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How lessons from fighting terrorism are saving elephants in Kenya

Widespread illegal poaching in the African wild is threatening elephants and putting them at risk of disappearing in 10 to 15 years. Using some of the same techniques developed to fight terrorism, a new intelligence-led effort spearheaded by a U.S. Air Force reservist is helping Kenyan wildlife service agents and police disrupt poaching networks. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The Trump administration this week reversed an Obama era ban on the importation of trophies from elephants killed in Zimbabwe, if the killing meets certain conservation standards. That reversal has provoked a strong backlash.

    Elsewhere in Africa, the menace of illegal poaching goes on. It is a daily and sometimes deadly struggle.

    In Kenya, modern methods designed to combat terrorism are helping guard these majestic giants.

    Special correspondent Jane Ferguson report from Southern Kenya’s Amboseli National Park.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Searching for signs of wild animals in the African bush and anyone who would do them harm. These rangers are hunting the hunters.

    This is their ancestral land, and they know every square inch of it. Elephants usually roam these woods too.

    So, how long ago would the elephant have been here?

  • Man:

    Maybe 500 to 600…

  • Jane Ferguson:

    So, you think he’s only 500 meters away?

  • Man:

    Yes.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    It’s just a typical day for these men, patrolling for poachers, illegal hunters who would kill elephants for their tusks.

    To Lieutenant Colonel Faye Cuevas, these men are foot soldiers gathering information in an intelligence war.

  • Lt. Col. faye Cuevas:

    That kind of tactical type of information can have a real strategic significance.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Now a reservist, Faye spent nearly 20 years as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Air Force, mostly in special operations.

    Her job involved hunting for signs of terrorists by scouring drone footage of vast swathes of land. It was while searching images of African plains like these that she learned a devastating fact that would change her life. Because of widespread poaching, in 10 to 15 years, elephants in the African wild would be gone.

  • Lt. Col. faye Cuevas:

    Which would mean that before my 6- or 7-year-old daughter was able to vote in an election, before she turned 18, that she wouldn’t have had the opportunity to see elephants in the wild. And I think it’s inasmuch that, and the fact that we’d be the generation that lost it for them.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    At the same time, she realized she had the skills to help stop it.

  • Lt. Col. faye Cuevas:

    We learned quite a few lessons over the course of fighting a global war on terror, and it seemed to me that there — or there was opportunity to apply some of those principles.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Using some of the same techniques developed to fight terrorism, Faye joined the U.S.-based International Fund for Animal Welfare, known as IFAW, where she started an intelligence-led effort to disrupt poaching networks.

    She and her colleagues collect the data found by rangers and people living in communities alongside the elephants. They then bring together this information, analyze it, and form intelligence reports that can help advise Kenyan wildlife service agents and police.

    In the last six months alone, IFAW says Faye’s work has led to 21 arrests of suspected poachers. And here is what’s at stake, the majestic African elephant in its natural home.

    The NewsHour traveled with Faye and her colleagues to Amboseli National Park in Southern Kenya, where efforts to protect the animals are crucial.

  • Lt. Col. faye Cuevas:

    When you’re here and you’re with these elephants, it doesn’t matter how your week was, or what you had for lunch or how busy you are, or how many things are on your calendar for the next day, because to think about those things comes at the cost of this moment.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Along with the beauty comes the harsh reality of survival. We came across this pride of lions devouring a recent kill, a wildebeest.

    The park and the surrounding land are home to many wild animals, often dependent on one another for food.

  • James Isiche:

    This is quite a rare location. You’re very, very lucky to witness a lion kill.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    James Isiche shares the same passion for protecting these wild animals. In the battle to save them protect the wildlife, James has become a crucial partner for Faye.

  • James Isiche:

    Every animal counts. Every individual is so painful to lose.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Before joining IFAW, he was a senior warden at another wildlife reserve in Kenya. Working with an Air Force officer like Faye brings new skills to his life’s mission.

