By Damien Mander
Founder – International Anti-Poaching Foundation
While tensions run high around the world, we respond to uncertainty.
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.” – Rumi
While over the years we have grown as an organisation, above all else right now we remain flexible. Our mission has multiple fronts. Our first priority is protecting our staff in the fight against an invisible enemy that is all around us. At the same time the mounting threat of poaching will be met head on using continuously evolving tactics. Finally, we remain on standby to assist our partners, the local community, in the same way we rallied to action during Cyclone Idai that ripped through Mozambique and Zimbabwe only a year ago.
The past few weeks have been a blur for us all. As an organisation we shifted immediately into damage control mode as the pandemic rolled over the horizon towards Africa’s shores. I can now take the opportunity of pause to share the actions of our team who I’m proud to say are doing a remarkable job.
Following are some recent successes from the field:
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More anti-poaching efforts:
- Our partners (headed up by IAPF Board Member Ever Chinoda) Speak Out for Animals (SOFA) will be monitoring some of these cases, making sure that we follow through until the end. There is a mandatory 9 year sentence in Zimbabwe for illegal possession of ivory.
- Our expansion into several more reserves in Zimbabwe is still underway and the instructor team here is working in preparation for that. Due to Covid-19 we’re closing our learning facility which will push the training of new recruits back some months we believe. There is still a lot we can continue doing to help safeguard these areas in the meantime.
- In Kenya, the LEAD Ranger program has been busy training skills instructors from a number of organisations including Big Life Foundation, David Sheldreck Wildlife Trust and Wildlife Works, as well as two of Akashinga’s rangers, Brenda and Maggie. Training was cut short by a few days and they have returned home to Zimbabwe to resume duties with their team.
- As we are flooded with Covid-19 headlines, we must remember that the source of the spread of the pathogen is wildlife trafficking and poaching. This is incredibly dangerous work for our rangers, but the benefits of protecting wildlife and their ecosystems often surpass comprehension.
On the financial side, we are tightening our belts and preparing for an unknown economic landscape as we diversify our fundraising strategy. With a combined staff of almost 200 people we have an increasing responsibility to look after our family and maintain operations.
Having to make critical decisions in an accelerating situation will put any management team into overdrive. Through the twists and turns of what we are now living, we’re evolving hourly as information changes. Staffing, HR, outreach, operations, logistics, cash flow, sanitation, transport, medical supplies, deployment, law enforcement, regulation changes and of course, conservation. In any operational environment these elements require the full attention of all senses. But we’re operating in some of the most remote reaches of Africa where there is very little room for error.
Katana, the Belgium malinois who was trained in South Africa responds with one of our call signs to illegal timer harvesting. This form of poaching is done on a commercial scale in order to cure tobacco and devastates ecosystems.
We have spent the last fortnight re-creating stability: DAMAGE CONTROL
- While we already operate lean, we revisited every dollar being spent and cut back all non-critical expenditure for the time being. Starting with management, we have been implementing pay cuts across the organisation which will exempt our rangers on the front lines. I’m proud to say that we have yet to lay-off any staff members and it is a personal goal to see this through without having to do so.
- We have delayed some construction projects, expansion to other countries, capital expenditure, commencement of new projects and of course training, which has a mandatory closure for good reason. Everything has been pulled back to focus on operations and protecting the wildlife of the region.
- We updated our standard operating procedures (SOP’s) for dealing with suspects that may be infected and in some cases used those documents to help guide industry. We have blocked the roads to our camps and isolated camps from each other. We created food and equipment drop-off procedures, have delivery of plant based meals for all field staff planned out for the next four months, as well as setting up an isolation ward and protocol for any member that may become infected. Each ranger patrol has been set a work area and is now isolated from other patrols, meaning that the likelihood of cross-contamination is minimised – This is the operational ready version of isolation and social distancing.
- We have appointed a hygiene officer to oversee the discipline required by all staff to protect ourselves from each other. Our recreational areas are closed down and everything is rigorously sanitised. A specialist quick reaction team is on standby to respond as needed in support of operations.
We are anticipating and preparing for a major surge in poaching: ACTION STATIONS
- With the collapse of some non-profits, travel, tourism and subsequent funding sources, rangers across the continent are understandably being left without resources to operate and sent home. We are anticipating and preparing for a major surge in poaching in the wake of these industry shutdowns. Already we are receiving reports from some areas that the spike has begun.
- Our teams are prepared for this and alongside the local authorities remain vigilant in the face of poaching and wildlife crime.
- We are busy building the war chest for a long and dark winter if that is what this pandemic mounts to. Our cutbacks, careful spending and diversification of funding streams will ensure the longest possible resistance against all that may be expected. While we hope for the best, we prepare for what may come and maintain the long view and what positives we can draw from the experience.
- Our portfolio of parks that we are now contracted to manage in collabouration with local government and communities has grown to five over the past several years. The weight of that responsibility is amplified in the face of Covid-19 and we are as committed as ever to our mission.
We have continued our work, safely, despite the challenges: OPERATIONS
- In the past 2 weeks, 14 firearms have been taken out of circulation in targeted operations. The majority of these weapons were recovered by Special Investigations and women of Akashinga working with local authorities. 12 of these are longarm weapons and you will know the devastation each of these has likely caused, and would have otherwise remained doing so. The importance of getting these specific weapons out of the system can never be overstated. A poacher told me once he had killed at least 50 rhino with a single rifle. The potential of lives saved here is enormous.
- Remotely we have been supporting the instructors that have passed through our jointly run LEAD Ranger training centre in Kenya. These instructors are working in Uganda, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Malawi and Tanzania. Although further in-person training is on hold, remote learning and further development of the program is taking place. Soon I will be able to share with you some more exciting updates from the Kenyan program. Thank you to Boris and Dom for their efforts up there in running LEAD Ranger.
- Being locked up at home may be difficult for some of us, but for those that suffer from abuse at the hands of someone they live with, the burden is much greater. Although out of our usual remit, during an operation on Tuesday evening one of our call-signs responded to a report of serious domestic violence. On arrival local police and our team were met aggressively by a man with a knife who was eventually subdued and taken away. A woman with a stab wound to the arm is at home and expected to make a full recovery.
- On Saturday night an operation was conducted which recovered a dead pangolin that was being trafficked. Two men were arrested and face mandatory prison sentencing. This is the second successful pangolin operation that our teams have been involved with in the space of a fortnight.
- Through virtual interviews, we are currently recruiting 5 more instructors for our training team in Zimbabwe. There are a number of great prospects who have applied and will soon commence induction.
As lockdown here continues, we salute all essential services that are working around the clock, and around the world. In people’s homes, an army of helpers support from behind the scenes.
Humanity is capable of great things when we are pushed to our limits. I believe that in the coming weeks and months, despite mounting and unfathomable challenges, we will see a side to our species which reignites our pride and unity as a global community. A reset which brings about reflection on what is important and what is not.
One of our roles as the IAPF family is to remind our networks that humans are not the only victims here. Now more than ever, wildlife faces an additional onslaught. A case of double jeopardy on the coattails of misery in which the wildlife markets of Asia gave birth to Covid-19. We are in a strong position to deal with this mounting threat. Our team is stood-to and will answer any challenge.
We have entered times which will define the future that we inhabit. It is our intention to make sure that nature prevails.