Sorry sight … remains of an elephant killed by poachers.
ARCHERS POST, Kenya: Julius Lokinyi was one of the most notorious poachers in this part of Kenya, accused of single-handedly killing as many as 100 elephants and selling the tusks by the side of the road in the middle of the night.
But after being hounded by his village elders, he made a remarkable transformation. Lokinyi stopped poaching and joined a grassroots squad of rangers - essentially a conservation militia - to protect the wildlife he once slaughtered.
Now he gets up at dawn, slurps a cup of sugary tea, tightens his combat boots and marches off with other villagers, some of whom had never picked up a gun before, to fight poachers. From Tanzania to Cameroon, tens of thousands of elephants are poached each year, more than at any time in decades, because of Asia's growing demand for ivory.
Scientists say at this rate African elephants could soon go the way of the wild American bison.
But in this stretch of northern Kenya destitute villagers have seized upon an unconventional solution that, if replicated elsewhere, could be the key to saving thousands of elephants across the continent, conservationists say.
In a growing number of communities people are banding together, grabbing shotguns and assault rifles and risking their lives to confront heavily armed poaching gangs.
It is not unusual for a visitor to pay $US700 ($670) a night to sleep in a tent and absorb the sights, sounds and musky smells of big game. Much of the money is contractually bound to go directly to impoverished local villages, which use it for everything from buying water pumps to sending their children to college.
Surprisingly, many jobs in the safari industry can pay as much as poaching.
Though the ivory trade may seem lucrative, it is often like the Somali pirate business model, with the entry-level hijacker getting just a minuscule cut of the million-dollar rewards. While 500 grams of ivory can fetch $US1000 on the streets of Beijing, Lokinyi, despite his long poaching career, was broke.
Villagers are also turning against poachers because the illegal wildlife trade fuels crime, corruption, instability and fighting between communities.
''This isn't just about animals,'' said Paul Elkan, a director at the Wildlife Conservation Society, who is trying to set up community ranger squads in South Sudan modelled on the Kenyan template. ''It's about security, conflict reconciliation, even nation building.''
The US government is throwing its weight behind such community conservation efforts, contributing more than $US4 million to Kenya. But there are obvious risks.
In Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other African countries home-grown militias initially mustered to protect communities have often turned into predators themselves.
''It's pretty hopeless to stop elephant poaching in Africa unless you get local buy-in,'' said Iain Douglas-Hamilton, who runs Save the Elephants.
''But implementing this is a different matter. If you don't do it carefully, you'll have people killing each other.''
Lokinyi and the other scouts said they had killed several poachers and had the pictures to prove it. They were unconcerned about taking a human life to protect an elephant's.
It is difficult to measure the success of the community ranger programs, but Kenya's poaching levels have declined drastically from the slaughter days of the 1970s and '80s, when thousands of elephants were poached each year.
This year, Kenyan authorities said, about 350 elephants have been poached, triple the number in 2008 - but those are just the confirmed kills, and many carcasses are never discovered.
These days Lokinyi sports his crisp camouflage fatigues with pride and patrols the same scratchy kilometres of thorn bush he used to stalk, now using his bushcraft to predict where the poachers will strike next. He went through a redemption ritual earlier in the year during which goats were slaughtered and fat smeared over his body. He moved into a new home and even acquired new ceremonial parents, elders who took him in. ''I've done many bad things,'' Lokinyi said.
''But now I am clean.''
The New York Times