Gabon's elephant population is being decimated by poachers chasing ivory. Now these fearless rangers are on a hunt for the hunters.
Picking through the dense jungle in Gabon, a small, equatorial country on Africa’s west coast, rangers close in on a camp of poachers preparing to slaughter the country’s precious forest elephants. Some 36,000 elephants have been killed in the country over the past ten years, around 80 percent of the total stock. Every elephant saved now is critical to this nation, each one not just a national symbol, but a potential tourist attraction for visitors on safari, which can help boost an economy that is flatlining.
Unfortunately, the elephants are sitting ducks for poachers. The enormous animals always use the same tracks, and leave a huge imprint on the jungle’s trees and branches, making them easy to follow. While the jungle itself does the elephants no favors, it provides plenty of cover for poachers to escape.
In stifling humidity, sweat runs in beads down each ranger’s face, their feet moving over branches and fallen trees in battered sneakers or jelly sandals. Razor-sharp elephant grass slices open wet skin with every touch, mosquitos cloud the air. Poachers on the hunt for valuable ivory – worth up to $80 per pound – are armed with AK47s and grenade launchers. They’re not afraid to shoot back at the rangers trying to stop them.
The rangers wading through the Gabonese jungle are unarmed and outnumbered, battling claustrophobic conditions against lethal odds. For a long time the rangers had little support against the poachers, but that has changed. In 2009 there were only 60 rangers covering over a dozen Gabon national parks and 7 million acres. But there are now close to 700 rangers, along with federal support in the form of military training, kit and vehicles.
Andre, who only wished to reveal his first name and is in his mid 30s, has been a ranger for ten years, and has a wife and four children. There are cuts all up his arms from crashing through the forest; he constantly breaks off the conversation to swat the flies that are ever present here.
While Andre is keen for his government to let him and his men carry AK47s, his job is largely done with foot and tongue.
“When you come across poachers, if you talk with violence they react with violence,” Andre explains. “Instead you say, ‘Hello, why are you here?’” At the same time, he adds, you look for the weapons, mainly machetes. “Once you see the weapons around, the fastest ranger will jump on the weapons first to seize them, using surprise. Your heart beats fast. The enemy is right in front of you. But you must keep calm and do your job.”
The Gabon government has been slow to arm their rangers to fight back. There is public opposition to the decision to send armed rangers into the area, especially as many hunters and pygmy tribes legitimately use the forests gathering food and wood.
But now, under combined military supervision from the U.S. Marines, U.S. Army and British Army, the rangers are being taught weapons handling, military tracking techniques and how to forensically seal a crime scene. Not only do the rangers need to be equipped to fire automatic weapons in a dense and confusing jungle, they must learn proper law enforcement techniques too. In the past, many of the poachers have escaped prosecution because vital evidence hasn’t been collected properly.
Major Lou Cascino, Security Co-Operation Programs Manager, has the hectic task of organizing the U.S. half of the mission from an office in the Gabon capital, Libreville. First Lieutenant Johnny Henderson, a public affairs officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, is part of a Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force that, among other duties, teaches Gabon rangers how to handle AK47s. The British staff, headed by Major Joe Murray of 2 Rifles Regiment, are a 16-strong team who will assist in teaching the rangers tracking and arrest techniques, as well as how best to gather information from locals who may come forward with info about poachers or kills.
Every snap of a twig beneath an eager ranger’s feet jeopardizes the work of this major operation. The poachers, unaware, sit drinking tea by a fire, chatting noisily. The rangers watch their every move, and wait for their weapons to be comfortably out of reach. Two columns of rangers on either side silently close the trap.
