Mil­i­tary vet­er­ans seek new role in S Africa poach­ing war

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

In an­other life, Lynn was a sniper in Afghanistan, Damien trained para­mil­i­tary forces in Iraq, and John worked un­der­cover in­fil­trat­ing drug car­tels in cen­tral Amer­ica. Now all three are back in ac­tion, this time fight­ing what they de­scribe as a “war” against poach­ers in south­ern Africa as the killing of rhi­nos es­ca­lates into a cri­sis that threat­ens the sur­vival of the species.

In 2008, less than 100 rhi­nos were poached in South Africa, but in re­cent years num­bers have rock­eted with nearly 1,200 killed in 2015 alone. Faced with such slaugh­ter, con­ser­va­tion­ists and govern­ment au­thor­i­ties have been des­per­ately search­ing for ways to pro­tect the an­i­mals.

Many ideas have been tried, in­clud­ing drones, track­ing dogs, satel­lite im­agery, DNA anal­y­sis, hid­den cam­eras and even cut­ting horns off live an­i­mals be­fore poach­ers can get to them. But the killing has con­tin­ued, and now mil­i­tary vet­er­ans from the United States, Aus­tralia and else­where have been drafted to bring their ex­per­tise to the up­hill bat­tle to save the rhi­nos. “You have an­i­mals who are tar­geted by peo­ple us­ing au­to­matic weapons,” Damien Man­der, a for­mer Aus­tralian Navy spe­cial forces of­fi­cer, told AFP. “You can­not go to the com­mu­ni­ties and ask them nicely to stop. This is a war. We are fight­ing a war out there.”

Lessons from the front­line

Man­der, who spent three years serv­ing in Iraq, is the founder of the In­ter­na­tional Anti-Poach­ing Foun­da­tion, which sup­ports anti-poach­ing rangers through train­ing and pro­motes “di­rect ac­tion” to pro­tect rhino. “The only thing that is go­ing to buy time for (con­ser­va­tion) ini­tia­tives is well­trained, well-equipped rangers who are will­ing to go ev­ery day and risk their lives,” he said. “I was pro­grammed to de­stroy. I am now pro­grammed to pro­tect.”

Wear­ing a mil­i­tary jacket, his arms cov­ered in tat­toos, Lynn Westover is putting his mil­i­tary back­ground to good use by run­ning a two-day train­ing course on a re­serve in the north­ern prov­ince of Lim­popo. At­tended by a dozen rangers and lo­cal ranch own­ers, the course, which is packed with mil­i­tary jar­gon, of­fers a wide range of in­struc­tion from how to dis­arm poach­ers to an­a­lyz­ing foot­prints and even com­mu­ni­cat­ing with he­li­copter pi­lots.

Westover, 35, says his mil­i­tary ca­reer, which took him from Afghanistan and Iraq to Nige­ria and also saw him work­ing in south­east Asia, Latin Amer­ica and Nige­ria, has given him valu­able ex­pe­ri­ence to pass on. “I am still do­ing the same kind of work, but I am chang­ing who I am im­pact­ing for a greater good,” said Westover, an Amer­i­can who comes from Seat­tle. “It is re­pur­pos­ing be­cause you feel a sense of unity and pride. I feel that I am giv­ing these rangers a bet­ter chance of sur­vival.”

He works for Vet­paw (Vet­er­ans Em­pow­ered to Pro­tect African Wildlife), a New York-based group that helps for­mer ser­vice­men to de­velop new ca­reers us­ing their mil­i­tary skills. An­other vet­eran find­ing a new pur­pose in the South African bush is ‘John’ a pseu­do­nym-who agrees that exser­vice­men bring unique skills to the poach­ing prob­lem. “The be­hav­ior of a poacher, a drug traf­ficker or ter­ror­ist is the same,” he said.

The cost of war

But the so-called “green mil­i­ta­riza­tion” of anti-poach­ing work-a term for the in­volve­ment of ex-mil­i­tary in con­ser­va­tion workhas aroused strong crit­i­cism, with some say­ing lo­cal men sus­pected of be­ing poach­ers are be­ing killed in­dis­crim­i­nately. No fig­ures are avail­able, but some of the dead are from Mozam­bique, which bor­ders on South Africa’s Kruger Na­tional Park. “It alien­ates lo­cal peo­ple and turns con­ser­va­tion ar­eas into fortresses,” said Libby Lun­strum, a pro­fes­sor at Canada’s York Univer­sity who spe­cial­izes in poach­ing.

With­out giv­ing num­bers, she told AFP that “a lot” of young men had been shot and buried in the bor­der area. “It has a dev­as­tat­ing im­pact on com­mu­ni­ties who are less likely to sup­port con­ser­va­tion be­cause they see park rangers as peo­ple who kill their loved ones.” Even so, char­ity groups such as the In­ter­na­tional Fund for An­i­mal Wel­fare (IFAW) are also tap­ping into bat­tle­field ex­per­tise and hir­ing for­mer US in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers.

Fight­ing fire with fire

“It is not un­usual to see an­i­mals killed by au­to­matic weapons,” Ce­line SisslerBien­venu, a di­rec­tor of IFAW, told AFP. “When we are in a war con­text, we have no other means than to re­spond us­ing a sim­i­lar force.” For ranch own­ers like Howard Knott, who at­tended the train­ing course, any as­sis­tance is wel­come as de­mand for rhino horn soars in China and Viet­nam, where it is prized for its al­leged medic­i­nal prop­er­ties. Knott has lost four rhi­nos in the last two years, while one neigh­bor lost four in just one week this Oc­to­ber. “We re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate what they have come to do and teach our guys,” he said.—AFP

MUSINA, South Africa: This file photo taken on Novem­ber 10, 2016 shows de­horned rhi­nos roam­ing in the Kudu­land Re­serve as rangers take part in a joint in­tense an­tipoach­ing train­ing pro­gram with US mil­i­tary vet­er­ans.—AFP

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Kuwait

© PressReader. All rights reserved.