Meet the Heroic Park Rangers Battling Poaching in Kenya
Rachel Love Nuwer Visits the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy
I was eager to meet a few superstar rangers who are effectively combating poaching. One place immediately came to mind: the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya. That privately owned protected area is known as a stronghold of conservation today—but its success did not come without struggle.
Lewa did not lose a single rhino to poachers from the 1980s to 2009. But, like so many places in Africa, things took a turn in 2010. The next three years saw 17 rhinos killed—6 percent of the conservancy’s total population.
Lewa’s management realized that, unless drastic measures were taken, their rhinos would quickly be gone. They responded aggressively with a major operational overhaul that included bringing in a helicopter, revamping their communications system, hiring new expert personnel, and strengthening community partnerships. Recently, Lewa also became one of the first testing sites for a cutting-edge conservation program called the Domain Awareness System. Created by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen’s company, Vulcan, the program’s web application and ioS tracking app neatly visualize real-time monitoring of 50 radio-collared elephants along with other relevant data such as ranger, vehicle, and aircraft positions; gunshot detection; arrest and crime-scene records; weather; and more. If the system detects something aberrant, rangers receive real-time alerts, allowing them to respond immediately.
The investments paid off: Lewa has not lost a rhino since November 2013.
Technology gave Lewa an exceptional edge in combating poaching. But an even more integral factor for success was the special attention paid to supporting and training rangers. “At Lewa, the rangers are a really hard-core, Western-trained, serious force. They could be fighting in Somalia,” said Paula Kahumbu, CEO of the nonprofit WildlifeDirect. “Each ranger there is like the equivalent of 40 regular rangers. They’re damned good.”
I wanted to hear directly from some of these men, so I hopped a flight bound for Lewa. The conservancy is located near Mount Kenya, in a land of gently rolling hills known for its private reserves and farms. The region’s history, however, is not as idyllic. Many of those properties are owned by the white descendants of former cattle ranchers who settled there when inequalities were rife and Kenya was still billed as “Britain’s most attractive colony.” Over those years, the country grew famous as a big game hunting destination for celebrities, politicians, royalty, and wealthy businessmen. Theodore Roosevelt shot more than 500 animals with his son while on safari there in 1909, and although he and others like him were hailed for their masculine prowess, native Kenyans who hunted were labeled poachers.“Technology gave Lewa an exceptional edge in combating poaching. But an even more integral factor for success was the special attention paid to supporting and training rangers.”
Sport hunting continued even after Kenya gained independence in 1963, but the tradition soon came to an end when the government issued a complete ban on hunting in 1977. Some believed the move was motivated by long-standing resentment against white elites, but others viewed it as an ethical decision. “To the greatest extent possible, the Kenyans wanted to let nature determine who’s to live and who’s to die,” said Bill Clark, an honorary warden and the US liaison for the Kenya Wildlife Service. “They wanted to let natural ecological dynamics determine what fitness is.”
At the same time, many white-owned ranches, including Lewa, began shifting their focus from cattle to conservation, propped up by the country’s booming safari industry, which has continued to flourish. Tourism today accounts for 12 percent of Kenya’s GDP, 70 percent of which comes directly from wildlife. Lewa, however, isn’t a busloads-of-tourists kind of place; it opts for quality over quantity. In fact, I never saw a single other guest during my time there.
The plane glided in for a smooth landing on Lewa’s private dirt runway. No one was in sight, but a minute later a friendly driver pulled up to collect me. Passing through a thicket of woods, the driver sportingly slowed the car so I could take photos of loitering zebra. Minutes later, I reached home for the next two nights. Lewa is known for its lavish accommodations, but I was staying in a modest yet comfortable tented camp near the headquarters. Felista, the smiling cook and housekeeper, warned me to keep the green netting of my door zipped tight at all times; otherwise, monkeys would get in.
Unsure of what the day’s plans entailed, I sat outside the tent to take in the view over a cup of tea. The bucolic scene was soon interrupted by an army-green, mud-splattered Toyota Land Cruiser that pulled up in front of my tent. Out stepped John Pameri, Lewa’s head of security. He wore matching green camouflage and a dark green beret. He’d been sent to show me around the property and tell me a bit more about the place, he said. “I’ve been to Syracuse, which was really freezing,” he told me as we bumped down a dirt road, passing two young men in camouflage, carrying large guns. “And I’ve been to San Diego—it was on a beach. And to New York City. Nice city.”
