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The face of poaching

What does poaching look like?

Well, the strange truth is that despite living in the middle of the rainforest, and working on a team who spends most their time trying to catch poachers, my role in Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park is essentially an office job. I’m 1,000 km away from the nearest office block, but nonetheless, my daily routine involves walking the 140m from where I sleep, to a small “administration” building, where I sit at my desk and doing fairly run-of-the-mill financial and administrative tasks. I write lots of emails, I sign bits of paper, I move numbers in a spreadsheet from one column to another. Some people would hate it, I personally love it. I have creative freedom to solve the problems that the organisation faces, and I know that every ounce of effort I save the team by making things more efficient, means that they have more ability to protect the forest. Admittedly too, majestic forest elephants walk past my window a couple of times a week, there is normally a family of DeBrazza and Black and White Colobus monkeys playing in the bush across the way (species that are very hard to see in normal circumstances), and for much of the day I am interrupted by a panoply, indeed a cacophony, of tropical bird song. So it would be disingenuous to call it run-of-the-mill. But the point is that, even though I’m working all day to stop them, I’ve only ever actually seen poachers on two occasions.

When I finally came face to face with poachers, they did not look like I expected them too. Perhaps it is this revelation which has led me to think about what the face of poaching really is? What does poaching really look like?

I think that if you try to answer that question, you’ve probably already got an idea in your head. The very word poaching elicits a clear sense of illegitimacy and wrong-doing. I’ll bet that the image is a sinister one, perhaps he’s hunched over an AK47 rifle in the scrub, scars on his face and malevolent look in his eyes. For me, I have this kind of archetypal, demonic picture in my mind. For me, certainly when I’m feeling more emotive, this picture is one of my leading candidates for “the face of poaching”.

Indeed maybe he’s standing in front of the elephant he has just butchered. If you’ve never seen an elephant carcass after they’ve had their tusks removed, then make sure you’ve not just had your dinner and search for some images on Google. Getting the tusks out of an elephants is a gruesome business. Chainsaws are normally necessary, plus a mixture of machetes and savagery. The poachers essentially saw the elephants face off.

While this is horrific, and deeply depraved, the truth is that an answer to our question is just not this simple. The poachers that I’ve actually seen were very sorry looking fellows. Both had been arrested (by us) and frankly they just looked like anyone else that you’d walk past in a village up here. Normal enough human beings. Perhaps a little more desperate, perhaps a little more ragged. The reality is that poaching in our part of the Congo Basin is mostly done by local people in rags. They are poor, they are hungry and they are just looking for money.

By no means does this defend what they do to other sentient beings, but their image does not quite match up with the monstrous image in my imagination. We have lower numbers than you might think of the kind of organised, professional criminal gangs that appear to be responsible for ivory poaching in many other parts of Africa. This is either because we are doing a good job, or they’ve just not made it here to us yet. Indeed, we’re hoping that we can lock this corner of Congo down, establish it as an area where poaching just doesn’t pay, and get real control before they get established here. We’ll see.

But this is another very viable candidate for our dubious award. The “professional poacher” is another very plausible face of poaching. Less the bushman and more the corrupt politician running a poaching network. The African “big man”. Or indeed the Asian “middle man”. Either way these stereotypes are oleaginous, cruel and either ignorant of the suffering they are causing or aware of it and just plain evil. The feeling they elicit is summed up for me by this video from CITES:

Or perhaps we should take one more step up the supply chain in our search for “the face of poaching” to the end user in Asia. An unenlightened Chinese collector, treasuring his ivory trinkets. Or perhaps the drugged up punk in a Vietnamese nightclub, snorting dried tusk powder up his nose to give himself what he thinks will be a magically inspired high.

Until recently I would have proposed any of these as plausible faces of poaching. Indeed, perhaps they are all, in their own way the different faces of poaching. It is in fact a proxy for the debate about where the true source of the problem lies with the catastrophic decline in wild animal populations. The natural follow of this discussion for conservationists is then: where should we most strongly apply our counter-measures? While it is an interesting debate, I’ll leave it for another time and just summarise it now by saying that tackling poaching at all of these levels is clearly going to be important: constrict the supply, remove the middlemen and reduce the demand.

