Armed to the teeth, the heroes fighting to save elephants – from terrorists
A dramatic and very personal dispatch from the frontline of an increasingly bloody conflict against poachers funding fanatics
The elephants of my childhood, Vladimir and Evgeny, have probably been killed by now. I was very lucky that I ever got to see them with my own eyes, but such are the perks for a little boy whose grandfather was the Soviet Union’s top biologist.
They were fictitious in the beginning, invented by my grandfather Vladimir Sokolov, as he tucked me in to bed at night.
I would hear how Vladimir and Evgeny would get stuck in mud holes and roam the African forests getting into adventures, and how Vladimir would save little Evgeny from the clutches of lions and leopards. In the flickering electricity of the lamps in our Soviet flat, it was my first introduction to the wonder of wildlife.
A few years later, accompanying my grandfather on a government trip to Kenya, a battered Jeep took us to a ridge a couple of hours’ drive south of Nairobi and, as we crested the top, the view opened to reveal a herd of elephants around a waterhole.
I stared at the joy of it: the plodding feet, the curling trunks moving across the wide escarpment, the young ones nuzzling at the grown-ups’ tree-trunk legs.
Almost all the adults were female, my grandfather explained, except for two young males, old enough now to soon start out of their own, their life’s adventures unfolding in front of them like the African savannah.
The larger one, he nicknamed Vladimir; the smaller one, Evgeny. It was an image of calm perfection — a scene which, even to my then 14-year-old self, was clearly how nature at its purest should be. Vladimir and Evgeny were young enough, then, to still be alive now, and they may well be, but the numbers suggest otherwise.
They may still be trumpeting around the African bush. But it’s more likely that what remains of them is an ivory dragon somewhere on a Chinese mantelpiece.
When I saw that herd there were around 1.2 million elephants on the continent. Three-quarters of those, including most likely many of the elephants I saw that day, have since been hunted for their tusks — and the numbers being lost are growing.
The reality is that there is a war going on in Africa and it is war between wildlife rangers and poachers to ensure the survival of some of the world’s most iconic species. It is also a war that the conservationists are losing.
Elephants have been poached in such numbers that unless urgent action is taken the reality we face is that they risk extinction in the wild within the next decade. This is not only the case in Kenya but across Africa. This year alone some 36,000 elephants will be killed across the continent — an average of one every 20 minutes.
In Chad, which once had 15,000 elephants, there are now just 400. In Sierra Leone, the last elephant disappeared three years ago.
The reason is greed — and specifically the vast profits that can be made from ivory due to the seemingly insatiable demand of Asia’s rapidly growing middle-classes.
Many there still see ivory as an aspirational product and, as people’s bank balances swell, the law of supply and demand has resulted in prices rocketing. A kilogram of ivory is now worth £1,225 on the black market, three times what it was four years ago.
The tragedy is that many do not appreciate the consequence of their purchase as, incredibly, it is not universally known in Asia that elephants are killed to extract their ivory.
In China, some 70 per cent of people were found in a survey to believe tusks grew back like fingernails. That ignorance is resulting in bloodied carcasses across the savannahs.
I recently returned from Africa, where I have been working closely with the Kenya-based elephant protection charity Space for Giants to do what we can to help save those elephants that remain.
Together we have helped finance anti-poaching patrols in Laikipia, one of the last great enclaves for elephants in East Africa, and helped facilitate the purchase of a new conservancy, Loisaba, to act as a vast — and heavily protected — sanctuary.
Training programmes have been introduced for local wildlife rangers and the judiciary, and plans are in place to extend our work into Tanzania and Gabon. The trip rammed home the scale of the threat — and the urgency of the action required to combat it.
Those seeking to kill elephants are no longer local farmers armed with a bow and arrow or an old rifle, seeking some extra bucks.
Increasingly, it is heavily armed professional gangs financed by the same money-men who make their wealth from the smuggling of drugs and people being sold into prostitution.
