Photograph by Chris Johns, National Geographic

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An elephant runs near the Zambezi River. Africa's park rangers are facing increasing violence from poachers.

Photograph by Chris Johns, National Geographic

In War to Save Elephants, Rangers Appeal for Aid

Protectors seek protection from armed poachers.

His name is Baghdad, because of the bullet scar in his ear. He lives in a national park in Gabon, and he's one of only 20 African forest elephants left on Earth whose tusks touch the ground, making him worth about a hundred thousand U.S. dollars—dead.

"That's a sad reflection on our planet," Lee White, head of Gabon's national park system, said Sunday at a meeting of the World Conservation Congress in Jeju, South Korea, where conservationists are appealing for aid from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as African elephant populations plummet. (See blog posts from the congress.)

With international crime syndicates coveting more and more elephant ivory—a symbol of wealth in booming Asia—numbers of the mammal have fallen to "crisis levels," according to a June report by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The highest rate of elephant poaching since a global ivory ban in 1989 occurred in 2011, with tens of thousands of the animals slaughtered, their ivory shuttled out of West and, increasingly, East African seaports enroute mainly to China but also to other Asian consumer countries such as Thailand.

About 472,000 to 690,000 African elephants—currently classified as vulnerable by IUCN—likely roam the continent today, down from possibly five million in the 1930s and 1940s.

On Wednesday, the IUCN Member Assembly will vote on three proposed motions to increase protection of African wildlife targeted for illegal killing, particularly elephants and rhinoceroses.

One of the motions, sponsored by the Game Rangers Association of Africa, would lend aid to park rangers, some of whom are being killed by well-armed poachers.

Dozens of rangers have been killed this year in Africa, including 15 in the Kenya Wildlife Service alone.

"We're going into a phase now where we're basically at war," White said. "We're shifting from biologists being out in these parks to military people being out there."

Enhancing Ranger Support

At the conference, the rangers association's Tim Snow stood before a "Roll of Honour," a list of more than 60 rangers who have died this year around the world. There are many dead who go unreported.

As "protectors of the protected," rangers need more funding, training, and equipment—particularly as wildlife crime tightens its grip on Africa, said Snow, the main author of the ranger-led motion.

Many African rangers are underpaid, living in ramshackle conditions in dangerous areas, Snow said. "It's not a ranger who's doing a normal patrol—the rangers are in a war zone," he said. "We need government protection."

The ranger motion is provocative because it's "the voice of the people from the frontlines," Matt Lewis, senior program officer for African Species Conservation at World Wildlife Fund, said in a phone interview. They're saying, "In order for us to effectively do our jobs, we need this."

WWF recently launched a campaign to stop wildlife crime, and one of its main goals is raising the profile of rangers, since many "don't receive the support and training they need," Lewis said.

He also backs the idea of standardizing rangers' work. For instance, a large institution such as the World Bank or the Global Environment Fund could fund a ranger training school or certification program.

Indeed, the ranger motion calls for IUCN to "promote adequate funding, leadership, training and equipment for custodians of wildlife resources, and appropriate remuneration to enable the professional execution of their protective functions."

Gabon, a country that's taken a strong stance against the ivory trade, recently upped its national park staff from 100 to 500 and is in the process of adding a new military branch of 250, White said.

Even so, poachers have become more brazen, shooting at cars carrying park staff.

"Every day I go to work worrying about what I'm going to hear," he said.

Recording Elephant Poaching

Regardless of whether the motions pass, IUCN is working on stemming the rise in elephant poaching, according to a presentation by Diane Skinner, program officer for IUCN's African Elephant Specialist Group. She said IUCN has been "increasingly looking at the issue," and "expanding our concern" from Central Africa—a traditional poaching hot spot—to East and Southern Africa.

For example, the group has been working to record the uptick in poaching rates for the African and Asian Elephant Database, which draws from aerial surveys and on-the-ground reports, Skinner said.

She also noted a "very worrying" new method of killing elephants: Putting out poison, which can harm other animals as well.

Poachers are becoming more sophisticated in their strategies throughout Africa—in some places, they're equipped with helicopters to carry their loot away quickly.

But not all of them get away with it. Not surprisingly, 2011 was also a record year for major ivory seizures, Skinner added—14 busts worth 24,000 kilograms of ivory, according to data from TRAFFIC, a global wildlife-trade monitoring group.

Enlisting Public Support

Despite the elephant's rapid decline, many people simply don't know how bad it's getting, said George Wittemyer, science director for the nonprofit Save the Elephants. That's why his organization launched the website Elephants in Peril on Sunday at the World Conservation Congress—to boost "public knowledge and understanding of how drastic this issue is," he said.

Users can study maps showing the proportion of elephants illegally killed in the past year, as well as get information on what's driving the surge and how they can help.

Governments and organizations are "making very significant efforts to stop the massacre ... but we cannot do it on our own," Gabon's White emphasized. "If we don't deal with it in the next five years, this species is going to be ecologically extinct," he said, referring to the forest elephants of Central Africa.

If that happens, he said, "The African rain forest will be a different place."

For more on the elephant-poaching crisis, see the investigative report in the October issue of National Geographic magazine—on newsstands, the magazine's website, and the National Geographic iPad app September 14.