To Save Wildlife, and Tourism, Kenyans Take Up Arms
January 2, 2013 Jeffrey Gettleman / The New York Times
From Tanzania to Cameroon, tens of thousands of elephants are being poached each year because of Asia's soaring demand for ivory. Nothing seems to be stopping it, including deploying national armies. At this rate, African elephants could soon go the way of the American buffalo. But in northern Kenya, destitute villagers have seized upon an unconventional solution -- civilians with no military training are picking up shotguns and rifles to confront heavily armed poachers.
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ARCHER'S POST, Kenya (December 30, 2012) -- Julius Lokinyi was one of the most notorious poachers in this part of Kenya, accused of single-handedly killing as many as 100 elephants and selling the tusks by the side of the road in the dead of night, pumping vast amounts of ivory into a shadowy global underground trade.
But after being hounded, shamed, browbeaten and finally persuaded by his elders, he recently made a remarkable transformation. Elephants, he has come to believe, are actually worth more alive than dead, because of the tourists they attract. So Mr. Lokinyi stopped poaching and joined a grass-roots squad of rangers -- essentially a conservation militia -- to protect the wildlife he once slaughtered.
Nowadays he gets up at dawn, slurps down a cup of sugary tea, tightens his combat boots and marches off with other villagers, some who had never picked up a gun before and are little more than volunteers, to fight poachers.
"We got to protect the elephants," said Mr. Lokinyi, whose hooded eyes now glow with the zeal of a convert.
From Tanzania to Cameroon, tens of thousands of elephants are being poached each year, more than at any time in decades, because of Asia's soaring demand for ivory. Nothing seems to be stopping it, including deploying national armies, and the bullet-riddled carcasses keep stacking up. Scientists say that at this rate, African elephants could soon go the way of the wild American bison.
But in this stretch of northern Kenya, destitute villagers have seized upon an unconventional solution that, if replicated elsewhere, could be the key to saving thousands of elephants across Africa, conservationists say. In a growing number of communities here, people are so eager, even desperate, to protect their wildlife that civilians with no military experience are banding together, grabbing shotguns and G3 assault rifles and risking their lives to confront heavily armed poaching gangs.
It is essentially a militarized neighborhood watch, with loping, 6-foot-6 former herdsmen acting as the block captains, and the block being miles and miles of zebra-studded bush. These citizen-rangers are not doing this out of altruism or some undying love for pachyderms. They do it because in Kenya, perhaps more than just about anywhere else, wildlife means tourists, and tourists mean dollars -- a lot of dollars.
It is not unusual here for a floppy-hatted visitor to drop $700 a night to sleep in a tent and absorb the sights, sounds and musky smells of wondrous game. Much of that money is contractually bound to go directly to impoverished local communities, which use it for everything from pumping water to college scholarships, giving them a clear financial stake in preserving wildlife. The safari business is a pillar of the Kenyan economy, generating more than a billion dollars a year and nearly 500,000 jobs: cooks, cleaners, bead-stringers, safari guides, bush pilots, even accountants to tally the proceeds.
Surprisingly, many jobs in the safari industry can pay as much as poaching. Though the ivory trade may seem lucrative, it is often like the Somali pirate business model, with the entry-level hijacker getting just a minuscule cut of the million-dollar ransoms. While a pound of ivory can fetch $1,000 on the streets of Beijing, Mr. Lokinyi, despite his lengthy poaching résumé, was broke, making it easier to lure him out of the business.
Villagers are also turning against poachers because the illegal wildlife trade fuels crime, corruption, instability and intercommunal fighting. Here in northern Kenya, poachers are diversifying into stealing livestock, printing counterfeit money and sometimes holding up tourists. Some are even buying assault rifles used in ethnic conflicts.
The conservation militias are often the only security forces around, so they have become de facto 911 squads, rushing off to all sorts of emergencies in areas too remote for the police to quickly gain access to and often getting into shootouts with poachers and bandits.
"This isn't just about animals," said Paul Elkan, a director at the Wildlife Conservation Society, who is trying to set up community ranger squads in South Sudan modeled on the Kenyan template. "It's about security, conflict reconciliation, even nation building."
The rangers tend to be hardened and uneducated, drawn from different ethnic groups and the surplus of unemployed youth. Gabriel Lesoipa was a goat herder; Joseph Lopeiyok, a cattle rustler; John Pameri won his coveted spot because he was fast -- at the time he was selected, the first entry requirement was a grueling 11-mile race.
Many are considered warriors in their communities, experts in so-called bushcraft from years of grazing cattle and goats across the thorny savanna -- and defending them against armed raiders. They can follow faint footprints across long, thirsty distances and instantly intuit when someone has trespassed on their land.
The American government is throwing its weight behind such community conservation efforts, contributing more than $4 million to Kenya. But there are obvious risks. In Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other African countries, homegrown militias initially mustered to protect communities have often turned into predators themselves.
"It's pretty hopeless to stop elephant poaching in Africa unless you get local buy-in," said Iain Douglas-Hamilton, one of the world's most celebrated elephant researchers, who runs Save the Elephants. "But implementing this is a different matter. If you don't do this carefully, you'll have people killing each other."
