The Commando Hunting Elephant Poachers in Africa
When Nir Kalron, a former soldier with the Israeli special forces, learned that elephants could soon be extinct in Africa, he recruited intelligence agents and went in to defend the herds. He networked the jungles with cameras, battled with poachers, and worked to train an army of rangers.
In January 2012, a “hit squad” of around 50 armed men, riding horses and equipped with Kalashnikov rifles, mortars, and submachine guns, infiltrated Bouba Njida, one of the largest national parks in the central African country of Cameroon.
Families of elephants in a muddy clearing were having a typical day. Some shoved their trunks to the ground to look for water. Little ones napped beside their parents. Others excitedly greeted relatives they had not seen in awhile.
Then, a gunshot. One little elephant fell to the ground. Poachers know if they shoot a young one, the adults gather protectively rather than running.
What followed was a massacre. Submachine guns left the others wounded or dead. Those still alive felt the sharp blades of machetes cut off their trunks. Afterward, their tusks were removed and small round pieces cut from their ears, a customary trophy of “winners.”
A local resident heard the shots and called authorities, but it was too late. The poachers had already mounted their horses and left in search of another herd. A military force caught up with them three months—and 650 dead elephants—later and drove them off after a shootout.
Years of research have charted a likely course for the ivory, from the beaches of Africa to transit cities like Hong Kong. The Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and the United States are major markets for ivory, but China is the largest.
In China, ivory is an accessible status symbol, used for everything from decorations to chopsticks. Some grind the ivory into powder for its believed medicinal qualities, a practice that propelled poachers to hunt the West African black rhino to extinction.
Today, an elephant is killed every 15 minutes, or between 30,000 to 40,000 a year. Researchers say the elephant population in countries like Tanzania has plummeted by as much as 60 percent in the past ten years.
Meanwhile, in China the price of ivory has doubled and tripled to $3,000 a pound. Two tusks can cost upwards of $200,000. Hunters make around $200 a pound, but for criminal organizations in poverty-stricken Africa, that’s plenty.
The trade also funds terrorist organizations like the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab and the “Lord’s Resistance Army” (LRA) terrorist group led by Joseph Kony, who claims he is following the divine word by kidnapping, raping, torturing, and murdering thousands of people across the continent, including children recruited to serve as warriors in his army.
When retired Israeli commando Nir Kalron reached the park, the elephants were gone.
“Not an elephant or even half an elephant—it was simply a dead park,” he said.
Kalron had originally come to Africa with an Israeli security contractor who was training military instructors for foreign armies. He found himself in some of the worst conflicts in Africa, in countries like Burundi and Burkina Faso. He saw wounded, bleeding, hopeless soldiers with amputated limbs, and 13-year-old kids holding rifles.
Seeing backroom military deals behind the various conflicts left him increasingly conflicted. “You don’t always know where you stand and which interests you are really serving.”
The moral ambiguity weighed on him. He quit.
Then in 2008, he was given a chance to do something clearly good by an old family friend, Dr. Bill Clark, one of the founders of Interpol’s environmental crime group. As a child, Kalron would ask the doctor to take him on safari.
“Then one day he calls me and says, ‘Come, we need someone to train park rangers in Kenya,'” said Kalron.
Clark didn’t have any money to pay Kalron, but Kalron didn’t care. It was an opportunity to do good in Africa. It would also become a grim education on why rangers need AK-47 assault rifles to guard elephants and giraffes.
The stories the rangers told him turned his stomach. “Here we had a fight, there we had three casualties, here someone bled to death,” Kalron recounted.
Kalron soon developed a deep need to protect Africa’s wildlife. It led him to start a company to conduct intelligence operations crucial to that effort. He called it Maisha, which is Swahili for “life.”
Kalron brought to Maisha Consulting two critical skills: the ability to conduct surveillance through cost-effective gadgets and the ability to recruit informants in the field.
