Training an army to save the African elephant from illegal poachers

After a 22-month pregnancy, an African elephant calf is nearly inseparable from its mother. If the calf is a female, it may stay with her for life. (CLICK FOR SLIDESHOW on Africa's poaching problem)

When it comes to wildlife preservation, the first thing people often think of are sad television commercials featuring a ballad from a folk singer that is uncannily good at choking viewers up.

But for anti-poaching activist and forestry expert Rory Young, his passion for saving the African elephant from deadly poachers involves a detailed field manual and arming local teams with firearms to combat what he calls, “well-armed, ruthless and experienced gangs of poachers.

Young says it's possible that if the poachers aren't contained, they could effectively wipe out the African elephant population by 2020.

“A large percentage of rangers across Africa have rudimentary training at best,” Young said in an interview with Yahoo News. “The majority of countries do not have a comprehensive anti-poaching doctrine, standard operating procedures, or training systems.”

But at the same time, Young said more and more individuals are being forced into duty to combat the recent rise in poaching.

Young is part of an organization called Chengeta Wildlife that is raising money to train these wildlife protection teams. Although many African countries have worked to create sanctuaries for their elephant populations, illegal poaching has surged in recent years. And at the same time, most of these nations do not have the resources to combat the poachers, who are often trained and heavily armed former soldiers being paid large sums of money to slaughter the elephants for their ivory tusks.

To counter the shortage of resources, Young and Chengeta have published a field manual that explains the poaching problem and offers a step-by-step solution to combating it.

“We have developed a structured and comprehensive ‘doctrine’ and have recently written ‘A field Manual for Anti-Poaching Activities,’" Young said. “This small book is the first of its kind and outlines the doctrine and shows how the poaching processes work and explains the strategies, processes, skills and techniques necessary combat poaching and deter it.”

Less than 100 years ago, there were an estimated 3 to 5 million African elephants. After massive poaching and land development threatened extinction, there is now ample evidence showing that in areas where the elephants are protected, the numbers are recovering.

But in China, there is still a huge demand for the ivory taken from elephant tusks, even though the trade was banned back in 1989. Worse yet, the vast majority of ivory taken from the dead elephants is used for essentially worthless trinkets and other small items like chopsticks.

A team of American designers recently created an original graphic to help Young’s organization raise money. “The True Cost of Ivory Trinkets” was created by Robin Richards, Joe Chernov, and Leslie Bradshaw to highlight the cruel ways poachers kill the elephants, including poisoning their water supply and hacking off the tusks while the elephants are still alive, leaving them to slowly bleed to death.

An infographic created to show the true costs of illegal elephant poaching (Chengeta)

Bradshaw said the team was moved to assist Young after a graphic about shark killings that they created in 2013 quickly shot to the top of Reddit and other social media sites. A study released this week showed that the demand for shark fins in China had dropped by more than 50 percent since an awareness campaign was launched there.

“There is way too much complaining and hurling of insults at China,” Young said.

“Most of the people there do not really understand the brutality and the devastation caused for the ivory to end up as a letter opener or chopstick. I believe that the Asian youth if shown exactly what is happening would not accept it.”

Young said that by the end of 2014 he will have trained more than 150 team members on anti-poaching procedures. But he says there is an estimated need for 50,000 individuals at all levels, from top-level bureaucracy to armed men in the jungle to fully contain the illegal poaching trade.

“Both the African elephant and the more endangered Forest elephant can both be saved and their numbers increased again, but only if we move immediately and decisively,” he said.

Follow Eric Pfeiffer on Twitter (@ericpfeiffer)