We’d like to extend a huge thank you to our supporters and the viewers of ‘Ivory Wars’ for their outpouring of support and encouragement following the initial airings of the series set at our Kasigau Corridor REDD+ Project in Kenya. Elephant poaching remains a serious issue, and we’re glad this opportunity has allowed us to more broadly bring to light its devastating affects.
Since the initial airing, we’ve received some questions about the no-gun policy for our rangers. In an effort to ensure transparency and clear communication about our diligent efforts to keep our rangers safe, we’d like to share some detail about this policy, which has developed as a carefully thought out rationale over 18 years in the field. We consider this to be the best way to be effective at protecting the wildlife in the sanctuary while keeping our rangers and the local community safe.
Our Partnership with Kenya Wildlife Service
The ‘Ivory Wars’ series underplayed the fact that Wildlife Works rangers work side by side with Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) rangers who are armed, trained in combat, and who are permanently stationed on our sanctuary. Whenever there is an armed poaching incident, our rangers are trained to avoid any confrontation until they have KWS armed support, and even then they are not supposed to be in harms way if shots are fired.
Over the course of 18 years, we have had one incident – described in the show – where our rangers were fired upon. In that incident, our rangers were assisting armed KWS rangers in tracking poachers when the poachers set an ambush. As KWS has a shoot to kill policy, the poachers opened fire out of fear for their own lives and sadly this interaction resulted in the fatality of our ranger, Abdi, and the injury of Ijema.
This incident was very early on in the recent escalation of elephant poaching to armed conflict, and as described in the show, it really shocked us. Prior to that incident and for nearly 15 years, poachers were very rare, came from in and around the local community, and typically set snares or used poison arrows. These poachers never threatened our rangers, even when being arrested.
Protecting the Elephant Habitat
Our primary role at Wildlife Works is to work with the community to protect the habitat for the elephants to pass through in their migrations. There are over 12,000 elephants in our ecosystem in Kenya that roam freely without being confined by fences. This huge setting that these elephants call home makes it impossible to know when and where poachers will strike without informants. There are many other anti-poaching units in other sanctuaries or national parks and in some rangers are armed. Even then, gun battles with poachers are very rare because the areas are vast, the location of an attack completely unpredictable and by the time armed rangers respond, poachers are typically long gone.
Rangers across Kenya – armed or not – are all losing elephants at an alarming rate. We believe we fare as well as any, even with larger elephant populations, because we have such a strong relationship with the local communities who inform us of the comings and goings of possible poachers so we can confront them before they recover their stashed weapons, or alert KWS if they are known to be armed.
Addressing the Growing Demand for Ivory
At the current price of ivory, there is a near unlimited supply of young Somalis willing to come to Kenya to risk their own lives and to take the lives of others to make a fast buck. Killing one or two poachers acts as little deterrent; it simply buys a little time before the next team arrives from Somalia, this time bent on revenge as well as ivory.
This is the real story of ‘Ivory Wars’ – that demand in China supported all the way up to the President himself is causing the death of countless young Africans on both sides of the issue, in addition to the tens of thousands of elephants. We believe that without tackling the demand side, this is an un-winnable war.
The main purpose of the ‘Ivory Wars’ show was to elevate awareness, to build a new generation of indignation about the plight of elephants, and to put overwhelming social and political pressure on the ivory markets to crack down. In the meantime, we choose to keep our rangers as safe as possible by:
- making our Rukinga Sanctuary the last place poachers think they can get away with poaching because we have the best intel based on the work we do with local communities, so they don’t come in the first place, and
- keeping our rangers out of the firing line if and when they do come.
That was always the mission of the Navy Seals: to help us deploy technologies that could further deter poachers and to train our rangers to avoid any more fatal contacts. The producers of the show introduced the drama of the gun vs. no-gun conflict to make the show more interesting to a US audience, though the Kenyan Government was never going to allow the Seals to bring firearms into the country. In doing so, they had to make our own rangers and our management appear incapable to exaggerate the importance of the role of the Seals. While everyone needs help in this ivory war, Wildlife Works is far from incapable, and as the Seals themselves discovered during the month they were there, we and our rangers are in fact very good at what we do.
Once again, thank you to our supporters and viewers for your passion to protect this magnificent species.
President and Founder of Wildlife Works