We drove around a cluster of buildings—Lewa’s security headquarters—and then headed into an open area punctuated with skinny trees and twiggy bushes. The sky was broody, and the road was soupy with puddles and mud-filled ruts. Guinea hens ran around us like fat little feathered dinosaurs, and a pair of crowned cranes glided gracefully by overhead. Pameri slowed the vehicle to let a young herder and his two dozen skinny cows and sheep saunter by.
Pameri told me a bit about himself as we continued into the conservancy: “When I was a teenager, my family didn’t have money for more education, so I had to stop school. The Maasai didn’t value education in those days.” With his schooling abruptly ended, though, he lacked direction and was unsure of what to do with his life. “My dad wouldn’t sell any cows to pay for me to go to school, but he didn’t want me to just sit around, either,” he recalled.
A zebra appeared on our right, watching us uncertainly. It was a Grévy’s zebra, Pameri informed me, recognizable by its smaller stripes and bigger ears compared to the more common plains zebra. There are only about 2,600 of them left, and 11 percent of the remaining animals—the largest single population in the world—lives at Lewa.
I snapped a couple of photos, and Pameri resumed his story. His father knew one of the security officials at Lewa, so, lacking any other options, he decided to give it a shot. Without calling ahead, he left his house at 5 am and walked more than 60 miles in one day to reach the conservancy. “I was walking, running, walking, running,” he said. “I didn’t really know where I was going.”
When he stumbled in around sunset, he was taken to meet Lewa’s owner, Ian Craig. Craig is one of the primary driving forces behind Lewa’s conservation agenda: he first convinced his family to set aside some of their property as a rhino sanctuary in the 1980s, and he oversaw the ranch’s complete conversion in 1995. He told Pameri that although he didn’t have any openings at the moment, he was welcome to fill out an application.
A month later, Pameri was invited back as a volunteer. He learned to use the radio equipment and to operate in the field. He liked the work, and, with Craig’s encouragement, he decided to try out formally to join the team. Competition, however, was stiff. More than a hundred men showed up at the recruitment event, vying for just 24 positions. One of the tests included a 12-mile run. Pameri came in sixth, and he excelled at all the other tasks, too. He made the cut and has been working his way up the ranks ever since, including earning a pilot’s license. “Someday, I’m going to write a book about my life,” he said. “It will be called To Walk to Fly.”
We were deep in the conservancy now, passing postcard-perfect green vistas crowded with giraffe, buffalo, and zebra. Elegant herds of impala scattered around the car, and eland with corkscrew horns and dangling dewlaps nibbled at swaying, knee-high grass. Lewa seemed endless, but, in fact, it’s just larger than Seattle—relatively small as far as African protected areas go. That makes management an easier task compared to a place like Kruger, which is nearly as big as New Jersey.
Pameri stopped next to a group of six or seven elephants, all of whom appeared unfazed by our presence. They picked at the grass, stuffing their mouths with trunkfuls of green. A baby the size of a small pony trailed after its mother, mimicking her actions as grasshoppers fluttered around them like fairies. Elephants are incredibly intelligent, able to, for example, differentiate among human languages most often spoken by poachers and protectors, to sniff out and avoid land mines, and to shift to a nocturnal lifestyle when threatened by hunters during the day. The animals here were exceptionally relaxed because they knew that they were safe: Lewa sends rangers out on daily elephant patrols, which management plots out based on readings sent from the radio collars that some of the matriarchs wear.
“In Kenya, this is our gold, this wildlife,” Pameri said, gesturing at the elephants. “People should remember the rangers out there in the field, sleeping under the trees, sweating and dealing with snakes all night to make sure the wildlife will live forever. Without their support, these animals won’t be alive.”
We continued on our way. As we crested a hill, two human figures in solid green uniforms, floppy safari hats, and black boots came into sight. They introduced themselves as Lewa rangers Francis Kobia Chokera and Jeremiah Thiaine. They were out in search of some of the 130 black and white rhinos that live on the property.