Moving in single file, they stop as one. A scream goes up, the undergrowth breaks open and camouflaged rangers are suddenly upon the poachers. Using skills taught to them by U.S. and U.K. forces, the skirmish is over quickly – the poachers are so surprised they don’t even attempt to fight back. Once arrested, the poachers are tied and put in positions – on their knees, with their feet crossed over – so it takes them several motions to get up. This military trick is useful in stopping the poachers from simply running off into the forest. With the arrests made, the rangers begin to comb the site for forensics – tusks, hunting knives, snares, saws for cutting off ivory – anything that can be put forward to courts for evidence to secure prosecutions.
Major Joe Murray declares the operation a success.
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The jungle is remorseless and inhospitable, endless miles of hard uphill terrain, trees and mud. Hidden within are venomous snakes, elephants who might charge, and territorial gorillas. British Army tracker, Corporal Gyanendra Rai, says the gorillas are the most deadly hazard. “You cannot run,” Rai offers. “They will smash you around like a ragdoll.” Not that you’d see them until it was too late. Visibility is less than ten feet. Everything you touch is wet, your clothes are constantly damp and, because of the atmosphere, things like cuts and sores take ten times longer to heal.
“You get lost, fall, you can die in the jungle without even encountering a human enemy,” says Major Lou Cascino. “The danger is not only your initial injury but how long will it take you to get to another level of care. How far are you from a landing zone or a patrol to drive you out of there?”
Cascino insists the poachers are not just dealing in ivory. “We believe these same networks that engage in ivory can be used to traffic weapons,” he observes. “Be it criminal or extremist, whatever it is that is destabilizing development in the region, is a problem for all the people that live here.”
As Gabon Parks technical director, Christian Mbina oversees the anti-poaching operation across the country’s 13 national parks. He says his rangers are heroes who know every day they go out it could cost them their lives – one was recently shot in the foot and suffered serious injuries. “Groups such as Boko Haram, what do they live from? It comes [from] piracy and poaching, the sale of ivory,” says Mbina. “The same way Al-Shabaab are involved in ivory poaching in the east of Africa, Kenya and Tanzania.” (While a connection between the ivory trade and terrorism groups such as Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab has been widely cited in press reports and was mentioned by multiple sources interviewed for this piece, others, including a UN and Interpol report, have cast doubt on this claim.)
Each time officers need to make their way from Libreville – where Major Cascino is based on a training camp – the eight-hour journey is a terrible one. The Gabonese nominally drive on the right, but – with potholes, loose animals and other road users – drivers slalom as necessary. In Libreville the roadside stalls sell sunglasses, canned drinks and soccer shirts, but as the trees appear and the clay road gets muddier, the vendors offer more exotic goods – a range of bush meat hung up from poles. Should you have the appetite, you can dine on antelope, wild boar and even monkey, but it is the forest elephants, smaller than their Indian cousins, that are in the biggest danger of extinction. One of the rangers describes how he now sees the elephants keeping their heads bowed whenever they’re seen, almost as if they know they should keep their tusks from view.
The Marines have taught the rangers to move in single file to make sure people don’t get lost, and to make sure they are not bunched up in a way that makes them a large target. They’ve also learned how to talk on radios to transfer information, and how to use hand and arm signals to communicate in military sign language.
A few days after the poacher arrest, the body of an adult male elephant lies, rotting and burned out, down a rutted, rain-soaked pathway in the Mokekou forest. It has been poached, its tusks removed so crudely that the skull is left split open. Rangers, having found the body, then burned the hide to stop it from being gathered and sold elsewhere. President Ali Bongo recently ordered Gabon’s own stockpile of tusks and ivory goods to be burned publicly to demonstrate how serious the country was about ending poaching. A ranger gets too close to this particular carcass and soldier ants swarm up his legs causing him to pat himself down furiously. The smell of rotting flesh is suffocating.
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In the jungle, the U.S. Marines are instructing Gabon rangers on how to operate AK47s, the weapon of choice in Africa. The Gabon government hasn’t finalized plans for the rangers to be armed, but in the event of such a move they are being trained to U.S. Marine standard, even though the U.S. forces don’t use this particular automatic weapon.