  • James Isiche:

    This is a very, very complicated war. It is a crime that is — crosses borders. It’s a cross-border crime. It goes across continents, across the seas. Money laundering is involved, and these are skills that your normal wildlife conservationist doesn’t have.

  • Lt. Col. faye Cuevas:

    Whenever you see these elephants up so close.

  • Jane Ferguson:

     Does it ever get old?

  • James Isiche:

    It never gets old for me. I mean, this is a privilege. But it’s a big responsibility. I mean, you lose an elephant, you really feel it. So, it’s a calling. You must have the passion.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Deep down, Faye knew she had to be here on the ground in Africa if she was going to fight this war. As a single mother of three small children, that would mean their path in life needed to change dramatically, too.

  • Lt. Col. faye Cuevas:

    I’m sat down my kids and said, you know, we have a decision to make as a family, but I think it could be quite an adventure. So, I said, how would you like to move to Kenya? Yes?

    So, they — at the conclusion of that meeting, they said that they were ready for an adventure. And I would say it was about three months later, and we were in Nairobi.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    So the family’s new life started this year.

    Part of that adventure for Faye is spending time with local communities that share their lands with elephants. Amboseli Park is surrounded by Maasai community land, and the elephants need to be able to peacefully coexist with humans.

    The Maasai are an ethnic group of people living in Kenya and neighboring Tanzania. They still live by thousands of years of tradition as animal herders, surviving off the land. To Faye, her interaction with the people who live here must be authentic to gain their trust.

  • Lt. Col. faye Cuevas:

    So, I’m going to do a quick change here into a traditional Maasai garment. It’s a sign — or as a display of respect, the villagers really appreciate the fact that we have come in wearing something that’s traditionally Maasai.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Right now, a severe drought has killed off much of the grass.

    The rich grasslands of Amboseli are preserved solely for wild animals. The Maasai, living outside the park, are not allowed to graze their cattle there, instead having to walk further into the savanna to find grass.

    In hungry times like these, resentment can build, and if a lion eats a cow or an elephant breaks into a village to graze, people can retaliate by killing the wild animals in return.

    So, Faye and her colleagues work to keep them on board. Many of their young men are hired as rangers, and tourism attracted by the wildlife brings jobs too. Poachers, just like terrorists, Faye says, need to infiltrate local communities in order to operate.

    So, her teammates know the Maasai people are valuable allies.

    Still a Reservist in the Air Force, Faye travels back to the U.S. each summer for active duty.

    What do your friends in the military think of what you are doing?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Lt. Col. faye Cuevas:

    Yes, they think it’s pretty cool. They think it’s pretty cool.

    I think, you know, from a professional perspective, I think they appreciate the fact that the work that we do and the skills that we have, have such value in a field that’s so important, and outside the true military intelligence field. And, you know, this is also not such a bad place to work. So…

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jane Ferguson:

    She has no regrets. Her new life has given her a sense of purpose and connection to something bigger.

  • Lt. Col. faye Cuevas:

    Maybe it’s naive, because it just — I just can’t imagine it any other way. I mean, I couldn’t imagine not being here.

    And, you know, maybe it would’ve been different if I felt like my kids weren’t on board with it. But when they were, when the kids were excited about it, then there just — there wasn’t any turning back. And, yes, we were going to come to Africa. And we did.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    When other Americans meet Colonel Cuevas, they ask her the question, why does she devote herself to fighting poachers?

  • Lt. Col. faye Cuevas:

    The same reason people join the military maybe, or have a call to service. You just do. You do because that’s what your heart tells you, that’s what your head tells you.

    So, to not do it would be ignoring all of that. So, the admiration, I do appreciate, because it brings attention to the issue. But, yes, I mean, I’m just doing what I — what I got to do.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jane Ferguson:

    It is one thing to feel anger and frustration that wild elephants are so threatened by humans, yet another entirely to make it your mission in life to save them.

    To some, it’s simply a matter of duty, duty to protect the richness of nature.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jane Ferguson in Amboseli Park, Kenya.

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