Here’s the thing. Every day, thousands of park rangers and conservationists like the late Wayne Lotter, shot to death late last month by as-yet unidentified gunmen in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, risk their lives to fight against global wildlife trafficking. Too often, their lives end in tragedy. More than 1,000 rangers have been killed in the line of duty in just the past 10 years.
The killings are not meant to be taken in isolation. They’re designed to send a chilling message to anyone who vows to expose crime syndicates that traffic in animal skins, illegal trophies and body parts, from Chilean sea bass and shark fin soup to rhino horn and, in Lotter’s case, elephant ivory.
Violence rarely — if ever — deters committed crusaders for the environment from pursuing their goal, though it can have a chilling effect on potential whistleblowers, those people on the inside who can point law enforcement in the right direction, on those occasions law enforcement isn’t compromised by corruption in high places.
Neighbouring countries often take a different approach to the same problem, though. Despite Tanzania’s gift of a natural bounty unmatched in neighbouring countries — a thriving tourist industry based on the annual Serengeti wildebeest migration, the justifiably famous “Cradle of Humankind” in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and one of Africa’s largest surviving remnant populations of wild elephants — Tanzania is also home to endemic corruption on an almost epic scale. Here’s a harsh reality: Where there is corruption on an institutional, national level of governance, China is rarely far behind.
Kenya, Tanzania’s neighbour, has traditionally taken a radically different approach to wildlife conservation, though, just as Botswana routinely and consistently annoys its neighbours Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia with its own, forward-thinking conservation practices. Trophy hunting, for example, is part of the natural order of things in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia; Botswana has banned it outright, despite the loss in potential income and revenue. Big game hunting is de rigueur in Tanzania; Kenya has banned it outright, despite the loss to its economy.
Thanks to its natural bounty, Tanzania has managed to generate income from both hunting and tourism; Kenya, despite being more prone to droughts — much of northern Kenya is semi-arid desert as it is — and despite endemic street crime, a serious terrorist threat and its own share of government corruption, has gone all-in on wildlife tourism, even as it has mounted some of the toughest, most aggressive anti-poaching military campaigns on the entire continent.
Whistleblowers are key. Without ordinary, everyday citizens finding the courage to report trafficking activity, it’s hard for law enforcement to bringwildlife criminals to justice, let alone put a dent in the Asian crime syndicates.
Lotter, interestingly enough, was closely involved in equipping and training Tanzanian park rangers in how to defend themselves in a firefight and mete out justice of their own — based on the Kenyan model, in other words, instead of looking the other way and pretending nothing happened.
This is not simply a case of the great white man telling the black man what to do and how to do it. In Kenya, in Botswana and in the gorilla parks of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), it’s local — black — citizens who are donning automatic rifles and camouflage gear and putting their lives on the line, often for little more than what developed nations would regard as the minimum wage. Once again, as is so often the case in Africa, it is the most impoverished people who are the most incorruptible, and the monied class, often at minister level, who are most inclined to take kickbacks from crime syndicates.
If anything, Kenya is ramping up its anti-trafficking campaign, not scaling it back, despite recent setbacks in Tanzania. Kenya has announced it is about to “significantly” increase the number of specialist prosecutors who prosecute wildlife crime. The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) currently has two full-time prosecutors on call; that number will soon jump to 14. The conservation organization Space for Giants — Space for Giants’ patron is Evgeny Lebedev, owner of the UK Independent newspaper — is underwriting the training and mentoring of the new prosecutors.
KWS acting director general Julius Kimani told The Independent that while Kenya has experienced success in both intelligence and criminal investigations, they recognized there was a gap in the courts.
Lotter understood this. There is an argument to be made — as yet unproven — that this is why he was murdered.
Murdered, yes, but not silenced. It might not look like it now, but Lotter may well have been on the right side of history. As the heavily armed elephant and rhino rangers and a newly invigorated court system in Kenya show, and as the heavily armed gorilla rangers in Rwanda and Congo prove, ordinary, everyday people can and will stare down the international crime syndicates, given the chance, given the moral authority and the knowledge that doing the right thing almost invariably wins out in the end, despite the potential terrible personal cost.
No, Wayne Lotter did not die in vain. Kenya is showing the way.