Lewa divides its land into nine security blocks, each of which is constantly patrolled by three rangers, referred to as rhino monitors. Unlike the elephant patrols that are informed by GPS readings from collars, the rhino guys rely solely on their wits to determine where to find their targets. As soon as they spot one, they identify the individual rhino and radio in the sighting. Their digital radios have built-in GPS units so management can track their movements, which show up as multicolor zigzags from a rainbow etch-a-sketch on the digital map back at headquarters. All calls and texts from the radios travel over a secure connection, and, as an extra layer of protection, everything is recorded and encrypted.
Today was a pretty typical day for Chokera and Thiaine. They had gotten up at 5 a.m., made a cup of tea and nibbled on some bread, and then set out on their patrol, leaving their third colleague behind to keep an eye on the camp. By 7 a.m., they’d already spotted four white rhinos. “When you wake up early, you can easily see rhino,” Chokera said. “And you can also more easily see signs of unusual things, like poachers.”
He and Thiaine had covered six miles, but they had a bit farther to go still. “We’ll continue to the east,” Chokera said, pointing at the horizon. “There will be black rhinos there. We also count all the ungulates we see—the giraffe, elephant, buffalo, and zebra—so we know the population, we know what we have.”
Unlike the specialized anti-poaching team, Chokera, Thiaine, and Lewa’s other 90 general security rangers do not carry firearms. Instead, they travel with a long, thin stick—a sort of club that they use to keep snakes at bay or to whack an aggressive buffalo. “That gives you the chance to escape up a tree,” Chokera noted. In two decades of field patrols, he’s only had to take to the branches five times. Snakes, however, he has met “many times—but they’re very shy.”
Chokera started working at Lewa in 1995, the same year as Pameri did. “Me, I was born where there’s lots of animals, and I’ve always loved them,” he said. “By good luck, my brother was working here, and I was given a chance to work here, too. I passed the interview. I’ve been here 22 years now.”
I asked Thiaine, who was from one of the surrounding communities, what made him decide to join. He smiled shyly when Chokera translated my question into Swahili. “I’ve seen the animals profit our nation and community and families,” he said simply. His job provides him with insurance and a pension, and he makes around $3,600 a year—more than twice the average in Kenya.
We needed to let Chokera and Thiaine get back to work, but, before Pameri and I left, I asked whether there was anything else they wanted to tell me. “There was a time when rhinos were poached here so much, and we got scared,” Chokera said. “It’s very sad when animals have been killed. They have a right to live and be free; they were here before human beings. So we tried our best, and we stopped the poaching. We had security before, but not like we do now. The security of wildlife is very tight, and it’s been years without a rhino death.”
Credit for that success is partly due to Lewa’s famed anti-poaching unit, headed by Edward Ndiritu. I met Ndiritu in the afternoon in an office at headquarters, where the walls were decorated with confiscated spears and snare traps removed from the field. Tall and thin, his baby face, offset by a light mustache, made him appear younger than his years.
Ndiritu grew up on the slopes of Mount Kenya, an hour’s drive from Lewa. A lifelong animal lover, joining the conservancy was an obvious choice. “When I was very young, I could see elephants and rhinos around my home, but now they’re no longer there,” he said. “If we don’t protect our wildlife, we will not see them anymore. We might have to go to a zoo only.” Ndiritu started out as a Lewa ranger in 1996, then became a rhino monitor, and later a member and eventually head of the anti-poaching unit. In 2015, he became the first recipient of the Tusk Wildlife Ranger Award, in recognition of his bravery and commitment. It was presented to him at a ceremony in London by Prince William. Ndiritu’s most vivid memory of the UK was not being congratulated by the prince, however, but the freezing weather. “Even with gloves, a hat, a scarf and a big jacket, in England, I was just cold,” he said, shaking his head. “I would go into a pub and they’d be like, ‘Start a fire! There’s an African in here!’”
The trips and awards all came after Lewa’s incredible turnaround, which was made possible through hard work, heavy investments, and drastic changes. Ndiritu and his men in the anti-poaching unit received six months of training from the Kenya Wildlife Service and one month of training from the national police. After that, Newland at 51 Degrees—whose first career was as a senior noncommissioned officer in the British army—gave them additional specialized training, including instruction on how to deploy properly in relation to intelligence, how to use aircraft and vehicles, how to communicate effectively, and even how to use the moon to their advantage.
