Con­ser­va­tion

A new book de­tails the com­plex is­sues and deadly forces sab­o­tag­ing ele­phant pro­tec­tion in Africa

Newsweek - - Contents - BY RACHEL LOVE NUWER @rachel­nuwer

The War Against Poach­ing in Africa

when rian and lorna labuschagne ar­rived in chad’s Zak­ouma Na­tional Park in early 2011, ex­perts had writ­ten off the ele­phants as doomed. A steep rise in the de­mand for ivory had led to a drop in ele­phant pop­u­la­tions through­out Africa, in­clud­ing Zak­ouma, home to one of the largest herds on the con­ti­nent. In less than a decade, Jan­jaweed poach­ers on horse­back re­duced the park’s herd from 4,000 to 400; it seemed just a mat­ter of time be­fore the rest of the an­i­mals were killed too.

The Labuschagnes, a South African cou­ple who have worked in con­ser­va­tion their en­tire lives, had been brought in by African Parks, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion, with the sup­port of Chad’s gov­ern­ment to re­ha­bil­i­tate the park. The cou­ple quickly over­hauled se­cu­rity, strength­ened ties with lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties and re­quired staff to stay on lo­ca­tion dur­ing the dif­fi­cult rainy sea­son, when poach­ers tend to work.

By 2012, things were look­ing up.

The Labuschagnes knew of only seven ele­phants that had been killed the

year be­fore. They felt ready to ex­pand anti-poach­ing op­er­a­tions to places out­side of the park, an es­sen­tial step for pro­tect­ing the herd dur­ing rainy sea­son, when ele­phants tended to wan­der. By track­ing 10 of the ele­phants, they dis­cov­ered that half the herd—200 or so mem­bers—headed 60 miles north to a wa­ter­logged marsh called He­ban.

Since the roads are im­pass­able dur­ing heavy rains, Rian Labuschagne had an airstrip and base built at He­ban. This al­lowed him to send ro­tat­ing teams on two-week mis­sions to keep an eye on the 200 ele­phants that had moved north.

In Au­gust that year, one of these groups—six men nick­named Team Buf­falo—spot­ted tracks of three horses and one per­son in the north­ern woods. The next af­ter­noon, the rangers heard about 50 gun­shots. When a plane with re­in­force­ments from Zak­ouma reached them the fol­low­ing day, the pi­lot spot­ted the poach­ers’ camp from the air and dis­cov­ered the bul­let-rid­dled re­mains of a col­lared ele­phant known as Z6, her tusks still at­tached.

Team Buf­falo or­ga­nized a raid on the poach­ers’ camp. When they ar­rived, they found only one sur­prised man, who opened fire, then dis­ap­peared into the woods. The rangers had dis­cov­ered a for­mi­da­ble ele­phant-killing oper­a­tion. They con­fis­cated over a thou­sand rounds of ammunition, plus so­lar pan­els, satel­lite and cel­lu­lar phones, tools and horse medicine from Su­dan, as well as a large stash of pow­dered and dried food.

In less than a decade, Jan­jaweed poach­ers on horse­back re­duced Zak­ouma Na­tional Park’s herd from 4,000 to 400.

They also found ev­i­dence link­ing the poach­ers to the Su­danese army: mil­i­tary uni­forms and a faded, hand­writ­ten note is­sued by a Su­danese mil­i­tary com­man­der giv­ing leave to his sol­diers, whom he iden­ti­fied by ID num­ber and name.

With their camp de­stroyed and horses and pos­ses­sions con­fis­cated, the sol­diers-cum-poach­ers were now stranded in the mid­dle of nowhere with zero lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port. Everyone at Zak­ouma as­sumed the threat had been neu­tral­ized—that the crim­i­nals would have no choice but to slink back to Su­dan with their tails be­tween their legs.

That’s not what happened, though. Nearly a month af­ter the raid, early on the morn­ing of Septem­ber 3, the poach­ers crept into the rangers’ camp. Crouch­ing be­hind the sleep­ing men’s tents, they silently waited in the dark un­til the sky be­gan to lighten and the Zak­ouma guards emerged from their tents and knelt for morn­ing prayers. The poach­ers opened fire. Five of the rangers suf­fered mul­ti­ple gun­shot wounds and fell to the ground, dead. A sixth, Has­san Djib­rine, ran.

Djimet Seid, the camp man­ager and cook, was also shot but man­aged to hide in some bushes. Bleed­ing and trem­bling, he watched the poach­ers load up four of the rangers’ horses with firearms and ammunition and then flee the scene. Af­ter they’d gone, it took Seid sev­eral hours to sum­mon the courage to limp back to camp. He moved two of the bod­ies into a hut and—too ex­hausted to do more—cov­ered the other three with tarps. Some­how, he man­aged to walk and swim 12 miles to the near­est vil­lage to get help.

When word got back to Zak­ouma, the staff was shocked. No one had seen this com­ing. In hind­sight, how­ever, it all made sense: The poach­ers had no choice but to at­tack. “They couldn’t just go back to Su­dan empty-handed and say, ‘This is what happened, sorry,’” Rian Labuschagne said. “They’d prob­a­bly be shot.”

