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The Militarization of Anti-Poaching: Pete Muller’s Notes from the Field

“In addition to the sheer vastness of the forests in northeastern Congo, rangers will encounter an array of threats and challenges. Once deployed, they will patrol large swaths of dense forest in which they stand to encounter militias, heavily armed poachers, smuggling networks, and dangerous wildlife. It is therefore essential that candidates possess a high level of physical and mental fortitude. As former Special Forces trainers make decisions on members of the unit, they subject recruits to grueling physical and psychological stress.  Here, we follow as prospective rangers undergo physical endurance training under the midday sun. For about ten kilometers, they carry heavy logs and backpacks filled with bricks. While many candidates are engaged in physical labor in their ordinary lives, this type of specific physical training is incredibly taxing. Within the first two days, nearly a dozen candidates were disqualified.”

– Pete Muller, 2015 Emergency Fund Grantee

“Once some tactical fundamentals are in place, the rangers move into the forest where they undergo combat and ambush simulations. With visibility impeded by dense vegetation, contact between hostile factions can often occur by surprise. Trainers encourage troops to move in strategic formation that limits the likelihood of surprise attacks and mass causalities during firefights. The challenges of anti-poaching operations in forest terrain are innumerable. With low visibility both on the ground and from the air, tracking and local intelligence networks become even more critical. The area of operations in northeastern DR Congo is extremely remote and therefore emergency medical care is virtually non-existent.”

– Pete Muller, 2015 Emergency Fund Grantee

“Ranger cadets begin live-fire training. They use second-hand AK-47 rifles that were seized from armed groups by the Congolese army. The weapons are in short supply and fewer than half of the allotted stock actually function. A group of 21 rangers had access to 12 rifles, six of which functioned properly. In addition to the shortage of weapons, the rangers possessed not nearly enough ammunition to adequately patrol the area. In the forest, rangers are likely to encounter armed groups and migratory poaching units that possess relatively sophisticated weaponry. The dynamics within the preserve place the rangers at a distinct disadvantage and their insufficient weapons and communications technology widens the gap.”

– Pete Muller, 2015 Emergency Fund Grantee

“As training unfolds, the unit shows clear signs of progress. At the outset, many seemed uncomfortable with the aggressive, militaristic nature of the training. The communities from which many recruits are drawn are largely peaceful with little history of inter-communal conflict or violence. In the initial days, many were timid and lacked understanding about the functions and purpose of strict discipline and unit cohesion. As weeks pass, they appear more confident with weapons, tactical maneuvering and the demonstration of aggressive behavior. Their attitude shifts and they begin to firmly obey and respect the militaristic structures that govern the ranger units.”

– Pete Muller, 2015 Emergency Fund Grantee

These rangers face an extraordinary uphill battle. After nearly 30 years without security forces, the preserve into which they’ll deploy is lawless and fraught with risk. While home to fantastic biodiversity, it is also inhabited by armed groups and traversed by violent poachers and smugglers. After following these trainers through several countries, it is fascinating to observe the difference in anti-poaching capacity between various African states. While a country like Kenya remains highly affected by poaching, it possesses comparatively strong state institutions capable of making at least modest progress. In northern DR Congo, the state is virtually non-existent, the terrain in question is remarkably difficult to control, and dangerous armed groups lurk in proximity to animal populations. Such locations—where conflict, resources and instability meet—are often where the struggle to save wildlife is most difficult.

Katerina Voegtle