U.S. Warrior Arms Africans to Hunt Sudanese Poachers

Jennifer Hile
National Geographic Channel
August 10, 2004
The Chinko River Basin is 37,000 square miles (95,000 square kilometers)
of forest threaded by rivers in the northeast corner of the Central
African Republic (CAR). Elephants used to thunder across the clearings
by the thousands. Hippos were thick on the ground.

Thirty years ago Sudanese nationals on horseback, using military weapons, began raiding a shared border with CAR to poach animals for profit. They arrived in columns numbering up to 200 people. They were after ivory and bush meat for the markets of northern Africa.

The poachers hunted rhinos into local extinction by the late 1980s. Elephants nearly vanished there. Next, smaller game became increasingly scarce. Then, poachers turned to robbing and terrorizing local people. But the CAR government was too chaotic to protect such an isolated area.

Instead, as of this year, they are authorizing American Joe Blatz, a co-founder of the Central African Wildlife Trust (CAWT), based in Millwood, Virginia, to arm and train Chinko's local population to defend both themselves and their natural resources.

"Poachers have faced no real opposition. With the prospect of getting killed, the risk/reward ratio will change," Blatz explained. "A reasonably well armed and equipped antipoaching force of capable men could stop this horrific problem in fairly short order."

There may be just enough remnant populations of animals to seed a rebirth if the pressure of poaching relents. Conservationists say the colossal forests of Chinko—now a rarity in Africa—would easily rival the Serengeti if poaching relented. For now the great forests are eerily empty.

"The habitat is absolutely fantastic. It's well-watered, forage-rich topography with a low human population: ideal for wildlife," explained Richard Ruggiero, the African conservation specialist in the Division of International Conservation at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Arlington, Virginia. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Central Africa Republic in the early 1980s.

"This place should be one of the last great wildlife refuges of Africa. Instead it is mile upon mile of empty savanna, because Sudanese poachers have been so efficient at butchering all of the wildlife and terrorizing local people, and they've had a free hand for decades," Ruggiero said.

A Dark History

This area of CAR was part of the traditional slaving routes of central Africa, which emptied these forests of people. The population never rebounded. It's an area full of dangerous diseases in a lawless corner of an impoverished African republic.

"It also doesn't have a significant amount of minerals or resources that multinational companies would want to tear up the country to get to," said Mike Casey, another co-founder of the CAWT and the executive director of TigerComm, a Washington, D.C., public relations firm on environmental and education issues. "But it's a place that works for a number of large animals—lowland gorillas, lions, leopards, hippos. They all used to live here. The Chinko River Basin is one of the last vast habitats for large animals left on Earth. That's why the CAWT was created."

To clear this forest of poachers who've worked unopposed for decades is a fearsome challenge. Blatz will lead the training. He isn't new to paramilitary operations.

In 1989 Blatz helped train Tanzania's 755-member antipoaching brigade, now considered one of the great success stories of Africa. He also did undercover work, posing as a buyer to help police nab kingpins in the illegal animal trade.

"Once it was all working well, I left Tanzania. They knew what the hell they were doing, which was my cue to leave," Blatz said.

Given his success there, the World Conservation Union (IUCN), based in Gland, Switzerland, tapped Blatz in 1996 to assess the problem in CAR.

Blatz discovered local villagers were desperate for help. There is a racial element to the violence that is a shadow of the area's slaving past. "The poachers are primarily Arab gangs from northern Sudan preying on Christian black villages. These are people that have been oppressed for centuries," Casey said.

A Grim Challenge

Blatz's base in CAR will be the remote village of Yalinga, home to 3,000 people—the last village in an area most locals have fled. His goal is to set up a school, a medical center, and a home guard with a minimum of 50 men to protect the village. They will rotate out into the field for poaching patrols. Each patrol will consist of two groups of eight men moving in two trucks along the border with Sudan.

"The Sudanese set up fire zones and use fire to burn wildlife out of forest and drive it into open, then use submachine guns to slaughter everything," Casey said. Because most wildlife populations have crashed, brigades of 200-strong poachers are a thing of the past. Most poaching groups are now eight to ten well-armed men.

Two months of training the home guard begins this December. Shooting practice will take up the mornings. Afternoons will consist of training in military tactics, cleaning weapons, using field equipment.

"This isn't like East Africa. These are people who've never seen a tent or a backpack. You start completely from scratch," Blatz said. "However, they're good trackers with lots of experience in the bush."

By February Blatz hopes the first patrols will launch.

"They way I envision it, one truck will be about a kilometer [0.6 mile] behind the other, in case the first one is ambushed, so there is immediate support and we can't be flanked."

Blatz and the other founders of the CAWT hope to lead a charge that will bring order and a chance for both local people and wildlife to rebound.

"We want to help people protect themselves and the natural world they depend on, instead of being terrorized by a bunch of thugs strip-mining the wildlife," Casey said. "It's no one's right in this world to just wipe out every living thing in an area where other people live."

For more on poaching, watch Dangerous Jobs in the U.S. on Wednesday, August 11, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel.

For more wildlife-poaching news, scroll down.

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