“Alan, what do you know about anti-poaching?” This was the question posed to me some three years ago, whilst sitting in a coffee shop. Having spent over ten years in the military and worked in Kenya twice, I mastered, albeit somewhat tentatively,  “ a little… why?”

This was the answer that lead to my deployment to a reserve in South Africa. The first visit was a two-day assessment to identify the needs of the rangers on the ground. 

One the the fundamental issues facing nearly all rangers is the financial limitations placed upon them. More often than not, the anti-poaching teams are not a well-trained team of paramilitary experts, but rather people who joined the conservation industry to count animals, conduct health checks and fulfil the traditional role of a field guide or game ranger. 

They now find themselves in the middle of what is essentially a counter-insurgency conflict. Small units of poachers infiltrating the border of the reserves (and sometimes countries), with small teams of anti-poaching rangers seeking them out. 

The primary problem that I witnessed was that nearly all reserves never planned to conduct these type of operations at all. Nor do they possess the right equipment and facilities to train the staff appropriately. Ammunition, rifles, night vision & combat uniforms aren’t items you’d normally find on a procurement list.

With the massive rise in poaching since 2006, most reserves now rely on low cost items, with an already tight budget supplemented by donations from concerned individuals to help offset the financial drain. 

Added to this are managers and staff, through no fault of their own, who are not versed in counter-insurgency operations, trying to find what is needed.  Its not uncommon for night vision or even thermal equipment being acquired, when the reality is that for the same cost, you could teach a ten-man team how to shoot, patrol, coordinate operations and deter poachers. A far better utilisation of thinly-stretched resources.

And that is exactly what I found upon my arrival in-country. Rangers using whatever they could find to assist them and operating in a manner that was a little dated in its approach and application. I spent two days watching them patrol, shoot, track and report. 

After spending time with the teams on the ground, one thing became very clear, very quickly. These guys care. They care about the animals. They care about the work they carry out and its effectiveness against an often better paid and better equipped enemy. They truly want to make a difference in the fight against poaching.

I left the reserve with a clear plan in my head and went on to formulate the best possible training programme, given the circumstances. I returned two weeks later and set about establishing the new operations plan, training regime and tactical mindset for the rangers. The students through themselves into the serials with great vigour and, thanks to their hard work and dedication, we were able to turn around the poaching situation at the reserve in question.

The clear lessons that one can draw from this experience are: that the men and women currently conducting anti-poaching operations are capable of winning this fight, but they need our support. And that is where organisations such as Veterans for Wildlife come in.

Our aim is to help those rangers stay safe, better protect the animals under their care and bring an end to the poaching crisis on the ground.