In 1989, during Africa's last poaching crisis, Ian Craig sat up on a rock in the craggy Mathews range of northern Kenya, where his family owned a big cattle ranch, and watched helplessly through a pair of binoculars as poachers mowed down a whole herd of elephants.
It was a searing lesson.
"Government couldn't be everywhere," he said. "And poaching was everywhere."
So Mr. Craig, who is often considered the grandfather of Kenya's community conservation efforts, began enlisting local men to help protect wildlife. At first, the national government refused to arm them, saying there was absolutely no way it was going to deputize civilians, especially when Kenya, like many African countries, has a shoot-to-kill policy for any armed poacher spotted in a wildlife zone.
But after Kenya's wildlife department changed leadership in the mid-1990s, Mr. Craig prevailed, and he has slowly but steadily built a nonprofit army. The Northern Rangelands Trust, the umbrella organization he helped found in 2004, is made up of 19 communities, with another 32 asking to join. It has 461 scouts patrolling nearly 8,000 square miles; two small airplanes and a million-dollar helicopter on its way; an "ops" center with flat-screen monitors tracking elephants by satellite; and a "strong room" packed with thermal-imagery scopes and a rack of weapons.
Some of the guns are Mr. Craig's. Others are provided by the Kenya police reserve, which makes a cursory background check before handing out weapons to civilians. But once the guns are in the hands of the roaming citizen-rangers, there is little direct government oversight.
The militiamen receive anywhere from $25 to $320 a month, which comes from the nonprofit wildlife zones, known as conservancies, that are obligated to give 60 percent of their safari revenues to local communities and hire 75 percent local staff.
The local incentive to protect wildlife seems self-evident. Namibia, for instance, now has more than 70 community conservancies. And villagers there take them very seriously, ready to pounce -- or at least alert the authorities -- if there are any intruders.
"An enemy of wildlife is an enemy of the people," said Rob Moffett, an executive with Wilderness Safaris, a company in Namibia.
On a recent day, a squad of community scouts near Archer's Post, in Kenya's arid north, were guarding Matt, a massive, treetop-high bull with enormous tusks -- six feet long and as thick as paint cans, a poacher's dream. The plan was to shadow Matt as he ranged across the veld, knocking down trees and snacking on leaves.
"No elephants, no money," explained Mr. Lopeiyok, the former cattle rustler turned scout.
He and the other scouts said that they had killed several poaching suspects, sometimes showing off the pictures, and that they do not blink at taking a human life to protect an elephant's.
It is difficult to measure the success of the community ranger programs, but Kenya's poaching levels have declined drastically from the slaughter days of the 1970s and 1980s, when thousands of elephants were poached each year.
This year, Kenyan authorities say, around 350 elephants have been poached, triple the number in 2008 -- but those are just the confirmed kills, and many carcasses are never discovered. The government is trying to work more closely with the community rangers, running training courses for some of them.
A Killer Transformed
Mr. Lokinyi is one of the rookie rangers, around 28 years old and slowly emerging from his days of ill repute. His stipend is a mere $25 a month. He calls himself "a volunteer."
"I had this Somali friend, a poacher, who said to me, ‘You kill elephants, we share,' " said Mr. Lokinyi, recalling how he got into the business. "I had raided cattle. I had killed many people. So killing elephants caused no feeling."
He became the leader of a secretive gang that would take specific orders, maybe 6 tusks today, 10 the next. After they killed the elephants and hacked out the ivory, they waited until the middle of the night to rendezvous with ivory brokers, often Somalis from nearby Isiolo, a frontier town of hard looks where Somalis, Samburus, Boranas and Turkanas have feuded for years. Yet the money he made flowed through his fingers like sand, and he had become a liability for his community, with the authorities constantly looking for him and harassing his relatives.
That is when Benjamin Lopetet stepped in. Mr. Lopetet is a fellow Turkana who left a comfortable job at a bank to run the Nakuprat-Gotu community conservancy, which started last year.
"Whenever we heard of an elephant getting killed," Mr. Lopetet said, "it was always Lokinyi, Lokinyi, Lokinyi."
He spent months begging Mr. Lokinyi's relatives to set up a meeting, and when they finally met last year, Mr. Lopetet explained that Somali ivory traffickers were exploiting Mr. Lokinyi, paying him peanuts and using the money to buy rifles to kill Turkanas. "I realized I was being used," Mr. Lokinyi said. "And that I was useless."
Mr. Lopetet offered him a deal: stop poaching elephants and work with us.
Of course, there is always a risk in trying to reform a poacher.
"It's backfired before," Mr. Craig said. "We've had bad guys become good guys and then bad guys again. But you got to try."
These days Mr. Lokinyi sports his crisp camouflage fatigues with pride and patrols the same scratchy miles of thorn bush he used to stalk, using his bushcraft to predict where the poachers will strike next. He went through a proper redemption ritual this spring in which goats were slaughtered and fat smeared over his body. He moved into a new home and was even given a new set of ceremonial parents, elders who took him in.
"I've done many bad things," Mr. Lokinyi said. "But now I am clean."
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