The Battle to Save Elephants A Former Military Operative Sets Sights on Poachers

Faye Cuevas worked in U.S. military intelligence for 17 years and has hunted terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, as part of a conservation program, she's turning her skills to fighting poachers in Kenya and saving protected species in the region.

Frederic Noy/ DER SPIEGEL

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How do you kill an elephant without a gun, if all you've got is a spear, and your 20 centimeters (8 inches) of sharpened metal is going up against five tons of thick-skinned beast?

As soon as the bull elephant approaches, the Maasai warrior leaps from his hiding place in the bush and onto a rock, ramming the spear diagonally downward into the animal's huge body. It manages to stagger on for just a few meters before collapsing. The poacher takes a knife, carves the tusks from its jaw and walks away with the ivory.

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Photo Gallery: Spies in the Savannah

Later, it will earn him $150 (134 euros).

That's how Patrick Papatiti, a ranger for the Maasai communities around Kenya's Amboseli National Park, recalls an incident that took place on Nov. 23 of last year. Faye Cuevas and her fellow investigators at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), a global conservation organization with around 3 million supporters worldwide, confirmed it.

They refer to the poacher as "Venice 1." The alias is meant to protect the erstwhile elephant killer, who has since turned informer. "With his help, we hope to expose part of the criminal network used to move ivory and other wildlife products in this area," says Cuevas.

Cuevas, a 49-year-old American, is not your average conservationist. For 17 years, she worked in military intelligence. As lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, she was responsible for uncovering terror networks in Afghanistan and Iraq and, in Africa, helped fight the Lord's Resistance Army of brutal Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony.

Now Cuevas, a law school graduate, is using her experience to save animals. "The fight against poaching is often described as a war," she says, "so why shouldn't we use military strategies to combat these crimes?"

Covering an area on the Kenya-Tanzania border ranging from the Maasai Mara reserve in the west to the Indian Ocean, this IFAW conservation project is known as tenBoma, meaning 10 houses, and serves as a blueprint for conservation work in an overcrowded world.

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Kenya's population is growing by over a million people every year. Seventy percent of its wild animals spend at least part of their lives outside of protected areas. Conflicts between people and animals are part of daily life, which helps drive poaching. In addition, Kenya is a major transfer country for traffickers, with tons of ivory and other goods being shipped from the port of Mombasa to Asia.

"Those doing the poaching are also the ones trafficking weapons, people or drugs," says Cuevas. "We need to break up their criminal networks and find out what drives them. Then we'll be able to stop them."

Dwindling Numbers

The illegal wildlife trade has a volume of between $10 billion and $20 billion a year, with powdered rhino horn, pangolins, lion bones and tiger penises all finding willing buyers. African elephants are particularly hard hit. Although the ivory trade is now proscribed in China, formerly its biggest market, an African pachyderm is still killed for its tusks roughly once every 25 minutes, reports Traffic, a conservation organization. Over the past 100 years, the population has declined by more than 90 percent.

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In Kenya, around 26,000 elephants remain. Fewer than 2,000 of these live in Amboseli National Park. Situated in the south of the country on the Tanzanian border and dominated by the almost 5,900-metre (19,000-foot) Mount Kilimanjaro, it is a dusty plain covered in scrub and thorny acacias and dotted with small groups of gnus, zebras and gazelles. Here, the people are fearful of lions and hyenas, of venomous snakes like the black mamba -- and of elephants.

This morning, like every other morning, the herds are roaming from the foot of the imposing massif out across the often swampy plain in search of fresh grass, their bulky forms softly lit by the rising sun. Meanwhile, a four-by-four heads to the conservationists' operations center, a large tent behind a hill, trailed by dust. Here, investigators Joe Micalizzi and Eric Corpuz, also both former U.S. military analysts, are waiting to explain how tenBoma works. A report on Operation "Venice" is displayed on a projector screen.

"'Venice 2' is a poacher and trafficker who has worked directly with 'Venice 1,'" it says. He was initially able to evade the investigators' grasp but, after a tip-off, the tenBoma team and officers from the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) managed to track him down in the coastal town of Diani Beach, some 300 kilometers to the east.

On Jan. 26, "Venice 2" entered the local police station, seeking to bail out an acquaintance who had committed a minor offence. He was arrested and, like "Venice 1," persuaded to cooperate with the investigators. From a search of his mobile phone, they learned that he passed the ivory on to a dealer in Tanzania. The spotlight then fell on "Venice 3."

A suspect was tracked down, arrested and questioned, the resulting intelligence analyzed, the next suspect targeted: This is how the investigation team is opening up the poachers' network -- one link at a time.

"Taking out local actors from the traffickers' network can have global impacts," says Cuevas. Achieving that, however, requires the cooperation of local communities, which is why the term "humint" (human intelligence) crops up frequently in tenBoma's reports -- and why Cuevas and colleagues maintain close contact with the Maasai living in the Amboseli region.

Nature as Enemy

At the tenBoma operations center, a group of men in green camouflage gear has gathered for the morning operations meeting -- rangers from the Maasai villages. Seventy-six such rangers have already been recruited in the area. They liaise closely with their state counterparts but are paid by IFAW.

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Patrick Papatiti, who heads the group, steps forward. He points to a map of the region, on which some areas are highlighted in red. These are the poaching hotspots, areas where tenBoma analysts consider wildlife to be in particular danger. Poachers, the investigators have discovered, are petty criminals, people living in the villages with close ties to the savannah and its animals. They are driven to poaching by factors such as a lack of prospects or social instability in their communities, and sometimes by anger toward wildlife.