Since taking on his new quest, he has been in gunfights with poachers, installed grids of solar-powered cameras and satellite transmitters in forests and jungles, and recruited supporters and informants to help him collect intelligence.
“The idea was that if we used our military background and knowledge, we may be able to save some elephants,” said Kalron.
Kalron was joined by Omer Barak, a graduate of Unit 8200, Israel’s elite signal intelligence unit.
Kalron and Barak have known each other since kindergarten. Kalron grew up in a military family: his father an attack helicopter pilot and his brother a commando fighter. Barak’s family was in the intelligence business.
“Ever since I’ve known Kalron, he always had to be fighting someone,” said Barak.
Another key team member is Remi, an ex-French special forces soldier who works with Kalron on the ground.
Kalron used his own money to fund projects. He also recruited his future wife, Melody Sucharevich, and a German shepherd from Senegal.
The group got a pro-bono boost from Dr. Arik Rosenfeld, an expert in remote sensing.
Job one was understanding the situation. Barak was the pillar of the intelligence side and he recruited other former military intelligence officers.
A New Sheriff
The new company’s first serious test came at the end of 2012 in Garamba, a nature reserve in northern Democratic Republic of Congo. It is home to about 3,000 elephants.
Kalron and his men had been training the rangers of the park, which was notorious for being infested with rebels and hunters. Two months prior, a battle with heavily armed men in Kony’s LRA left rangers too scared to leave their headquarters.
While Kalron was there for training, the sound of a gunshot in the night led rangers to two dead giraffes and one slaughtered elephant.
“We realized that the hunters had taken, probably by mistake, a GPS collar of one of the giraffes and were headed toward the border with Sudan,” said Kalron
He enlisted forces from the U.N. and the Congolese military to join the pursuit.
“I found myself, like in a joke, sitting with a Guatemalan colonel, a Bangladeshi operations officer, a French intelligence officer, a Congolese colonel, and a Spanish park manager, all talking about the possibility these may be the LRA,” he recalled.
With the help of the GPS signal, they set up an ambush. The goal was to show rangers that a bigger operation was possible and to show poachers they would face consequences for their crimes.
“We were 60 people against 5 to 6 hunters. The U.N. and Congolese military led the way.”
They snuck up within 300 meters of the poachers before bullets flew. One of the soldiers was hit.
Eventually they launched mortars at the poachers, who nonetheless escaped unharmed over the border.
“It was a failed battle in terms of tactics. The assault alone was conducted in four languages, and each person had different training,” said Kalron
It did, however, show poachers that there were new players on the board.
A few months later, some 900 miles west of Garamba, another challenge presented itself.
A coup in the Central African Republic had left young fighters belonging to the Seleka rebel forces running roughshod over the country.
They stole cars, weapons, and police radios and raided the offices of Dzanga-Ndoki National Park. Frightened park rangers ran into the woods, leaving Col. Ismail Bachit to assume command over the park and a nearby town.
He was once, according to media reports, a shepherd. Now he was walking around in a beret and sunglasses, protected by armed bodyguards.
A truck with 20 armed men came to the park a month later, in May 2013. Bachit let them in, and over the next two days, the men killed around 30 elephants.
Hired by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to deploy there, Kalron arrived 10 days after the massacre. Bachit wouldn’t let him near the scene. It took 200 kilograms of food and some warnings about international sanctions, but Kalron managed to gain access.
“I tried to build trust,” Kalron said.
Once inside, they found the elephants riddled with Iranian bullets, the same bullets from the slaughter in Bouba Njida.
“We had been finding these shells everywhere something bad had happened.”
After negotiations, they managed to install an early warning system to better protect the park. Today, WWF says it is one of the few places in Africa where elephant poaching is rare.
Behind the Slaughter
Kalron said that in Kenya, for example, poaching is fueled by unemployment as high as 40 percent and a huge population of young men with around 900,000 illegal firearms in circulation.
“When I take a hunter out of this cycle, there are 800 more to take his place,” he said.
The solution is to train rangers so they can be effective in the field, said Kalron. That means joining them on the ground—and sometimes in battle.
