May 2013

A warden guards rhinos from poachers on the Lewa wildlife conservancy

The informer called at noon. He said five poachers would shortly be entering a forested corner of the Lewa wildlife conservancy in northern Kenya, close to where a rhino and her calf were shot in February.

Silea Legei, deputy commander of Lewa’s security force, hurried to the spot with 11 rangers. They hid in the long grass beside an animal track leading from the trees, and waited. The poachers arrived shortly after 3pm. One carried a semi-automatic, another a bow with poisoned arrows. That was justification enough for the rangers.

Lewa rhinos were well protected around the time of Prince William's visit to Kenya and in the years after. Recently, Lewa has been infiltrated by poachers. Here, elephants have a peaceful drink from a pond in Lewa Conservancy, Kenya. Prince William was said to be 'absolutely one of the workers' during his time on a cattle ranch in Lewa. The area is now on the front line of a brutal war on Rhino poaching.

They opened fire. The armed poacher shot back. During the gun battle, a terrified rhinoceros raced past the men who had come to slaughter it. When the shooting stopped, four poachers lay dead, their blood trickling into the dirt. The fifth had fled. The jubilant rangers showed no pity for the poachers, though one was a teenager and another just 20.

They had struck back after losing 14 rhino to poaching gangs over the previous two years, 12 of them black rhino which are listed as critically endangered because there are fewer than 5,000 left on Earth. ‘They got what they deserved,’ Legei said.

Lewa is 60,000 acres of storybook Africa spread out beneath a vast blue sky. Its savannahs, lush and green after recent rains, are fringed by distant hills and the craggy, snow-flecked peaks of Mount Kenya. It teems with elephants, zebras, giraffes, lions, warthogs, buffalo, impala and 127 rhino, its flagship species – 69 of them black rhinos, distinguished by their prehensile upper lips, the rest whites. Monkeys cavort in flat-topped acacia trees. Guinea fowl scatter before the jeeps that bump along its rutted tracks.

Prince William described the months he spent at Lewa during his gap year in 2001 as one of the ‘happiest times of my life’, and it is easy to see why. It was a sanctuary for him, just as it used to be for rhinos. He enjoyed a freedom he can never have in Britain, counting game, creating fire breaks and building hides.

‘He was absolutely one of the workers,’ says Ian Craig who started the conservancy out of his parents’ cattle ranch in the 1980s.

Legei knew first-hand how much William loved working there. He took the Prince on night patrols, and they would eat by the campfire and sleep beneath the stars. ‘He said where he came from he didn’t have opportunities like that, but here he was free,’ Legei said.

John Tanui, 34, another Lewa employee, played football with William and enjoyed banter about the relative merits of Arsenal and Manchester United. ‘He played in the centre. He was very good and very fast,’ Tanui recalled.

The Duke of Cambridge described the months he spent at Lewa during the gap year in 2001 as one of the 'happiest times of my life'. William has returned to Lewa several times since, most famously with Kate in October 2010. Towards the end of their stay, he drove her up to a remote lakeside cabin on Mount Kenya and proposed.

‘Thank you for such a wonderful 24 hours,’ his future bride wrote in the guest book. ‘I love the warm fires and candle lights – so romantic! Hope to be back again soon.’

But if the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge did return today, it is doubtful they could spend a night alone in that cabin at Rutundu. And it is unlikely that William would be allowed out on patrol, for Lewa is now on the front line of a brutal war on poaching. It is a paradise lost.

Since December, intruders have killed nine of Lewa’s cherished rhino. All were blacks. They are more vulnerable than whites because they eat branches, not grass, and are therefore easier to hear at night. Two were calves. 

The poachers fired at least 24 rounds into one of the rhinos. In most cases, they hacked off the horns, leaving behind bloody and mutilated carcasses. Tragically, four rhinos managed to escape with horns intact – only to die of their injuries later.

It’s a shocking reversal of fortunes for the Lewa rhinos. Craig explained: ‘When William was here as a gap student, no one had cracked Lewa.