First Lieutenant Johnny Henderson explains firing rounds in the jungle is nothing like you see in the movies. Even with an automatic weapon, it is about precision. “The key rule is always know your target and what lies beyond it,” he says, explaining there could be members of your own troop on the far side of your intended target. “If you’re always in a certain formation – single file – you therefore know where your colleagues are before you fire back. It’s about geometries of fire.”
Each afternoon at the training camp you can hear the word bang shouted over and over again. The Gabon rangers learn how to fire, starting off by simply getting into position and pretending to shoot.
“There is nothing easy about shooting,” Henderson says. “Marines learn standard shooting positions – kneeling, moving, standing positions. It’s about going back to those fundamentals so they can protect their life or their buddies’ lives.” He says the rangers become “super enthusiastic” upon being told for the first time that they’ll soon shoot live rounds. “It’s incredible taking them from a big group of strangers into a tight platoon of six to 12 and getting them working together.”
Similar anti-poaching allied missions have already been completed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Botswana and Kenya, not only firming up trading partners, saving endangered animals and providing jobs, but also providing training for their own troops. The next global conflict could be anywhere in the world and so allied troops need to be versed in all terrain – be it heavy snow, mountains or forest.
Everything the Gabon rangers are being taught centers on cast-iron intelligence, using knowledge to ensure firing a bullet is absolutely the last resort. Henderson says, “It’s understanding when not to use force. Not per se, pulling the trigger on somebody, but just raising the weapon in a way that creates enough of an impact that force isn’t necessary.”
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Life in Gabon is hard for most people, and tourism – which currently supplies less than three percent of the country’s GDP – will be essential for boosting the economy.
The wildlife trade also provides vital jobs. Ranger Andre initially applied to be a policeman, but when a park manager came to his town looking for rangers, he jumped at the chance. He says the poachers are usually poor farmers who are manipulated by wealthy international groups. “The people here have a tough life,” he concedes. “Living near the jungle, they have poverty, disease and fleas. Most of the people who go into the forests are poor people who are just looking for something to eat or sell – be it ivory, gold, animals. The rich people give them weapons to kill elephants. You need to stop the rich otherwise the poor people will keep coming as they have no other money.”
The dangers of his job are very real for Andre. “Every day there are problems,” he says. “I was walking along the river [once] and I stepped over a log. All of a sudden, I felt something and I looked down and a crocodile had bit me. Everybody looked over to see what had happened. It was a big wound – a scratch from the crocodile!”
Building understanding and team spirit between the allied troops and the Gabon rangers has been paramount. Walking into the jungle, they need complete trust and familiarity with each other. To do this, the U.S. Marines have been playing sports, team games and fitness drills with the Gabon rangers. Each dawn breaks with the sounds of Gabonese rangers excitedly chasing after balls, scoring goals or doing fitness drills. By the morning, they are put through their paces working on patrol formations and studying maps. They’re even taught to interview suspects and witnesses appropriately. Park managers are also encouraged to link up with each other on WhatsApp – a phone-call and texting app that can be used seamlessly between international numbers – so they can pass information, pictures, coordinates and maps more easily.
But nothing can remove the sheer amount of patrolling that needs to be done in a country that is mostly jungle.
“Before, the rangers were only able to push out three miles into the jungle on patrol because of the heat and thickness of the forest,” Henderson says. But now they can push out three miles, set up a base and then push out another three miles beyond that.”
Henderson has no doubt that, once the Marines leave Gabon, the rangers have a better chance of keeping the forests secure. “They get here so early before training starts,” Henderson says, observing the rangers’ willingness to learn. “You have guys who have never driven a vehicle before and two months later they are driving giant trucks.”
For the Marines, sent here for the benefit of people in a foreign land, the returns are as palpable as the jungle humidity. “This is a job where, every morning, the knowledge you pass on to the Gabonese and other partner nations, they pass it all on,” Henderson says. “Life skills, something you’ve never thought of. That’s why we’re all here.”