Kenyan commandos on frontline of poaching war

Kenyan commandos on frontline of poaching war
With camouflage uniforms, assault rifles, night vision goggles, thermal imaging devices and radios, wildlife rangers in Kenya's Ol Jogi rhino sanctuary prepare for night patrol in the "war" against poaching.

OL JOGI, KENYA - With camouflage uniforms, assault rifles, night vision goggles, thermal imaging devices and radios, wildlife rangers in Kenya's Ol Jogi rhino sanctuary prepare for night patrol in the "war" against poaching.

As the late afternoon sun creeps towards the horizon and shadows lengthen on the sweeping plains dotted with rocky outcrops, Ol Jogi's armed rangers get set for another tough night on patrol.

"It sounds crazy, but it's actually a war," said Jamie Gaymer, head of security for the vast reserve.

"It is organised crime on an international level and it is completely out of control. And these are the guys on the frontline who are having to put their lives at risk in order to protect these animals." Through the thick bush, some 20 men from the local community head out in pairs into the reserve covering some 240 square kilometres (93 square miles), an area twice the size of Paris situated in the high plains north of Nairobi.

Some men spend the night on patrol creeping through the forests, others take up "ambush positions".

Trained by the Kenya Wildlife Service and police, the 32 men in the security force are also reserve police officers, allowed to carry weapons.

The teams have also had military training to even the odds in a potentially deadly battle with a "well-equipped enemy", Gaymer adds.

They risk their lives every night. The poachers they hunt shoot on sight, while the rangers must also be watchful for the wild animals themselves: elephant, lion, buffalo and leopard.

"It's dangerous, but it is also the danger that gives me a job and allows me to eat," said 27-year-old ranger Joseph Nang'ole.

"I have children, and if we do not protect these animals, my children will not be able to see them."

Hunting 'the enemy'

Conditions can be harsh: the night is long, cold and often wet: but for the head of the unit, Benson Badiwa, protecting the rhinos is key.

"They bring tourists to Kenya, so they help the people," he said.

Rangers do not speak of "poachers" but rather "the enemy." Their mission is to protect the 66 rhinos in Ol Jogi, including 20 southern white rhino, and 46 critically endangered eastern black rhino, which face extinction with fewer than 800 left, with the vast majority in Kenya.

The animals' horns are coveted in some Asian countries as a traditional medicine and as a status symbol.

On the black market, a rhino horn is worth twice its weight in gold: as much as $80,000 (60,000 euros) per kilo in the Middle East or Asia.

A poacher receives between $10,000-15,000 per kilo, a fortune for a night's work that would take a lifetime to earn legally.

Their weapons are sometimes rented for $200-300 a night from unscrupulous police or soldiers.

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