So, you want to be a Counter-Poaching ‘Operator’?

Ten Tips for New Players

Over the years colleagues and I have received countless CVs, and generous offers to “save us”, which was great for entertainment value initially, but eventually consume a lot of our under-paid precious time. These rules should be well understood before applying for a position within Conservation Law Enforcement in Africa. All of the points mentioned here have, sadly, been seen first-hand.

1. It’s not ‘Tears of the Sun’

You probably won’t be armed and you probably won’t be doing operations; you are a foreigner. Imagine if some Ethiopians came to Essex, or Malawians to Minnesota, and started enforcing the law. Realise that 90% of your time will be spent dealing with problems – government issues (inertia), trying to prevent staff from being dodgy, anything that isn’t nailed down going missing, people sleeping with each other’s wives, witchcraft and other curses, sifting through lies upon lies, etc, etc. This is domestic conservation law enforcement in a state of constant survival, not some ‘Wild Geese’ mercenary fantasy.

2. There’s NO money

Every dollar spent needs to be weighed against things like rations, diesel, salaries, etc – a daily rate that you might have gotten in Iraq will pay the monthly salaries for 2 or more Rangers; you need to be bringing a hell of a lot to the table for an organisation to begin justifying that sort of expenditure. Added to this are the ever-present eyes of the local government and communities; how would you react if a foreigner came in and was being paid 100 times what a local guy was? Conservation Law Enforcement is only one program/department of what is often a very large project. We’ve all seen groups come and start coining $1,000’s a day being on camera for Animal Planet and the like – what did they achieve??

If you are coming here for a fat contractor’s wage, you’re coming to the wrong industry. If it’s your first time in the African bush with Rangers (and no, visiting a park in South Africa, or passing through a training exercise in Kenya doesn’t count), you’re probably going to be asked to volunteer for a while at least. This gives an organisation (and the Rangers) time to assess you, and if necessary, replace you.

3. You’re Probably NOT qualified, ‘Special’ or not

The tactics we are teaching are generally quite basic, and many are quite different. Law enforcement is far more complicated than unrestricted warfare. Conservation law enforcement is even more complicated. We are not teaching Special Operations skills 90% of the time, HOWEVER, the people that are needed as instructors and mentors must be confident, intelligent, reliable, adaptive, self-disciplined, innovative, etc, and people with those attributes most often end up in elite units. If you’re one of them, you’re likely still not qualified. 

Your yellow fever certificate is NOT a qualification; we don’t want to see it listed as such in your CV. Your biggest threats are malaria mosquitoes and bad drivers, and they want to kill you. The bush and its wildlife are in fact neutral towards you. The danger is proportional to your luck and your respect for them. Kill a charging member of a protected species and your social media-charged vacation will be at a swift end.

Domestic counter-terrorism and sniping are only slightly more useful here than landscaping. As far as we and the Rangers are concerned, you’re a liability on training wheels till proven otherwise. Even if you did spend 15 years as a slick, high-speed, low-drag, Operator, did they teach what fresh buffalo dung smells like? How to tell the difference between a lion charging to kill you, and one playing around? The same but different with an elephant?

4. No “Insta-Queens”, or egomaniacal Selfie-Mongers please

Tied into the other points, the damage that one stupid photo can do is phenomenal. If you feel the need to post selfies posing with guns, it indicates that you want others to be ignorant of point 1 (you’re not a bad-ass mercenary), probably don’t have point 3 (SF background), suck at point 5 (diplomacy), and are heavily invested in point 7 (your ego). Not only are half the people you work with in this industry professionals with private lives, but many of them have also protected identities and extremely sensitive jobs. 

Exposing them, and their work may have dire consequences that you don’t want to have on your conscience – conservationists have been assassinated in the past. Secondly, you are in Africa. To say there are sensitivities around Westerners training locals in para-military tactics is an understatement. Many of the projects will be paying your wage with donor money set to very tight conditions. Adverse, or sensationalist publicity, is not something they can afford.

  • Don’t tell anyone any more than what country you are going to and dates of travel, and a local point of contact (which will be provided to you)
  • All photos and videos must be vetted before release by both employer & the Host park
  • Ensure Geotagging is off; a photo of a rhino released with any locational information is a serious breach of OPSEC and will be dealt with heavily

5. Diplomacy, Achieved Through Communication & Presentation

If you send us a CV stating that you’re a “military aeronautical stormtrooper”, or demanding details and tell us how much you can improve what we have been doing, you instantly make the blacklist. If we can’t understand you, or even like you, a Ranger in CAR sure as hell won’t. In many countries, foul language is considered far more offensive and abusive than physically beating a student to the ground. 