The Maasai are a semi-nomadic people who live in "boma," homesteads of clay huts that are arranged in a circle, in the center of which goats and cattle spend their nights. They are protected only by a thicket of acacia -- not a particularly effective defense against lions or hyenas. At night, predators move in and find easy pickings.

Elephants, too, cause harm, trampling over the Maasai's small fields, for instance. "A herd can wipe out an entire harvest in one afternoon," says Cuevas. Sometimes the loss is even worse: in March, a bull elephant killed a 10-year-old local boy. He'd been provoking it together with some other children and the animal attacked.

Here, nature is still the enemy, and such incidents are traditionally met with retaliation. By the next morning, the Maasai warriors, known as "morans," go on the attack. Here, people learn to kill elephants and lions at an early age.

"Human-wildlife conflict," Cuevas calls it. The more humans and animals cross each other's paths, the more wild animals die. The situation worsens when severe drought strikes the country, as it did in 2017, and social cohesion in the villages breaks down. Then ivory traffickers have no difficulty in finding willing butchers.

Papatiti was once a moran. "I, too, used to kill lions and elephants," the ranger says, "now I use my skills to protect the animals." He can spot elephant herds from afar where others might see nothing but dust clouds and, even at great distance, he can detect lions lying in the dense bush. It's almost uncanny how his senses are attuned to the savannah's dangers.

"Traditionally, the morans were responsible for keeping people and livestock safe," he explains. Now, the rangers perform this function, by acting quickly to spot and defuse potential conflicts. They serve as a new communal security force that combines conservation priorities with the interests of local people. It has proven effective. "There are no organized hunts any more," says Papatiti. Poaching has "dramatically decreased."

A Need for Trust

Papatiti is well-respected in the Maasai community and is thus invaluable to Cuevas. The entire tenBoma concept rests on winning the trust of locals. "We try to find shared values," she says. When people are content, so the assumption goes, they don't poach. A big part of her work is shaking hands, giving speeches, smiling and drinking tea beneath shady acacias -- and she's the ideal person for the job.

A mother of three, Cuevas is trained in the use of all current U.S. Army firearms and has, on multiple occasions, come under fire in war zones. Among the Maasai, however, she acts as a mediator. "Being a woman helps," she says, "I'm not seen as a rival." In male-dominated Maasai society, women generally have no say, but that actually makes it easier for the conservationist to get her message across -- to them, she's like an envoy from another world.

Today, Cuevas has been invited to the home of Sontika Ole Melok, leader of the region's approximately 5,000 morans. They're on good terms, Cuevas having secured his approval by presenting his community with a valuable Boran stock bull.

"That one animal has already fathered 20 calves," remarks Cuevas, a valuable return for the Maasai. The tenBoma team is given a suitably warm reception. The women, wearing bold red or blue costumes with bracelets, earrings and necklaces of bright pearls, sing for their guests, then the young warriors dance to rhythmic chanting, moving with increasing vigor before uttering sharp battle cries and leaping high into the air.

Sontika's boma is the cultural hub of the morans' world. It's here that the young warriors grow into men in a kind of supervised puberty, overseen by one of the tribal elders. "Welcome," he says to the guests, "this is your home; we are brothers and sisters." Then Sontika steps forward and talks about the "morans of the past" and those of tomorrow who have entered into a "partnership" with the conservationists.

"The rangers are from our families," says the chief. "Instead of killing the animals, we are now trying to interact with them in a different way."

Empowering Women

Indeed, the tenBoma project is as much development aid as it is conservation. The rangers' salaries support Maasai families, while IFAW also offers a number of scholarships and helps erect fences to keep out wildlife. What's more, Cuevas has brought another new source of income to the villages: In the past, the Maasai women only made jewellery for themselves. But now they are finding buyers among the conservationists, and the hope is that, in time, they will be able to sell to tourists too.

"For the first time in our lives, we women have an income," says Mama Esther, one of the area's tribal elders. Their earnings are reinvested in the community: beds and mattresses have been purchased, a toilet erected and a schoolhouse built in which some of the women are now learning to read and write.

"If a cow dies, you only lose one cow; if an elephant dies, you lose an opportunity," says the old woman. "Faye has opened our eyes." Hearing such things gives Cuevas a lump in her throat.

"If you want to strengthen the community, your best bet is to start with the women," she says. "Also, the contribution women can make to conservation has long been overlooked." That's why tenBoma established the first all-women ranger team. The recruits of "Team Lioness" can hardly believe their luck -- they are the first women from the Maasai community to have paid jobs.

For the conservationists, the Maasai don't have to love elephants, they just have to feel it is in their interest for elephants to survive. Then they will be motivated to keep their eyes and ears open and to help the investigators.

It's a strategy that has proven itself in practice. The number of tips from the community has multiplied, say the rangers. Almost 90 animals have been saved, more than 250 kilograms (550 pounds) of ivory seized and three ivory traffickers apprehended. "Venice 3" could be next.

"'Venice 2' transported the tusks to a wildlife trafficker in Tanzania," the investigators' report reads. The man ran an illegal motorbike dealership in Tarakea, Tanzania, right on the border with Kenya. The team established contact via a front, pretending to be interested in a bike. The idea was to try and lure "Venice 3" over the border with the prospect of a sale so that he can be arrested by enforcement officers from the KWS. It could happen any day, all that remains is to agree on a time and meeting point.

There is moderate risk, according to the investigators. The suspect could resist arrest and might be armed.

"If poaching continues at the current rate, elephants will be extinct in the wild by the time my eight-year-old daughter grows up," says Cuevas, who doesn't want to be part of the generation that allowed it to happen.

"This war is not yet won," says Cuevas, surveying the group of Maasai women making necklaces on the dusty ground in front of her. "But it's a war we can win."

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