Every three months, the men undertake a ten-day refresher course, followed by tests in field techniques, first aid, and physical fitness. The latter includes performing 40 pushups in less than a minute and 60 sit-ups in less than a minute. Then, they must run a mile in boots and full uniform in under ten minutes. “If you can’t do that within the time limit, then you fail,” Ndiritu said. “It means you’re not fit enough, and you have to go do something else.”
Ndiritu and his 40 men are recognized by the Kenyan government as police reservists; they are allowed to carry automatic weapons and have the power to make arrests. As Ndiritu said simply: “We are police.” Six of them are constantly on standby, waiting to respond to calls about robberies, attacks, or poaching events. “No one knows what will happen,” Ndiritu said. “We could be deployed at any time, to anywhere.”“I asked Thiaine, who was from one of the surrounding communities, what made him decide to join. He smiled shyly when Chokera translated my question into Swahili. “I’ve seen the animals profit our nation and community and families,” he said simply.”
Most rhino poachers, they have found, do not come from the communities surrounding the conservancy. Some are ex-military, and all are connected to well-organized cartels. But even the most adept criminal groups struggle to poach without local intelligence. Rhinos are simply too well guarded. “We say that 100 percent of rhino poaching must have an internal connection, that there must be someone leaking information from within the sanctuary,” Ndiritu said. “With 150 people, you must have rotten eggs.”
That rotten eggs were multiplying became especially apparent in one devastating stretch in December 2012, when the conservancy lost six rhinos in just two weeks. “I spent a lot of time talking to the guys, trying to build up their courage and telling them that we will be able to do it,” Ndiritu recalled. “It was very difficult for me, but I had no other option because I had a passion for what we were doing for conservation. Every day, I wake up with a sense of purpose. When I see elephants and rhinos, I feel deep emotion and pride.”
From 2010 to 2014, Lewa management either fired or arrested ten of their own who had been compromised. Poachers, they learned, sometimes paid rangers half a year’s salary or more, just for information. “They don’t even want you to come with them, because you might be setting them up,” Ndiritu said. “They just want you to tell them the areas with high rhino populations, and when rangers are around and when they’re not.” Ndiritu and the other managers now try to keep the number of people who fully understand Lewa’s operations to an absolute minimum.
Weeding out corruption was the first step to stop the killings, and getting the communities surrounding Lewa to commit fully to conservation was the second. That included not only educational campaigns but also ensuring that people received tangible benefits from the conservancy, including heightened security. Ndiritu and his men spend most of their time responding to problems that locals call in rather than pursuing poachers. “We don’t ask our neighbors to pay anything, we just do it for free,” he said. “In turn, we get intelligence from them. With intelligence, we know what will happen and we take action before it happens.”
“For us, the priority is not about having guns on the ground, it’s how to deliver awareness of the benefit of wildlife, so people stay happy,” Pameri added. “If communities can give us information, then our job is done: no poacher can make it through without us knowing. If everyone agrees that we will protect these animals, then we can see that the future is good.”
Indeed, 70 percent of Kenyan wildlife lives outside of protected areas, so community buy-in is crucial for ensuring that wildlife persists. Recognizing this, in 1995, Craig helped one of Lewa’s surrounding villages establish the first community-owned and managed conservancy in northern Kenya. Ten years later, an umbrella organization called the Northern Rangeland Trust (NRT) was formed to support the growing number of community conservancies across northern Kenya and beyond. The ownership—and thus the benefits—belongs to the half a million residents who live in the NRT’s 33 communities and counting. “This is not just a few scraps thrown at them now and then—they own the process,” said Mike Watson, Lewa’s CEO. “One community may make $200,000 in a year from wildlife. That’s a significant amount of money here.”
In addition to direct monetary gains, Lewa and the NRT provide a variety of services, from building wells and giving out microloans to women to establishing health-care clinics and hosting school field trips. Formal education, though, is especially emphasized. In 2015, Lewa employed 75 teachers and supported 7,500 students, some of them rangers’ children. They doled out more than 400 scholarships to older pupils and saw 16 local students graduate from college. Nontraditional students were also provided for: after a lifetime of illiteracy, a 75-year-old grandmother recently graduated from one of the conservancy’s adult learning programs, ecstatic that she could now help her grandson with his homework.
As Craig told me, “Lewa and the NRT have surpassed my expectations in the beginning by about a billion.”
Excerpted from Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking by Rachel Love Nuwer. Copyright © 2018. Available from Da Capo Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.