By Catrina Stewart
The British Army is training Kenyan officers to fight heavily armed poachers in a conflict that is becoming increasingly militarised.
Two heavily armed poachers walk watchfully down a forest track. A barrage of gunfire comes from the bushes to their left. The poachers return fire, but are outgunned and outnumbered, and fall spinning on to the soft mud.
Kenyan rangers warily emerge from their hiding place in the undergrowth to check the bodies, remove the rifles and pat them down for useful intelligence. A British paratrooper strolls up to congratulate them on a “successful ambush”, which was mocked-up for this training exercise.
For the first time in many years, the British Army is playing a pivotal role in training under-equipped Kenyan rangers to fight the increasingly militarised poachers who have devastated the country’s elephant and rhino populations.
With conservationists warning that Kenya’s elephants could be virtually wiped out within a decade, anti-poaching efforts are seen as more critical than ever. But the rangers, underpaid and inferior in both numbers and weaponry, have to date had limited success in deterring poachers lured by the vast financial rewards that outweigh the risks of being caught or even killed.
“These are brave, brave men,” Captain Ben Neary, who led this first training course, said of the rangers. “We [the Army\ have the luxury of operating in big groups. These guys do four-man patrols for up to six hours with very little support.”
Over three days at the British Army base 200km north of Nairobi, paratroopers more used to facing down insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan than poachers, drilled 50 rangers from the Kenya Wildlife Service and Kenya Forest Service in patrolling, snap ambushes and first aid.
Although the two “poachers” were “shot dead” in the final exercise, Captain Neary insisted that the emphasis is on arrest and disruption of poaching activities. Nevertheless, sometimes rangers have no choice but to shoot, he said, and the paratroopers have “taken training right up to the point where they are using lethal force pre-emptively.”
If a group of poachers “is known to be very volatile, very aggressive… sometimes arrest isn’t possible,” he said.
If at times the rangers appear to be fighting a war, it is perhaps because they are. They frequently face well-trained poachers armed with machine guns and sophisticated night vision and satellite equipment to track the animals. The fight is increasingly uneven, and scores of rangers, equipped with outdated rifles, have died in the line of duty.
Many of those on the course said they had been involved in a gunfight with poachers or illegal loggers, while some had laid ambushes that had failed, or only partially succeeded. More....