At least now, rangers have some idea of what is going on out of sight.
Kalron’s company has planted solar-powered cameras and satellite transmitters in trees to provide live video feed of elephants in area without electricity or communications. The cameras now allow the rangers to gather real-time intelligence and to document events they may have missed. The technology is cheap and effective.
The company also conducts investigations on multiple levels, from interrogating traders to developing relationships with informants. The latter are critical, he said. Now, if they find out hunters are transiting a rhino horn out of Mozambique, they can stop them in Kenya through a network of contacts.
“It takes a phone call. We have become a coordination mechanism and intelligence source for existing investigations,” Kalron said.
Kalron has also recruited some high-profile helpers.
The Green Prince’s Handler
Sucharevich, Kalron’s wife, met Mosab Hassan Yousef in Germany. Yousef is the son of one of the leaders of the Hamas terror organization in Gaza and was a key source of intel for Israel for almost a decade.
Through Yousef, Sucharevich recruited former Israeli security officer Gonen Ben-Yitzhak, the agent who convinced Yousef to work for Israel.
Soon Kalron and Ben-Yitzhak were flying together to Africa to a park in east Congo.
“I discovered that a local underground group controls the park. So we began giving the people working in conservation of the park a private investigator course,” recounted Ben-Yitzhak.
“The goal for me, initially, was to understand the territory and to get a feel for what is Africa, and later on to trace the chain of hunting.”
The hunters come from several sources, said Kalron. They can be inspectors from the natural preserves who have turned against their charges or local villagers. Some are sophisticated groups of well-armed Sudanese or Somalis who belong to a terror group.
“In Garamba, there was a case where 20 elephants were killed from a Ugandan military helicopter. Someone paid $100,000 and asked for half a ton [of ivory],” said Kalron.
A November 2014 report by the Environmental Investigation Agency, an independent organization based in London, charted the ivory trade in Tanzania through arrests and investigations.
It found the ivory trade route from Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania to markets in China was the “single largest conduit for illegal ivory in the world.”
Tanzanian police arrested three Chinese nationals in 2013 who were in possession of 706 ivory tusks, weighing nearly 2 tons. The trio had planned to hide it in secret compartments in a minibus and drive it to the port for eventual sale in China. A former staff member of the Chinese consulate in Tanzania was one of those arrested.
A month later, a Chinese naval ship arrived in Dar es Salaam Port in Tanzania en route to China. It stopped ostensibly to conduct anti-piracy activities.
But over four days, the naval ship was loaded with tons of ivory, according to one local trader who was caught. He revealed a deal he made to sell $50,000 worth of ivory to the crew. Another trader was intercepted bringing 81 tusks weighing 670 pounds to the ship.
The Environmental Investigation Agency reported that as far back as 2006, Chinese embassy staff were the major buyers of ivory. Some use high-level state visits to purchase ivory and bring it back to China, helped by the fact they did not face baggage checks at the airport.
But while it is illegal to ship ivory, it is legal in China to sell it.
Investigators found four state-owned Chinese companies have purchased tens, if not hundreds, of tons of ivory. The state-owned companies then sold the ivory to Chinese businesses and artists that have permission from the authorities to sell a certain amount of ivory legally.
The rest is used for “gifts that are not regarded as bribes” to the political and business elite in China, notes the report.
Kalron once attended a conference where a senior Chinese police official complained that he did not have the manpower to search millions of containers from Africa. Kalron says it is strange that Chinese law would let ivory be sold in China though it illegal to ship it there.
Ben-Yitzhak was more blunt in his appraisal of China’s role in the decline of elephants in Africa.
“While the Western world is trying to preserve this wonderful place called Africa, China comes and gives these efforts a deathblow. We are a moment away from not having elephants anymore,” Ben-Yitzhak said.
In October 2015, a Chinese official pledged the regime would ban the trade of ivory within a year. If a ban is put in place, it will require strict enforcement to stop trade on the black market.