Guns Blazing: Poachers Move From Animals to Humans

An estimated 13,000 wildlife rangers and conservationists have been killed globally in the last eight years.

Famed zoologist Dian Fossey shares a moment with two gorillas, two members of the species she studied extensively for 18 years before her murder on December 27, 1985. (Photo: Diane-Fossey.com)

We stood side by side, protecting each other as best we could in the vacant desert of Kenya. It was November 2006 and before us was Tessa, a pregnant African bush elephant we’d been tracking endlessly for days. She lay on her side, near slain, and drowning in a pool of her own blood.

Shot at, disfigured, and attacked with machetes, conservationists are under threat from commercial poachers, militias, drug smugglers and illegal loggers engaging in anti-environmental and premeditated killings.

Her body, and more importantly, her tusks were guarded aggressively by a group of six agitated poachers, two of which pointed guns at our faces and bodies. Beside me, our group of veterinarians whimpered and pleaded to be allowed access to Tessa’s wounds—but the men cared not for Tessa’s welfare, only for the ivory payday that lay before them.

With two sharp swipes, the youngest poacher hacked at Tessa’s trunk, putting out a cigarette on her sensitive, mutilated skin. Though she moaned in agony, Tessa had little energy to put up a fight. Eventually, she succumbed to the same fate hundreds of thousands of animals before her had—losing her life to sustain a needless trade in wildlife parts.

Wewe ni bahati hatuuia wewe pia,” a poacher laughed, shoving me as he passed me by. Though he spoke with disdain and contempt for me, I knew he was right. I was lucky he hadn’t killed me too.

Not Unlike Elephants and Tigers, Conservationists Are a Dying Breed

The struggle to protect animals against poaching is a full-scale war. In most countries, wildlife officers who station themselves in the middle of these barbaric slaughters risk their lives and liberty to protect the world’s last remaining tigers, elephants and orangutans—often with little or no reward.

But no matter where we’re from—Australia, Africa, or the United States—rangers and conservationists share one thing in common: we’re all targets.

Shot at, disfigured, and attacked with machetes, conservationists are under threat from commercial poachers, militias, drug smugglers and illegal loggers engaging in anti-environmental and premeditated killings, primarily in developing nations and areas prone to political conflict.

According to The Thin Green Line, an organization that honors existing and fallen wildlife officers, as many as 13,000 wildlife rangers and conservationists have been killed globally in the last eight years, with more than 80 percent of those categorized as murders.

John Mokombo, Director of Conservation in Uganda and an associate of The Thin Green Line, remembers being shot at and gouged. He also recalls the numerous times he’s watched fellow officers be gunned down protecting threatened Ugandan wildlife.

The examples of poacher violence against conservationists are many.

—On December 7, 2011, two officers from Zamibia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) were killed in Namibia while responding to a gang of poachers targeting elephants in an incident that left a young elephant orphaned.

—In April 2012, a police constable and wildlife ranger were shot dead during an operation to track poachers at South Africa’s Kruger Park game reserve.

—In March 2012, the Kenya Wildlife Services began a hunt for a group of gangster poachers (or “shiftas”) responsible for the shooting deaths of two officers (a man and pregnant female) as they patrolled a private ranch in Taita.

—In 2003, conservationist Jane Tipson was murdered in St. Lucia in what was believed to be a contract killing due to her work against the construction of a dolphinarium.

—On December 27, 1985, celebrity primatologist Dian Fossey, known as the “gorilla girl,” was found dead in her Virunga Mountains cabin in Rwanda a few short months after signing a million-dollar film contract to bring her iconic novel, Gorillas in the Mist, to the silver screen. Though unsolved, many believe Fossey’s murder is linked to the conservation of endangered mountain gorillas and Fossey’s work to prevent their financial exploitation.

Who’s Protecting the Protectors?

Though it would be deflective to focus entirely on the protection of conservationists and wildlife rangers, it is reasonable to seek certain measures of security to safeguard their endeavors and to appeal to the public to offer support to those defending our world’s most threatened species.

But how can you help? It’s simple: donate, donate, and donate.

Environmental organizations like the World Wildlife Fund, the World Society for Protection of Animals and The Thin Green Line need financial support to not only boost anti-poaching patrols, but also strengthen the security offered to rangers and conservationists working in the field to protect endangered wildlife.

Using a donation to get on board is the most effective way to join the frontliners, and to fund programs and initiatives that supply and equip wildlife warriors with the essential tools, clothing and emergency equipment necessary to improve their physical welfare.

Have you shown support for those on the frontline? If so, how? Tell us in the comments.

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