So, while we could of course go into much more detail here, I want to finish this post in a different way. Until last week, I would have not had much to add to the emotional depth of this discussion. For me it has always been fairly two dimensional, frustration at what is being done to the natural world, hope that we can turn it around. Of course I care about the cause, I want things to change and I’m willing to sacrifice things to make it happen, but these have been for me predominantly intellectual arguments, not emotional ones.

But last week something fundamentally changed in the way that I think about this discussion, how I feel about this problem, and indeed, also my answer to the question of what poaching looks like.

To me, now, this photo is the face of poaching:


This picture is of my wife, lying with a 9-month old elephant calf who is slowly starving to death.

A government ranger had brought him into our camp, having found him walking up and down a logging road on the outskirts of the Park. While none of us had ever looked after an elephant before, nor were are set up with “sanctuary” facilities here, there was no question in any of our minds that we had to do our very best to look after him.

Our front room was converted to accommodate a baby elephant and after what must have been a fairly stressful car journey for him, followed by a little manhandling, we managed to get him safely into the room. Despite not even reaching my waist, he weighed around 100kg and was strong enough to take 6 fully grown adult males to cajole him to walk in the direction we wanted.

When he arrived he was incredibly stressed. It is not normal for an elephant calf to be apart from his mother and the rangers told us that they had found a carcass in the area where they had picked him up. So this 9-month old had almost certainly watched a group poachers cuts his mother’s face off. Needless to say, this would have been horrific for any sentient being. Indeed, he had a deep wound on his left hand side from a machete. It is likely that in his shock he was staying close to the body of his Mum and he had been on the receiving end of a machete thrust.

What was quite incredible, considering everything that this little guy had been through, was that after a sleep, a good drink of water and a few hours, he worked out who his friends were and was willing to trust us to look after him. Within 6 hours or so, the mischievous, kid-like nature of the juvenile animal that he was started to come through. He was climbing on (and breaking) furniture, greeting us with friendly rumbles and exploring everything and everywhere with his incredibly dextrous little trunk.

I’ve always loved animals and have for a while now been blind to the “species barrier” that supposedly separates us from the “other animals”. I’ve always seen intelligence and intention in dogs, horses and pigs for example. I’ve also been lucky enough to have swum and interacted with dolphins, and I’ve had many close encounters with great apes. But honestly, nothing could have prepared me for being so intimately close with an elephant. It was on another level to all my previous interactions. There is zero doubt in my mind that they are profoundly intelligent creatures. (This in itself is a whole other blog post. Indeed it is the subject of many books, one of the best I can recommend is the Elephant Whisperer by Anthony Lawrence, an truly inspiring conservationist and an inspiring story. Don’t let the title of the book put you off, it’s an incredible read and will change the way you think about animals.)

So not only is this little chap we’ve received in our camp clearly very intelligent (he is also incredibly sweet), but more or less immediately the magnitude of what we’ve taken on hits us.

While there are establish elephant rescue centres in Eastern and Southern Africa, these are a) impossible for us to access due to our location and b) they are for savannah elephants, not forest elephants. To our knowledge a sanctuary for forest elephants simply does not exist, anywhere on the planet.

Reintroduction to the wild was really not an option either. Elephants calves that are still 100% dependent on suckling their mother’s will not be taken in by another herd. Our little one was not able to eat vegetation or fruits, so sending him out into the forest would have meant certain death. So this was not an option. We all felt a very strong moral responsibility to look after this orphaned creature (probably particularly strong for me having been adopted myself).

From the evidence and advice we could pull together from colleagues in the conservation world (and an amazing amount of advice came out of the woodwork, with special mention to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya who were incredible) it became very clear that keeping him alive was going to be very hard work. One of the most common causes of death with orphaned elephants is stress and depression. They are deeply emotionally intelligent creatures and after the initial surge of optimism of being safe, the fact he had lost his mother was going to soon sink in. The very clear advice was that we needed to be with him 24 hours a day. He must not be left alone, ever.

