Fight to save African ele­phant tak­ing on new di­men­sions

China Daily (USA) - - ACROSS AMERICA - Chris Davis Con­tact the writer at chris­davis@chi­nadai­

The Com­bined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa is a coali­tion of US and African troops that emerged from the Op­er­a­tion En­dur­ing Free­dom re­sponse to the 9/11 ter­ror at­tacks. Their orig­i­nal tar­gets were rad­i­cal ex­trem­ists, but now be­cause ter­ror groups are re­port­edly cross­ing over into the busi­ness of wildlife poach­ing to raise funds, they’ve put them­selves in the crosshairs of an­tipoach­ing pa­trols as well.

The en­dan­gered African ele­phant could ben­e­fit.

In Tan­za­nia alone, home of the leg­endary Serengeti and other wildlife edens, re­cent sur­veys have shown that ele­phant pop­u­la­tions have de­clined by as much as 50 per­cent to 60 per­cent in just the past five years.

The Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies now con­firms that vi­o­lent ex­trem­ist groups are ac­tively bar­ter­ing ivory for weapons and am­mu­ni­tion.

The re­sult is what US Air Force Staff Sgt Eric Sum­mers de­scribes as “com­pound­ing a con­ser­va­tion prob­lem with an even larger se­cu­rity prob­lem.”

To get af­ter that prob­lem head-on, Tan­za­nian park and game re­serve rangers teamed up with the US Army’s 403rd Civil Af­fairs Bat­tal­ion (part of the Com­bined Joint Task Force) and the North Carolina Na­tional Guard for two months of an­tipoach­ing train­ing at Rungwa Game Re­serve.

“We are here for these two months to train Rungwa Park rangers in field craft to im­prove their abil­ity to track, cap­ture and ar­rest il­le­gal poach­ers,” said US Army Capt Michael Wil­son, bat­til­ion team leader.

“Tan­za­nia has the sec­ond­high­est con­cen­tra­tion of African ele­phants on the con­ti­nent. Their pop­u­la­tion has been halved in the past ten years. It’s a cri­sis that not only af­fects East Africa — it af­fects the whole world.”

Rungwa Game Re­serve game of­fi­cer Dom­ina Mgelwa said there had been a lot of in­ci­dents of poach­ing and learn­ing from the US Army sol­diers was ben­e­fi­cial to adapt­ing to the crim­i­nals’ meth­ods.

US sol­diers, he said, “are more ex­pe­ri­enced in the field and they have more tech­niques which are im­por­tant for us. Time changes and tech­niques change, so we need some new knowl­edge and tech­niques.”

Wil­son said US sol­diers taught rangers skills in first aid, ac­clima­ti­za­tion, track­ing, in­tel­li­gence, “a full spec­trum of train­ing ac­tiv­i­ties.”

They also learned about small unit tac­tics, some­thing Wil­son said they were en­thu­si­as­tic about learn­ing.

“I found the Tan­za­nian rangers to be ex­tremely friendly, open-minded, hard work­ing and will­ing to learn,” Wil­son said. “They came to class ev­ery­day ready to learn and — truth be told — we of­ten took them out­side of their com­fort zone. They never com­plained, they did what we asked of them, and I think the ben­e­fit is that they will go away with skills and knowl­edge that will stay with them for their re­main­ing time as rangers.”

Mgelwa ac­knowl­edged that the train­ing was dif­fi­cult but the rangers pulled to­gether and as a re­sult, built their con­fi­dence in pro­tect­ing the re­serve’s re­main­ing 44,000 ele­phants.

Re­serve se­nior game war­den Moses Munya said he felt equipped now to fight the poach­ers, and that he could pass the skills on to other rangers who were not able to at­tend the train­ing.

“I like the mil­i­tary tac­tics,” he said. “They have trained us how to crawl and dif­fer­ent for­ma­tions to reach the poach­ers’ camp, or even cap­ture poach­ers.”

Wil­son be­lieves the rangers will be more ef­fec­tive in hunt­ing down poach­ers and “the sta­tis­tics will even­tu­ally bear out that our ac­tions here have had a pos­i­tive im­pact.”

“The op­por­tu­nity is great,” Wil­son said. “It’s a noble en­deavor to come here and be able to have a pos­i­tive im­pact on such an im­por­tant is­sue. Ev­ery kid on the planet knows what an ele­phant is. I hope that ev­ery kid on the planet can even­tu­ally come to a plce like this as see an ele­phant liv­ing in the wild.”

A con­ti­nent-wide sur­vey of African ele­phants was just re­leased last month by Vul­can Inc. It found that the rate of de­cline of sa­vanna ele­phant pop­u­la­tions is 8 per­cent per year, pri­mar­ily due to poach­ing. And that rate has been ac­cel­er­at­ing.

On Sept 24, the open­ing day of CITES CoP17, the world’s big­gest con­fer­ence on the in­ter­na­tional wildlife trade, marches call­ing for an out­right ban on ivory and rhino horn will be tak­ing place in cities on six con­ti­nents, in­clud­ing Beijing, Hong Kong, Wash­ing­ton, DC, New York and Los An­gles, Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, Rome, Stock­holm… ev­ery­where.

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