'It was absolutely Fort Knox and we had not lost a rhino in 23 years, but suddenly the game changed.’ The 61-year-old – a professional hunter in his youth who has since devoted his life to saving rhinos – is a close friend of the prince. He said William was ‘saddened and sickened by the rhinos being killed’.

William is also angry. In London on Tuesday, the Prince – who is patron of the wildlife charity Tusk Trust – will express his increasing concern about the poaching onslaught that is afflicting not just Lewa but all of Africa. He will team up with his father Prince Charles to call for political and diplomatic action on a global scale to counter a scourge that has, they will say, reached ‘epidemic’ proportions.

In an almost unprecedented joint appearance, the two future Kings will host a conference at St James’s Palace for delegates from those countries where horn and ivory are being plundered, and from those that receive or traffic that contraband. The Princes want the poaching of rhino, elephants and other wildlife put at the top of the international agenda.

They say the slaughter is being driven by sophisticated international criminal networks and terrorist groups, and will urge the key nations to sign a solemn commitment this autumn to end illegal trade in wildlife.

The case for action is overwhelming, because the war is manifestly being lost. Africa has barely 25,000 rhino left. In South Africa, home to four-fifths of the continent’s rhinos, 448 were poached in 2011, 668 in 2012, and this year’s toll is heading for 800.

Mozambique has just lost its last rhinos to poachers who were aided by corrupt rangers. 

Tanzania has fewer than 150 left – and even Africa’s wildlife sanctuaries have become graveyards. 
Mike Watson, a former British Army officer who is Lewa’s chief executive, said: ‘Wherever there are rhino, they are being slaughtered.’

Elephants are faring no better. Scarcely 400,000 survive in Africa, down from 1.3 million in 1979. Nearly 33,000 have been killed since January last year, according to the website In Tanzania more than 10,000 are being slaughtered annually, while the elephant populations of countries such as Cameroon, Chad, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Mali and the Central African Republic have been almost entirely wiped out.

For thousands of years, the horns of a rhino and tusks of an elephant were a means of survival. Today they can be the animal’s death warrant. The increasingly affluent Chinese and Vietnamese believe the horns and tusks have magical properties that cure anything from cancer to fevers, impotence and hangovers. Powdered rhino horn has become the cool thing to serve after fancy dinners in Shanghai or Saigon. That quack medicine has sent the black-market price for horns soaring past £18,000 a pound, far outstripping gold.

It means a grazing rhino – a generally placid, short-sighted herbivore that had no predators until humans came along – is carrying two protuberances on its forehead worth nearly £330,000. It has become an irresistible target for criminal syndicates who more commonly trade in guns and drugs.

‘It’s the equivalent of putting an unprotected donkey in Piccadilly with two gold bars on it,’ said Craig. 
Watson described Lewa as a ‘62,000-acre cashpoint’.

Lewa’s guardians have responded with a full-scale security operation, led by 30 elite armed rangers, that costs about £500,000 a year and is overtly military in nature. 

The poachers usually strike after dark, so each evening – when the tourists have returned to their lodges – ten two-man teams take up positions on hillsides overlooking the 140-mile long electrified fence that rings the conservancy. They carry Heckler and Koch G3 semi-automatic rifles, night-vision goggles, thermal imaging equipment and flares. They have police reservist status, allowing them to shoot armed poachers on sight, and they receive a bonus for doing so.

‘If someone comes into the conservancy with a gun, you just put him down. If you challenge him, that’s like giving him a chance to kill you first,’ said ranger Philip Lelelit, 33, as he and a camouflaged colleague melted into the darkness one night last week.

They stayed there until dawn, working alternate two-hour shifts, sustained by tea and listening intently for the trademark footfall of humans amid the cacophony of animal noises. 

The rangers are merely the front line of Lewa’s defences. They are linked by radio to a 24-hour operations room and a rapid-response team. The conservancy has a helicopter to rush reinforcements to the scene of an attack, two surveillance planes and a team of tracker dogs. Not long ago two bloodhounds, Toffee and Tash, tracked three Somali poachers through the bush for three hours after the gang left the conservancy. Rangers then killed them in a shoot-out. Lewa also employs 44 khaki-clad monitors who tramp the reserve on foot each day and raise the alarm if a rhino disappears.

