Elephant Poachers Have a New Problem: U.S. Marines

A special task force has deployed to Chad to train park rangers whose lives are threatened by the poaching epidemic.

A park ranger in Chad’s Zakouma National Park. A new contingent of ranger recruits recently received training from the U.S. military’s Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Africa. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

May 24, 2014· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Twelve years ago, Chad’s Zakouma National Park was home to an estimated 4,300 elephants. Today that number is fewer than 500. Poachers wiped out the majority of the park’s elephants between 2006 and 2009 while the country was in the midst of a devastating civil war.

Today Chad is more stable, and the population of elephants in Zakouma has started to recover. More than 20 calves were observed there earlier this year, a major victory for a park that only had five born in the prior four years.

Although the civil war is over, poaching continues. Not only the elephants are in danger: Six park rangers charged with protecting them were murdered by poachers in 2012, and violent skirmishes continue.

Now the elephants and the rangers have a new ally. A team of U.S. Marines from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina recently conducted a monthlong training session in Chad, where they taught 101 newly recruited park rangers important tactics to help in the fight against poachers and wildlife traffickers.

“We laid down a basic infantry skill set,” said Lt. John Porter, who led the 15 Marines from Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Africa. Lessons included weapons handling and safety; raid tactics; field medicine; and patrolling and navigation techniques that could be used to counter smuggling, improve border security, and ensure the rangers’ safety. “This was basically skills that we use in the Marine Corps that we transferred over to them for them to use as they see fit in their own personal missions in the future.” The lessons, he said, could help save their lives. “These poachers are dangerous people.”

Staff Sgt. Phillip McCallum said the classes were close to what U.S. Marines go through in the School of Infantry, where he served as an instructor for four years.

In addition to the rangers they taught, the Marines also got up close and personal with some of the park’s wildlife. On their first trip into the park they saw a lioness walking with three of her cubs. Porter’s truck was charged by an aggressive cape buffalo. Their camp was surrounded by venomous puff adders, angry baboons, hyenas, and more buffalo. At one point they saw so many African bees that McCallum said “it looked like the ground was moving.”

Of course, they also saw the elephants that rangers have died to protect. “The civilian personnel who run the park took us out quite a bit so we could actually have a chance to see what we were there to protect,” McCallum said. “The second time out in the park we were about 15 meters away from a herd of hundreds of elephants.” He said the massive animals pose their own dangers to park visitors: “There was nothing between you and the elephants but a tree and a little Land Rover that probably wasn’t going to get out of there fast enough” if any of the herd were to charge.

This isn’t the first time Chadian rangers have benefited from outside expertise. The International Fund for Animal Welfare traveled to Sena Oura National Park last year to provide similar training to rangers there, who face more threats from cross-border traffic with Cameroon. “The fact that U.S. Marines are coming to Chad to train shows that there is a will for Chad at a national level, not only to protect the elephants but also to increase security in the country,” said Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, IFAW’s director for France and Francophone Africa. But she points out that the Marines’ training also represents the changing faces of wildlife crime and the methods of preventing it. “Now we are in the militarization of the work of anti-poaching,” she said.

The Marines have just arrived at Naval Air Station Sigonella in Italy, where their first task was to link up with another team that will be leaving for Gabon next week on a similar mission. “We passed to them all of the classes that we taught, to keep things the same across the board,” Porter says.

The Chadian rangers, meanwhile, are expected to disseminate the lessons they learned through the rest of their unit. Together these efforts should help keep more elephants, not to mention rangers, alive and healthy as the international battle against poaching continues.