“It has become an increasingly dangerous occupation to protect wildlife,” says Matt Lewis, who leads WWF’s work on African rhinos, elephants and great apes. “There’s been a proliferation of small arms around the world, especially in Africa. For somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 US dollars you can get a fully functioning AK-47.”
And their owners are quick to use them. Poachers often use impoverished locals for their dirty work, and the desperation that comes with poverty can lead to danger. But even well-financed poachers may not want to risk jail time.
“If they think they’re going to get caught, they’d rather shoot it out,” says Lewis. “And poachers are not the only ones coming into these wilderness areas. These are places where militant insurgents—all kinds of really bad guys—like to go whenever the pressure gets too hot in populated areas. Rangers are the front line of defense, the only people standing in their way.”
Texting with Rhinos
Nothing has better underscored the lopsided odds now facing wildlife’s guardians than the elephant massacre at Dzanga Bai.
Lewis had been there not long before, to witness the incomparable gathering of elephants from the forest, the rumbling and trumpeting of a hundred giants audible from a half mile away.
“It’s one of my personal seven wonders of the world,” he says, “one of the most amazing places on Earth. And to think that somebody took advantage of that tranquility where the elephants felt so secure and trusting. The thought of that number of carcasses littering the ground is just sickening. But you can’t expect a small team of rangers, lightly armed, to stand up to a heavily armed, battle-hardened militia intent on killing people.”
The fear emanating from Dzanga Bai is that the rebels and looters are testing the waters—that the floodgates are poised to open into wildlife’s greatest strongholds. So with the warning of Dzanga Bai, and the grant from Google, teams from WWF have begun ramping up their anti-crime intelligence. They’re testing systems in Nepal, where rhinos and tigers are under the gun, and in Namibia, where there’s an uptick in elephant poaching and trouble looming on the horizon for one of the black rhino’s last bastions.