Organisations that rank among the most loathsome in the world are culpable. Al-Shabaab, the Somalian extremists who carried out the slaughter in Nairobi’s Westgate mall; Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, which routinely kidnaps and drugs children to turn them into child soldiers; and Janjaweed, the roving gunmen who carried out the genocide in Darfur, all resort to ivory poaching to finance their nefarious activities.
Against them is a thin green line of wildlife rangers. In the face of such a sustained onslaught, they have had to militarise or risk being overrun.
In Laikipia, I have been on night patrols with units of these brave men. And be in no doubt that the dangers they face are no less than those confronting combatants in a real war. Space for Giants’ rangers are dressed in combat fatigues. Their weapons are Heckler & Koch G3s, the German-made automatic rifle that is one of the most efficient and modern in the world. Their webbing is filled with military supplies, including night-vision goggles and closed-frequency radios.
The medic, taking up the rear, normally has the latest combat kit, including bandages dripped in quick-clot — only just developed by U.S. forces — to stop the bleeding from a gunshot wound.
Before we set out one evening, the unit’s commander, Jackson Kamunya, left me in no doubt as to why such equipment is needed.
‘A report came in on the radio that the poachers were active and we mobilised the helicopter to get to them before they could reach the animals,’ he said of a recent patrol.
‘It meant we got there ahead of them so we could set our ambush. We could see them, all armed with AK-47s. Then everyone started shooting.’
Twelve people have been killed in the poaching war being waged in just a small area of Kenya. To the north, in West Pokot County, five poachers were shot dead and two rangers wounded in a further fire-fight.
The same story is being repeated across the continent. South Africa’s Kruger Park saw a police constable and a ranger killed as they tried to track poachers seeking rhino horn.
In Uganda, there have been reports of poachers using attack helicopters to mow down elephants.
Some 1,000 wildlife rangers — a third more than the entire losses of the British military in Iraq and Afghanistan — have been killed in the past decade.
Space for Giants’ founder, Dr Max Graham, is certain that only ‘boots on the ground’, like those I patrolled with, can blunt the poaching threat until demand in Asia is eased through education programmes. Changing such beliefs, however, is a process that will likely take decades.
‘The illegal trade has already effectively wiped out rhinos from the wild, forcing them to become a highly managed population in a small number of sanctuaries,’ he explained.
‘That’s what will happen to elephants if the present rate of slaughter continues. That is the reality of the situation. It’s a war, a war for wildlife, being waged right here, right now.”
My grandfather is no longer with us, although his work is still studied in universities across the former Soviet Union. He died in 1998 of a rare form of bone cancer, most likely caused as a result of the work he was required to conduct in Chernobyl in the immediate aftermath of the reactor meltdown.
He always wanted me to be a zoologist. I let him down in not achieving that but I still gained from him a love of nature and a life-long commitment to conversation and wildlife protection.
It is what makes what is now unfolding to the animals he first introduced me to in those make-believe stories so unbearable to watch. I know he would be proud of what — with Space for Giants and all the Independent and Evening Standard readers who have supported this cause — we have achieved so far.
In the area of Laikipia that is implementing our programmes, poaching rates are already down 60 per cent. And the area we protect will spread. I am committed to that.
Part of our work involves tracking elephants’ migratory patterns so the alert can be raised if one approaches known poaching hot spots.
To do this the animals are darted and a GPS collar is fitted. Each is then given a name so it can be identified as its progress is charted.
Late last year we darted a young male, which we nicknamed Evgeny. Recently, I fitted another collar, this time to a fully-grown bull elephant. We called him Vladimir.
It means I can now track them both through the elephant-monitoring system fitted to Space for Giants computers, and watch this new Vladimir and Evgeny as they really do roam the plains of Africa as elephants have since before the dawn of man.
Long may they do so. And long may all their kind continue to do so, despite the war waged against them so that their tusks can be turned into trinkets. This is a fight for their survival that cannot be lost.
My grandfather would have told me that. It is what he taught me all those years ago at my bedside.
Evgeny Lebedev is the owner of The Independent and Evening Standard newspapers. Follow him on Twitter: @mrevgenylebedev