The battle to save some of the
world’s most endangered species is turning bloody, with wildlife charities
deploying guns and military vehicles to protect elephants, rhinos and tigers
from a surge in poaching.
At least one British organisation,
Care for the Wild International, is buying military-style field equipment and
supporting the deployment of armed guards, while the US-based International
Fund for Animal Welfare has bought night-vision supplies, ammunition and light
WWF, formerly known as the World
Wildlife Fund, has hired former SAS soldiers to train African wildlife wardens,
and the Zoological Society of London is funding elephant-mounted patrols to
protect rhinos in Nepal. The trend towards militarisation follows an estimated
150 deaths among game wardens in Africa in gunfights with poachers.
The disclosures coincide with a
meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in
Qatar, which has angered activists by dismissing proposals to protect bluefin
tuna. This week their fury could increase with the likely approval of plans to
restart sales of ivory taken from African elephants.
“We have to keep talking but so
far, against a backdrop of catastrophic population declines of key species,
there is little to show for it,” said Dominic Dyer, chairman of CWI.
“These animals are being wiped out
by poachers who are increasingly well equipped with automatic weapons, GPS
satellites, night-vision kit and heat-seeking telescopes to spot animals at
“That means we also need a more
robust approach to enforcement, so we are supplying kit, ranging from boots and
clothing to night-vision goggles and military-style vehicles. We are also
deploying armed escorts. Wardens need that kind of support to go up against
people with machineguns and assault rifles.”
The tough approach follows a sharp
rise in poaching in Africa and Asia. In 1979 there were 1.3m African elephants,
but recent counts suggest there are now just 400,000.
Just a few hundred Siberian tigers
remain in the wild — leaving them so close to extinction that IFAW is supplying
wardens with training and specialist equipment such as an ultra-light aircraft
to spot poachers.
Chris Cutter, a spokesman for IFAW,
one of the world’s largest conservation organisations, said it was planning a
similar approach globally. “In Kenya, for example, the wildlife service is
severely underfunded so we have built them barracks and are providing kit
ranging from vehicles and radios to ammunition,” he said.
One of the animals most at risk is
the rhino, largely because of surging demand for powdered horn in traditional
medicine in Asia, where it is mistakenly thought to calm fevers such as malaria
and even to cure cancer. There are now just 130 Javan rhino left in the wild,
while the African black rhino is down to 4,200 animals.
In Nepal, where two national parks
house 370 of the last few hundred one-horned rhinos left, WWF has been working
with the army to train soldiers and has built an intelligence network based on
paid informers in villages.
Mark Wright, conservation science
adviser for WWF, confirmed that it had introduced an ex-SAS trainer to Gashaka
park, Nigeria, to teach rangers how to track and catch poachers. “The wardens
in Gashaka park wanted to become more militarily efficient,” he said.
The slaughter of about 80 rhinos in
South Africa since the start of last year has prompted a decision to deploy the
first army patrols in the worldfamous Kruger National Park.
David Mabunda, chief executive of
South African National Parks, said: “These poachers are members of
well-resourced syndicates and are also involved in chilling crimes like human
trafficking, arms smuggling, prostitution and drugs. They are dangerous
Many conservationists believe,
however, that creating military-style protection forces for endangered species
can only slow the slaughter. Wright said: “The long-term answer lies in
educating people not to buy these materials and in bringing in serious fines
and jail sentences for anyone caught in possession of them.”