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Science & Technology»SAS veterans join new war on poachers

»Wednesday, March 24,2010

THE battle to save some of the world’s most endangered species is turning bloody, with wildlife charities deploying guns and military vehicles to protect elephants, rhinos and tigers from a surge in poaching.

At least one British organisation, Care for the Wild International (CWI), is buying military-style field equipment and supporting the deployment of armed guards, while the US-based International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) has bought night-vision supplies, ammunition and light aircraft.

WWF, formerly known as the World Wildlife Fund, has hired former SAS soldiers to train African wildlife wardens, and the Zoological Society of London is funding elephant-mounted patrols to protect rhinos in Nepal. The trend towards militarisation follows an estimated 150 deaths among game wardens in Africa in gunfights with poachers.

The disclosures coincide with a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in Qatar, which has angered activists by dismissing proposals to protect bluefin tuna. This week their fury could increase with the likely approval of plans to restart sales of ivory taken from African elephants.

“We have to keep talking but so far, against a backdrop of catastrophic population declines of key species, there is little to show for it,” said Dominic Dyer, chairman of CWI.

“These animals are being wiped out by poachers who are increasingly well equipped with automatic weapons, GPS satellites, night-vision kit and heat-seeking telescopes to spot animals at night.

“That means we also need a more robust approach to enforcement, so we are supplying kit, ranging from boots and clothing to night-vision goggles and military-style vehicles. We are also deploying armed escorts. Wardens need that kind of support to go up against people with machineguns and assault rifles.”

The tough approach follows a sharp rise in poaching in Africa and Asia. In 1979 there were 1.3m African elephants, but recent counts suggest there are now just 400,000.

Just a few hundred Siberian tigers remain in the wild — leaving them so close to extinction that IFAW is supplying wardens with training and specialist equipment such as an ultra-light aircraft to spot poachers.

Chris Cutter, a spokesman for IFAW, one of the world’s largest conservation organisations, said it was planning a similar approach globally. “In Kenya, for example, the wildlife service is severely underfunded so we have built them barracks and are providing kit ranging from vehicles and radios to ammunition,” he said.

One of the animals most at risk is the rhino, largely because of surging demand for powdered horn in traditional medicine in Asia, where it is mistakenly thought to calm fevers such as malaria and even to cure cancer. There are now just 130 Javan rhino left in the wild, while the African black rhino is down to 4,200 animals.

In Nepal, where two national parks house 370 of the last few hundred one-horned rhinos left, WWF has been working with the army to train soldiers and has built an intelligence network based on paid informers in villages.

Mark Wright, conservation science adviser for WWF, confirmed that it had introduced an ex-SAS trainer to Gashaka park, Nigeria, to teach rangers how to track and catch poachers. “The wardens in Gashaka park wanted to become more militarily efficient,” he said.

The slaughter of about 80 rhinos in South Africa since the start of last year has prompted a decision to deploy the first army patrols in the worldfamous Kruger National Park.

David Mabunda, chief executive of South African National Parks, said: “These poachers are members of well-resourced syndicates and are also involved in chilling crimes like human trafficking, arms smuggling, prostitution and drugs. They are dangerous criminals.”

Many conservationists believe, however, that creating military-style protection forces for endangered species can only slow the slaughter. Wright said: “The long-term answer lies in educating people not to buy these materials and in bringing in serious fines and jail sentences for anyone caught in possession of them.”

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