Prior to June of 2015, it had been two years since anti-poaching patrols last roamed the Ziama Forest in Guinea, on the border with Liberia. Fear of retaliation from poachers coupled with the emerging presence of Ebola made it nearly impossible for under-equipped guards to do their rounds, leaving the forest a virtual dark spot on the map with no information about illegal activities being conducted within its borders.
Beneath the trees of this under patrolled forest hid what is likely Guinea’s last remaining population of elephants, attempting to survive against increasing human incursions. These were rare forest elephants, genetically distinct from the larger, more commonly seen African bush elephant. They’re also much smaller, topping out at only eight feet in height, versus the over ten foot average seen in the bush species. Because they live in dense forests that are often the site of contested human occupation, the forest elephant has been poorly studied, making Guinea’s population all the more important.
With the rarity of the forest elephants in mind, and facing increasingly dire circumstances as poachers continued to flood into the unguarded region, in stepped the Elephant Crisis Fund, a joint initiative between Wildlife Conservation Network and Save the Elephants. They provided the funding needed to resume ranger patrols, providing patrol guards with pay and new equipment. The effect of this support cannot be understated. In the words of Ziama patrol guard, Faya Nestor Kondiano, “Having good equipment, such as raincoats and strong boots, really helps keep spirits high and everyone focused on their work.”
Within just the first few months of patrols, 137 wire trap snares were found and subsequently dismantled, saving the lives of not only elephants, but all other creatures that roam Ziama’s green corridors. It was an alarming look at the sheer amount of poaching activity that had gone on when patrols were halted- a sobering wake up call for the rangers, who were more determined than ever to stop poaching.
The local community near Ziama Forest was eager to aid in the fight against elephant poaching. When patrol guards found a fresh elephant carcass in the forest it was the people in the local community who quickly pointed them in the direction of the poacher and his two accomplices. The poacher was successfully convicted and sentenced to eighteen months in prison and further penalized with a steep fine, a strong deterrent to people who think of poaching as a source of quick or easy money. When punishment is clearly in place and enforced, the incentives to poach wildlife drop dramatically, and with it the threat to wildlife diminishes.
While the fight against poaching can and should be measured in small, individual steps, it’s equally important to acknowledge the root of the problem- the smuggling kingpins that are still at the helm of the illegal ivory trade, heavy hitters like the poacher Musolo.
Within central Zambia lies Kafue National Park, the country’s oldest national park, stretching an impressive 22,400 square kilometers. It faced a unique problem- a flood of people coming over from the Democratic Republic of Congo, bringing with them traffickers seeking to trade ivory for Chinese goods. Despite being protected, the park was also the target of hunters, looking to sell bushmeat in northern markets. From 2014-2015, the estimated threat level for poaching in Kafue National Park doubled, with existing anti-poaching patrols catching armed poachers with almost every trip. The Busanga Plains region in the north of the park was particularly hard hit by would-be ivory traffickers, a devastating loss for a unique ecosystem of marshlands and grass.
Once again, the Elephant Crisis Fund provided much-needed support, forming an anti-poaching unit especially for the Busanga Plains area of the park. With the backing of the President of Zambia, as well as national immigration and police forces, this anti-poaching unit’s top objective was to arrest the infamous Congolese ivory kingpin known as Musolo. The patrol guards in the unit were given special training in close combat and undercover operations, a tacit nod to the dangerous search they were about to embark on.
Like something out of an action movie, the patrols occurred at night as a series of carefully orchestrated raids, each bringing them a step closer to Musolo. It was a newly minted officer who made the final blow, working in an undercover sting that finally resulted in Musolo’s arrest and the crumbling of his portion of the ivory empire. Caught red-handed with both ivory and an illegal AK-47, it took little effort for Musolo to break, ultimately revealing all of his contacts. The authorities acted quickly, apprehending more smuggling middlemen, including Musolo’s contacts, and recovering other ivory caches hidden throughout the country.
Currently, Musolo awaits sentencing by the Zambian High Court, with a guaranteed jail time of at least five years. While this was a success story, it’s one that’s too rare. Every day, the rangers risk their life going out on patrol, showing their dedication to elephants and to preserving the beautiful environment they live in. Together, they help unite the Zambian community they come from with the conservation community. The patrols, however, remain underfunded. Simple items we take for granted, like solid boots and a place to sleep, are only available to these rangers through the aid given by initiatives like the Elephant Crisis Fund. With continued support from conservation funding, the good work of the patrolling rangers can continue, their heroism demonstrated for all to see.