Add to this that nutrition is very difficult. He was still dependent on milk and could not eat an adult diet. Complicating this was the fact that cow’s milk was an absolute no. We were told clearly that this would kill him, or at least give him diarrhoea and make him very sick. So the race was on for any milk formulas that weren’t from a cow, so that we could actually feed him something and keep him alive.

As mentioned, we are around 1,000 km and two days journey from the nearest large urban settlement. Logistics here are notoriously difficult. This just made a bad situation even worse. So while our logistics departments bent over backward trying to track something suitable down to feed him, we just tried our best to keep him hydrated and happy.

The next three days were possibly the most emotionally intense three days of my life.

On the one hand, those days were a total joy. It was an enormous privilege to spend three days with this emotionally aware, curious, mischievous, physiologically fascinating wonder of nature. We worked out of to get fluids into him (the finger of a latex glove works as a neat substitute for an elephant nipple, we warmed the water up to elephant body temperate, we mixed it with a little coconut oil and coconut milk and stuffed a whole load electrolytes in there, which seemed to work). We spent all day every day keeping him company, all the expats in camp took shifts, every time we would walk in the door he would half bound, half waddle, across to us and greet us with rumbles and plenty of trunk touching. He would chase moths, use his little trunk to pick things up that he wasn’t supposed to and would delight in kicking over his water bucket. We played with him, cleaned up his mess and slept by his side. We always kept in physical contact with him, even all through the night. This little video gives a flavour:

On the other hand, those three days, were incredibly, incredibly sad. We were all completely sleep deprived and the three days felt like three weeks. During this time it was becoming obvious that it was proving impossible to find any suitable milk. Essentially there was just nothing we could do. His initial enthusiasm at being safe started to wane and he became more and more desperate for proper nutrition. The water we were giving him just was not satisfying him. By the beginning of day three he was really starting to slow down and there was a forlorn, broken look in his eyes. It was about then that the fever set in. His wound, which we tried to keep clean, was getting angrier. We also just didn’t know how long he had been wandering in the forest before he came to us, it could have been days. Who knows how long he had been starving.

We will never know whether it was the wound, the lack of proper nutrition or perhaps the stress; but it is certain that all of these contributed to his decline. After three days, he faded quite quickly and died around midnight.

It was desperate. I was desperate. I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite so powerless. There was just simply nothing that we could do for this incredible, wonderfully sweet, magical little animal. It felt, it feels, so incredibly unjust. Why is this allowed to happen? Is it really too much to ask of the human race that this little being can’t just live out his life with his Mum in the forest? Is there not enough space and compassion in the world for us both to exist? I wonder if the people who cut off his mother’s face can even begin to think about these things, about the suffering that they cause: probably not, as he was not even worth a bullet, just a casual, stray strike of a machete.

But the feeling I’m left with after this is not really anger. The frustration that I’ve always felt has certainly moved towards outrage, but this cannot be the whole solution. I suppose it is perhaps best summed up by the old cliché “don’t get angry, get even”. The hope that I spoke of, for things to get better, has certainly moved on to sheer wonder at what the natural world contains, there is true inspiration there for sure. I take solace in the fact that rather than starving to death alone in the forest, at least we were able to keep him safe and warm, and provide him with love in his last days. Love does win out over hate in the end.

But it is determination which will be the  legacy that little elephant has given me. I feel like I’ve truly experienced one the consequences of poaching now. I’ve felt the pain, I’ve seen the suffering and the lost joy. I don’t think that a civilised world should allow that much suffering, regardless of species, country or circumstance. I’m more motivated than ever to try to play my very small part in making that vision a reality.

So, after all this, I think I know what sums up, what symbolises the face of poaching for me now. It is loss, it is determination and it is hope.

I now know exactly what my face of poaching is, and it is this:


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Having an "office job" isn't so bad when occasionally your desk is a speedboat on a Congo river. Everyday wonders of the rainforest #4 Multi-coloured, giant grasshoppers. It's caterpillar season in the Congo Basin, which means that there is seasonal speciality on the menu. This photo was taken in a local market. Dinner anyone?
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