Poaching Patrol — On Foot In The Malawian Bush With The British Army
It’s before dawn, and several groups of landrovers and motorbikes are making their way through the darkness down dusty tracks towards the Majete Wildlife Reserve in southern Malawi. The teams enter the reserve and continue deep into the bush. As dawn breaks the tracks run out and nature takes over, the groups stop and men in combats, lugging rucksacks and carrying machine guns get out and go into all round defence. The vehicles move off, and the men stay silent and still, watching and listening. Then, with a low whistle and short hand signal they move off into the bush. The counter-poaching patrols are now operational.
For three years the British Army has been part of the UK’s efforts to tackle the illegal wildlife trade with commitments in the Gabon and Kenya. This year, following a successful pilot in 2017, the Army expanded its efforts with the deployment of an 18 strong counter poaching training team to Malawi. It is now these soldiers, alongside the Malawian Park Rangers, who move stealthily through the bush, tracking animals, removing snares and traps and monitoring for all signs of poaching.
This initiative is the first step in a partnership between the UK Government, Government of Malawi and African Parks (a not for profit organization committed to the long-term preservation and management of several wildlife reserves across Africa). This sees the Ministry of Defence (MOD), Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the Department for International Development (DFID) work together with partners in Malawi to fight the illegal wildlife trade.
During counter-poaching patrols the soldiers and rangers work together in teams of three with the soldier providing expert tactical, first aid and communications advice and the rangers sharing their incredible bush-craft and tracking skills. The teams deploy at first light and patrol throughout the day. At dusk they will cook tea and then in the rapidly falling darkness move to an area they deem low risk from animal encounters and bed down for the night. These patrols last several days and are a visible deterrent to would be poachers as well as finding and removing the grim tools of poaching: thick wire snares, brutal iron traps, and crude spears, knives and clubs. On their return to base there will be a thorough de-brief and intelligence download; this will allow law enforcement agencies to follow up any leads that target the poachers. 2017’s successful pilot in the Liwonde Reserve saw over 350 snares and traps removed, nine poacher camps smashed, eleven poachers arrested and convicted, and three animals rescued (including one elephant). One year on, Liwonde has enjoyed its first year without a rhino or elephant being lost to poaching.
Rhino tracking is also a key part of conservation. In addition to the deterrent value, the rhinos are identified and tracked by their collars, and observed to confirm they remain in good health. For this the tracking teams need to approach on foot, ever vigilant to the wind direction, their own movement and the temperament of the rhino. Rhinos are among the most dangerous animals; great hearing and sense of smell, but poor eyesight and usually grumpy. The experience and skill of the rangers is key; they have expert knowledge of the bush and wildlife, and employ hard won skills to ensure they can get within 20m of a rhino while keeping themselves and the animals safe.
Deployment into the Malawian bush is an incredible experience for everyone involved. It requires some austere living and tough patrolling…but the rewards are extraordinary. Daily the soldiers find themselves up close and personal with some of Africa’s most incredible creatures including lion, elephant, water buffalo, hyena and rhino. They are learning tracking and bush skills from the very best, and picking up some rather unorthodox techniques (finding the best tree to climb in a hurry). They work with local communities around the park and even their PT sessions have curious impala, nyala and baboons looking on as they conduct interval training among the baobab trees.
They do all this in the knowledge they are making a difference, both in the fight against the illegal wildlife trade and more widely helping preserve natural habitats that would otherwise be lost.