the bad guys, getting in the way of the fortune that they could’ve made but you thwarted it. Now his foot soldier has recognized you in the shops or on the street or in your car where ever it may be. What’s the best thing they can do to keep their operation going? easy, just get rid of you or threaten and attack your family and force information out of you and get you involved in their syndicate, that’s a pretty scary thought.
There are private individuals out there that are trying to make a difference, people that take their personal time and money to upskill themselves and contribute to the cause. People approach law enforcement agencies and apply for reservist or auxiliary positions so offering free help, yes free help but there is no one to help with their application or applications just go missing. Imagine having such passionate people that want to help, but can´t because no one answers their calls, because of politics and corruption these people are ignored. People that work a day job are willing to put all their extra time into helping. They drive around in their community trying to be eyes and ears and help the cause but only to be threatened!
It’s difficult to explain what your average Anti-poaching “ranger, LEO, the volunteer goes through,” explaining an operation may give away too much information for the educated criminal to learn from. Explaining how they operate could also let them know that “we” might know a little more than what they think. I would like to see a politician, maybe someone from the top brass or a person of influence go through what these people go through when they are operating and more importantly the dangers they live in. The skills some of these people have are nothing short of genius, to watch a tracker tracking an animal or potential poachers is poetry, to watch a small team working together would give any person the chills, and then just to top it off their trusty K9 companions get into the mix, watching an operator and his dog working together is somewhat emotional and yes that K9 is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for his team, without a moment’s hesitation. These people protect nature as if it is their own. Some people try and justify poaching but forget to think that a ranger has an emotional attachment to all the animals he looks after and will do anything to protect them. No different to a person that has a house pet, I’m sure they would be pretty shocked and outraged if someone mutilated their cat or dog for money or traditional medicines.
An individual involved in Anti-poaching has many dangers that maybe some people haven´t thought about, yes some might sound farfetched, some might sound unreal and I might miss some.
There is so much to consider, for the rangers at the national and private parks there is a dangerous game, venomous creatures, the risk of armed contact, and the threat of being recognized.
The helicopter pilots and the amazing things they do.
The marine units have the ocean to negotiate, high-speed boat chases, they have the possibility of being taken on by 20-odd divers when they try to make an arrest.
The units on the ground chasing couriers and decoys and being in high-speed car chases and being shot at.
The investigating officers and intelligence people and all the threats they face.
The volunteers trying to make a difference and they are being subjected to violence and threats and still pitch up like everyone else the next day to make a difference.
Every single person involved in anti-poaching can be considered to be in danger. The people at the top, the guys above the foot soldiers the Kingpins the people with the big money, if you step in their way and upset their cash flow and dealings there is going to be a point where they will come for you.
Sounds like an action movie in the making, but it’s not, it’s reality, and there are people that have been making a difference since before I was born and they don´t do it for the glory they do it for Mother Nature.
We take so much from nature, maybe it’s time we gave back.
“Ranger Alpha” for
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