If you can’t hold your tongue, we aren’t interested. Don’t come dressed in your Tacti-cool apparel; a veteran beard, G-shocks/Suuntos, Merrells, molle, and a contractor cap have already become the unofficial ODA uniform across Africa, and stand out like hipsters arriving at bootcamp. Park Managers are conservationists; they don’t want the image of a Soldier of Fortune or the attention that comes with it. 

They don’t care if you were a taxi driver for diplomats in Kabul or a boom-gate bunny in Baghdad, they care that the surrounding community doesn’t riot and burn down their gates because of the recent addition of the foreigners wanting to play at mercenaries.

6. Nothing stays Hidden for ever

If you think you can get away with padding out your CV, or outright lying, then you clearly have no idea how small the world is; the military and law enforcement community is small, special operations smaller still, and African conservation is freaking tiny. Two phone calls or TXT is generally enough to find out someone’s background, regardless of nationality or unit. Using Microsoft Paint to (badly) paste yourself into a photo next to a BlackHawk, or slapping a winged dagger onto an online certificate, is simply hilarious. If you get to a park you will be reported on by all elements including the park management, local government, rangers, other trainers or contractors, and so on. Once your name has been flagged for integrity issues, you are ‘scribbled’ from the industry.

7. Arrogance and Boasting is Futile

No one cares what you have done; as far as Africa is concerned, you’re probably quite boring. If you think you can spin a good war story, then you haven’t sat at a table with some Bush War veterans. Some of the people you will come across make John Wick look like a princess, have spent time in African prisons, and know more about you than you do. The most mild-mannered conservationists have often survived and sacrificed things that would make your skin crawl, for decades on end. The Rangers have often survived genocides, lion attacks, and all-out melee wars. They have often done unspeakable things just to live out another day. You will be the student for much of your time in Africa, let them teach you how to survive in the bush.

8. The Army Lied to you about Mentoring

TAAA and COIN are not mentoring. If you are not prepared to give these men and women everything, or to live and eat with them, sleep in the mud with them, they will never be better than you. If you don’t want them to be better than you, then you don’t get it, and you’re not a mentor. You may need to learn how to ‘play’ again. You need to understand that perhaps singing and dancing with your men is the only way for them to start listening to you, otherwise, you will just be another arrogant foreigner who ‘stands above’ them. 

Conservation Law Enforcement trainers that want to sleep in a lodge, with hot running water and flushing toilets, rather than share the conditions their students do, exhibit the worst kind of arrogance; you are admitting that you’re not willing to do what they do, and if that’s the case – why should they listen to you?

9. Taking Offence is a Personal Choice

Understand the cultural paradigm difference and the reality that you are a guest in a foreign country. Your opinion, perception or moral outrage is usually irrelevant. Push too hard and the relationship will break. There is always more than one way, and it is usually not the way you are used to and does not involve instant obedience to orders. Many times a thing is agreed in a meeting and the exact opposite is done in practice (and said of you behind your back). 

Direct confrontation and discussion of a matter are avoided like a wounded buffalo. Local leadership, both political and organisational, may oppose and directly disobey your requests for an array of reasons, including differences in ideology, proving a point, or corrupt personal gain. They may be quite vocal and arrogant about it as well. If you don’t have the gift of the gab and the humility to let them beat their chests so that you can do your job, please don’t apply. Diplomacy is paramount to success.

10. There’s No Air Support & Yes, We’ve Looked at Drones

You don’t have the enablers; no Apaches, no Abrams, no C130 Gunships, Predators, ISR, Engineers, etc, it’s just you and what’s in your pockets. The nearest hospital is a 3-hour drive in a good park (4 days hike and canoe in a remote park), and the best medic you’ve got is you. Ensure you take your anti-malarial, negligence will get you killed. Your radio probably doesn’t work in 80% of the park, and there isn’t any cell phone coverage.  

The US $1-4 million drones were only semi-effective in the middle east. Using far less sophisticated technology and imaging equipment, in a paranoid political environment, scanning dense forests with an ambient temperature of 30°c+ through a 340×240 thermal straw is a waste of time. They are noisy, they are expensive and not a single drone project has proven to have any effect on law enforcement operations. You’re on your own, and promoting million-dollar tech to a park that struggles to keep a LandCruiser on the road will be laughed at.

Image: Quartz Africa (link)

This article was first published in August 2019

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