Park staff have developed a sophisticated intelligence operation and a network of informers that includes members of poaching gangs. ‘Whatever it takes,’ Watson replied when asked how much the turncoats are paid. To enlist the support of local communities, Lewa also ploughs a million dollars into schools, clinics and other development projects each year.

That policy paid off this month when a black rhino named Omni was killed with a poisoned spear on an adjacent conservancy called Il Ngwesi. Omni attracted tourists, and the local elders were so outraged that they threatened to put curses on the poachers unless they gave themselves up. Three men surrendered immediately.

But the poaching syndicates are formidable too, and quick to exploit corrupt officials, porous borders and the presence of large numbers of Chinese construction workers who can smuggle rhino horn home. The gangs send men into Lewa armed with AK-47s from neighbouring Somalia, and with ammunition and night-vision goggles stolen from a British Army base at Archers Post, 20 miles away.

The guns are often fitted with home-made silencers. They pay bribes of £3,000 or more to Lewa’s employees for information on the whereabouts of its rhinos and rangers. That’s a huge temptation when a ranger’s wage is barely £165 a month. One monitor gave a poacher a uniform and a tour of the conservancy. Watson has fired eight corrupt employees in two years. 

The syndicates and their henchmen operate with virtual impunity because the law is full of loopholes, officials are easily bought and fines are a fraction of the value of the contraband. Everyone knows who the local traders are. Their base is Isiolo – a dusty, impoverished town that straddles a highway ten miles north of Lewa and is renowned for banditry and cheap firearms.

Lewa has a database called Mozaic that lists their names and transgressions, even their telephone numbers. ‘We arrest them as many times as we can but they come out scot-free,’ said a frustrated police officer who – tellingly – requested anonymity for fear of retribution.

We tried to visit a couple of the alleged traders, despite our taxi driver’s trepidation. ‘These are very dangerous people,’ he warned. 

One was Buko, who somehow escaped prosecution after elephant tusks were found in his Land Cruiser in 2009. He runs a backstreet warehouse selling bags of flour and milk powder. 

‘Pliz customers!!! Check your belongings B4 you leave. Anything lost no compensation,’ proclaimed a handwritten cardboard sign above the counter. Buko’s son professed not to know where his father was, when he would return or what his mobile number was.

The other was Robert ‘Rasta’ Njiru, 36, who has twice been caught with large amounts of ivory. He was not at his timber yard so we called his mobile. He refused to meet, claiming he was flying to the Democratic Republic of Congo for two weeks.

But these are mere middlemen. The real kingpins sit in Nairobi and are known to the Kenyan government but protected by wealth and connections. Conservationists are waiting anxiously to see if Uhuru Kenyatta, the new president, fulfils a promise made when he took office in April to crack down on the poaching industry.

Ian Craig admits that even the toughest security is a stop-gap measure at best, not a solution. He acknowledges that few conservancies can afford to emulate Lewa, which has wealthy supporters in the UK and America – though a sister conservancy called Ol Pejeta has bought itself a drone.

‘We have every single tool in the bag to protect our rhino but still we’re struggling. Elsewhere in Africa it’s a losing battle,’ he says.

Tuesday’s conference will therefore focus on much broader, long-term strategies such as reducing Asia’s demand for horn and ivory, and global law enforcement. But some conservationists contend that attempting to reduce that demand is like trying to end the West’s appetite for drugs. They argue for a legalised and regulated trade in horns, or farming rhinos to meet the demand.

Others favour de-horning rhinos so they are no longer worth killing, or even poisoning their horns.

Mr Craig, who describes his battle to save rhinos as a ‘personal religion’, wants a global ‘war on poaching’ with governments deploying all their military, diplomatic and technological resources against a common enemy. His greatest fear is not that rhinos will become extinct. It is that they will never again range free across Africa’s great plains, as they have since prehistoric times.

He fears the only way of protecting them will be to imprison them behind people-proof fences in militarised zones, sad shadows of their magnificent ancestors.

He fears that ‘Lewa will become a giant zoo’. Some would argue it has already become one, and that ours is the age in which the days of truly wild rhino came to a shameful end.