Conducting counter-poaching operations in Bayanga is akin to running a company in a modern army, albeit with less means, little training, varying discipline or questionable loyalty. From logistical to budgetary constraints, organizing one hundred rangers and trackers, drivers, and boats means working in a constant state of haste. Patrolling also means adapting to micro-dynamics in fifteen teams to earn the respect of imposing change. Conservation is first and foremost a human experiment.
Operational security is constantly on my mind: for instance, patrol sectors are disclosed only a few hours before departure to avoid leaks. On the other hand, itineraries could be revealed to avoid unwanted encounters in a win-win arrangement with criminals. The same applies to recruitment and training: many current organized poachers are former rangers, and vice-versa.
It all mingles and merges in ways difficult for foreigners to acknowledge; after all, how well did Western armies bear up in Iraq or Afghanistan in a cultural divide where ethnic and social ties take priority with national counterparts despite external input?
Comprehending a fluctuating national context, regional connections, local dynamics and actors to make allies is a matter of trial and error. Foreign stakes in this fight are not always clear. To pick sides mutual trust is paramount: any other approach, whether border-line colonial or authoritarian, will be fraught with failure. Conservation as a foreign motivated endeavor to solve local, national, and international ailments could be seen as the modern manifestation of “white man’s burden.” Ownership and empowerment is thus crucial.
In a context of survival, allies are hard to come by. Armed forces, police, gendarmes, administrations, could be complicit or work actively against conservation. Once legitimate powerful actors in key positions, enriched by conflict, have become de-facto warlords whose amity or cooperation is advantageous.
Criminals, facilitators or sources could be family members, in-laws, friends, or neighbours; former refugees could relocate after a period of exile integrated in smuggling networks, expanding criminal outreach across borders that only exist on paper. Prison breaks due to corrupt officials may put in jeopardy rangers’ lives, assiduity and their will to perform. It is a combination of internal and external threats, interwoven relationships and swaying loyalties. Assimilating this defines success or, inversely, feeds multiple interdependent networks benefiting from natural resource exploitation, prolonging regional instability and exacerbating abject poverty.
Dzanga-Sangha Protected Areas (DSPA) is the only functioning national park in the Central African Republic (CAR). However, being in a cross-boundary zone is both a blessing and a curse: the former supports all logistical aspects from light-bulbs to fuel and the latter expedites trafficking. From the time an elephant is killed, it takes two to twenty-four hours for the tusks to be exfiltrated, so the key aim is to seize or arrest, keeping the enemy on its toes, forcing him to make mistakes and discourage the least determined: these are intelligence-driven operations in which saving an elephant is like detecting an improvised explosive device (IED) before it is planted. Anything short of that results in carnage or in our case, gory forensics while the ivory seeps back in CAR spreading violence.
The enemy has upped the ante: home-made weapons used to hunt for bush-meat are now used to resupply gangs using high-calibre weapons to harvest ivory, while AK-47s are used for protection.
Bayanga is a wildlife hot-spot, but a localized ivory sourcing-point. No more multi-ton ivory source exists in the world, so they hit us methodically. Here, poaching does not start as an organized, well planned out activity on the ground, contrary to radicalization. Multiple hunters, gangs, businessmen and logisticians converge and complement each other organically. Ring-leaders are fewer even, equating to a pyramid-like model where a bottom-up harvesting system is very effective and where the lower levels are hardly relevant to stop the killing. They have the initiative.
Similar to combatting terrorist networks, there is a need to identify key sectors, actors, and the enemy strategy to counter it with a compelling narrative. Enforcement is but the stop-gap to poaching; socio-economic development and good governance is the long-term solution. The economics of the ivory trade is compounded by the fact that the meat from one elephant can be worth more than its tusks when the demand is high.
In times of poaching spikes, coordinating multi-agency operations sends a message whether clamping down on freedom of movement or making arrests, seizures and shutting down gun factories with increased manpower and firepower feeding a virtuous circle or gathering more intelligence for future operations and identifying trends. Some of the best-protected parks have 50% coverage so controlling 100% is unrealistic, just as foreign troops can’t cover every square inch of a country in counter-insurgency operations. Finding a high-calibre weapon or uncovering an IED is action by prevention.
DSPA has just acquired a state of art C4i Centre (Command, Control, Communications, Computers and Intelligence), upgraded its visual intelligence system (VISINT) at the infamous elephant massacre site of Dzanga Bai, and delivered a gruelling ranger training program through external assistance. Yet, strategy is useless if local actors don’t ‘buy into’ innovation, take ownership, supplanting archaic ways working only as stop-gaps. Moving forward is the arduous task and most laudable parameter of success: it is defined by seizures and arrests but also by the strength of the informant networks, local and stake-holder co-operation resulting in tangible success – working up the organized crime-chain rather than stopping opportunistic poachers.