We are losing the battle to save the African rhino.  Down from a wild population of 70,000 in 1970, their numbers had stabilized at around 25,000.  But a recent onslaught of poaching threatens to wipe them out in the next 15 years.  1,217 were killed in South Africa alone last year which is up from just 13 poached in 2007.

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Other high target animals such as elephant, lion and pangolin are suffering the same fate.  The skyrocketing price of rhino horn, ivory and other illegal wildlife parts is to blame. A single rhino horn can have a street value of over $750,000.

Elephants are among the high target species the IAPF is protecting.
Elephants are among the high target species the IAPF is protecting.

Unfortunately, most African governments and private reserves are still employing small numbers of undertrained, badly equipped and poorly coordinated anti-poaching units to combat this new epidemic of well armed and highly organized poaching syndicates. 

The International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF) was created in response to this crisis.

That was the message Damien Mander, the founder of the IAPF, delivered in his two Middleburg presentations last September.  Thanks to the efforts of Maggie Bryant, Jason Paterniti, Nicole Watson, Sandi Young and Peter Pegg, I was able to meet Damien and learn about the IAPF. 

Damien arrived in Africa in 2009 as a former Special Forces sniper who had recently completed his twelfth tour in Iraq. After witnessing the carnage of the poaching crisis first hand, he decided his specialized skills and experience could make a difference.  He sold off his home and all of his assets in order to found the IAPF. 

A critically endangered Black Rhino and calf are able to survive in Zimbabwe due to the efforts of the IAPF.
A critically endangered Black Rhino and calf are able to survive in Zimbabwe due to the efforts of the IAPF.

In just six years, the IAPF has gained significant traction with operations in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Mozambique and plans to start a new project in Botswana.  Damien has also appeared on 60 Minutes, given a TED Talk, attracted Jane Goodall to his Board of Advisors and been recognized for his work by Prince Harry.

As someone who has been actively involved in wildlife conservation for over 30 years, I was still a little skeptical about some of Damien’s claims.  After all, millions of dollars are given every year to conservation charities and government agencies to protect the rhino and other high target wildlife.  Since Jason Paterniti was organizing a trip to bring in equipment, I decided to volunteer and find out for myself.

I began my trip at Stanley and Livingstone Private Game Preserve in Zimbabwe where the IAPF has been providing anti-poaching services since 2010.

My first revelation was that running an anti-poaching unit in Africa, especially Zimbabwe, is incredibly hard.  The World Bank Group rates Zimbabwe 155 out of 189 countries in ease of doing business. And a white guy running a paramilitary operation is viewed with suspicion so nothing is easy. The IAPF has been working for five years just to get permission to replace bolt action rifles with semiautomatic weapons. Corruption is pervasive and getting foreign work permits is extremely problematic.

Throw in all the problems attendant to running any small business, plus finding reliable employees who are willing to risk their lives while enduring 110 degree daytime temperatures,   intermittent electricity, day and night patrols, living out of a tent, weeks away from family and you get the picture.

An IAPF anti-poaching team on nighttime patrol in Mozambique
An IAPF anti-poaching team on nighttime patrol in Mozambique

Given all the adversity, I asked Damien if he would have undertaken his projects in Zimbabwe if he had it to do over again.  He replied “yes, because the key to wildlife conservation is taking on the most difficult projects that nobody else wants to do.”

Despite the challenges, the Stanley and Livingston Preserve is a conservation success story.  In a country that is experiencing wholesale loss of its wildlife, their rhino population has increased 130% under the IAPF’s protection. In fact, the Preserve has not lost any animals to poaching in five years.

As Damien stresses, if you protect the ultra high target species like rhino, you protect everything.

After a week in Zimbabwe, I moved on to Ground Zero in the Rhino Poaching Wars which is the Greater Lebombo Conservancy (GLC) in Mozambique.  The GLC is a 960 square mile strip of land that buffers 40% of the world’s rhino population in South Africa’s Kruger National Park from the majority of the world’s rhino poachers in Mozambique.  It is the most critical and neglected piece of land in the world for rhino conservation and it is where the IAPF has focused its efforts.

The brutality of this war became clear when the rangers took me to the carcasses of a recently poached mother and baby rhino. The mother was shot while she slept from approximately 30 yards away. As is sometimes the case, she was not killed by the shot but only immobilized. The poachers then cut off most of her face to get the two horns and left her to die. They then killed the baby for a one inch horn. The IAPF rangers found the mother still thrashing around approximately 18 hours later and put her out of her agony.

I had done nighttime anti-poaching patrols in Zimbabwe but it was different in Mozambique. AK-47s replaced bolt action rifles. Three and four man teams replaced two man teams. A deadly seriousness permeated everything we did as shootouts have become increasingly common. Both rangers and poachers know they are playing for keeps.

The IAPF rangers captured two, heavily armed poachers during my brief stay. Tragically, they were caught on their return run to Mozambique after poaching a rhino in Kruger. I can’t give any details because of pending prosecutions, but I am happy to report that none of the rangers were injured or killed in the capture.

When on patrol, I couldn’t help but think that these rangers risk their lives every day for $3,400 a year. Some of the senior officers could be making 10x more money working in private militaries and all of them could be making much better money working for the poaching syndicates. Yet this is what they choose to do.

They are true heroes.

An IAPF anti-poaching team on nighttime patrol in Mozambique
An IAPF anti-poaching team on nighttime patrol in Mozambique

It quickly became obvious, that the IAPF is a lean and action oriented organization. Its budget in the GLC last year was only several hundred thousand dollars and yet, working in conjunction with local land owners, the IAPF had a real impact. Rhinos had been declared extinct in Mozambique but approximately 28 migrated into the GLC from Kruger over the past six months and 22 survived. Before the IAPF arrived, none of those rhinos would have survived a week. Equally important, the IAPF has not lost an elephant or lion to poaching under its security umbrella.

I frankly expected the IAPF to operate like a bunch of cowboys but it is remarkably strategic in its approach. One of its initiatives is developing international standards for ranger training, career advancement and best practices that can be rolled out across the continent. Further, the IAPF is a leader in the development and deployment of force multipliers such as drones, planes, canine teams, predictive computer models and high tech surveillance tools. They also train and coordinate anti-poaching teams for governments and private land owners, develop conservation plans and work with partners to create conservation incentives for local communities.

Damien was right about the poaching situation. High target wildlife is being pushed toward extinction and most government and private security forces cannot handle the onslaught. Further, the conservation charities are generally not prepared to run paramilitary operations.

We desperately need more well trained and well equipped boots on the ground to protect what we have left.

I can only imagine what the IAPF could accomplish with additional resources

If you would like to learn more or, hopefully, contribute, please go to www.iapf.org

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