The Labuschagnes wanted to pur­sue the poach­ers, but lo­cal Cha­dian of­fi­cials would not let them go to He­ban, claim­ing it was too dan­ger­ous. As for Djib­rine, the ranger who dis­ap­peared, no one ever heard from him again; he is pre­sumed dead.

Morale at Zak­ouma hit a low fol­low­ing the in­ci­dent. Rian Labuschagne went house to house, in­form­ing the de­ceased rangers’ fam­i­lies that their hus­bands and fathers would not be com­ing home. Many of them had mul­ti­ple wives, as well as 15 chil­dren or more, and had been the sole bread­win­ners.

It was tempt­ing to call it quits right there, but the He­ban in­ci­dent made the Labuschagnes even more de­ter­mined to catch the killers. They ex­tracted over 150 num­bers from the poach­ers’ cel­lu­lar and satel­lite phones—all con­tacts in Su­dan and Chad—and handed the ev­i­dence over to the po­lice. They made fly­ers and of­fered a re­ward for in­for­ma­tion, but noth­ing came back.

Un­be­knownst to the Labuschagnes, though, one of the mur­dered rangers’ fam­ily mem­bers was also pur­su­ing the case. He caught one of the poach­ers, a man named Soumaine Ab­doulaye Issa, who had been hid­ing out in a vil­lage near the Cha­dian boarder.

Issa was a small man, 5-foot6. “He had ab­so­lutely no fear,” Rian Labuschagne re­called. “No fear of dy­ing.” Issa, speak­ing Cha­dian Ara­bic through a trans­la­tor, said he was born in 1985 in Chad and is pri­mar­ily a no­madic herder. Pass­ing one day through Ku­tum—a dingy Su­danese desert town in north Dar­fur, plagued by un­rest and law­less­ness—he heard talk that sev­eral men were pre­par­ing for an ele­phant poach­ing mis­sion to Chad. It sounded like a pretty good gig, so he con­tacted them.

The leader of the group, Mo­hammed al-ti­jani Ham­dan, had “an abil­ity to rec­og­nize a per­son who is scared,” Issa said. “He looks in your eyes, and he can see if you are a war­rior or not, [a man] who is brave and who will fol­low him.” Issa got the job. He, Ham­dan and two oth­ers set out for Chad. They reached He­ban two weeks later and killed nine ele­phants in four days—a pace they in­tended to keep up for some time.

When Zak­ouma rangers burst into the men’s camp, Issa fled. “We lost every­thing,” he said. He and the other three poach­ers sur­vived on guinea hens and a gazelle they shot, but the sit­u­a­tion was be­com­ing dire. “We de­cided to at­tack the guards,” he said.

Issa claimed he was not in­volved in the as­sas­si­na­tion mis­sion it­self. He waited be­hind, and when his part­ners re­turned, they came with horses, arms and food. They reached Su­dan nine days later and quar­reled about how to di­vide the booty. Issa was left be­hind. No doubt dis­ap­pointed, he sold his as­sault ri­fle—all he had to show for his in­volve­ment in the ex­pe­di­tion. “I ad­mit guilt in

“My father died be­cause he was look­ing af­ter the re­serve. He died for the ele­phants.”

ele­phant poach­ing and the death of Zak­ouma scouts,” he said.

Everyone who heard Issa be­lieved he was telling the truth; much of his ac­count was later cor­rob­o­rated. The au­thor­i­ties took Issa to a mil­i­tary camp jail. A month later, he es­caped in a prison break. There were ru­mors of bribes sent from his fam­ily and of gov­ern­ment in­volve­ment.

“It’s very dif­fi­cult for an out­sider to un­der­stand,” Rian Labuschagne said. “We may say the gov­ern­ment is use­less and cor­rupt for let­ting all these peo­ple get out of prison, but we don’t un­der­stand how fam­i­lies and peo­ple sort these things out among them­selves. You have to be born here to un­der­stand how that works, and you shouldn’t ap­ply a West­ern le­gal sys­tem way of think­ing about how things are done.”

No fur­ther leads sur­faced on Issa’s where­abouts. The gov­ern­ment dropped the case, and, Rian Labuschagne said, the other three men in­volved in the crime also es­caped jus­tice: “They dis­ap­peared into the Su­dan, and there was noth­ing more.”

Issa Idriss, the 21-year-old son of one of the Team Buf­falo rangers who was mur­dered at He­ban, is now a ranger him­self. When I met him briefly at head­quar­ters, he was soft-spo­ken and shy, and he fid­geted in his army greens. “My father died be­cause he was look­ing af­ter the re­serve,” Idriss said. “He died for the ele­phants. He didn’t want everyone com­ing in and killing every­thing.

“I now work here, as my father would have wanted,” he said. “And some­day, I want my sons and daugh­ters to work here too. That would make me happy.”

Adapted from Nuwer’s Poached: In­side the Dark World of Wildlife Traf­fick­ing (Da Capo Press).

ELE­PHANT PA­TROL Clock­wise from top: An ele­phant at Zak­ouma Na­tional Park is tagged for track­ing; a ranger mea­sures tusks; an anti-poach­ing team searches the park for signs of ac­tiv­ity.

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