Photo by Nigel Kuhn
For every 100 million or so people who have strong opinions about Cecil the Lion but lack significant knowledge about big game hunting and wildlife, there’s but a handful of experts like Rory Young. A lifelong defender of African animals and ecosystems, Young is something of a cross between John Rambo, Crocodile Dundee, and Steve Irwin, just for starters. His tales of training forest rangers in poor countries like Malawi and Zimbabwe are both harrowing and promising, the latter largely due to Young’s unending work with Chengeta Wildlife in turning around one park at a time. With his first ever stateside lectures on these issues coming this week during HubSpot’s INBOUND15 gathering (he will also speak on Friday at the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel), we asked Young about everything from Cecil to the hysterical American media.
What do you typically wake up and do?
That’s what makes what I’m going to do in Boston so different, because my average day couldn’t be much more different. There’s no real technology, very little communication, and I spend my day teaching rangers and showing them how to chase down poachers.
How did this become your life’s work?
My work was specifically wildlife. That was my passion and my career—I’m a professional guide originally. My primary expertise was tracking. Partly because I did it as a very young child, and partly because I apprenticed under [the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority] with some of the best trackers. Over the years I managed forests and parks, and worked in the safari industry as well, and I had been managing a couple of national parks in Zambia. I had, over the years, just assumed that on the ground, at the grassroots level, that the rangers and scouts were acquiring the same skills that we had acquired, and that they had some expertise. But while I was spending years in management, I wasn’t actively involved on the ground anymore in anti-poaching efforts. It was more strategic, and I started discovering that even in areas where the competence of the rangers had been the highest, it was shockingly bad. They just didn’t have the skill sets to do the job.
Can you explain the art of tracking for those who may not be familiar?
We narrow down likely entry points and exit points [of poachers] into conservation areas, and the most likely routes through those areas. We’re talking vast, vast areas and parks that are the size of countries, that are bigger than Texas. It would be great to throw thousands of drones into these areas, but that’s just not practical, so we slowly narrow down, using landscape points of origin—we know where [poachers] are likely to be coming from, and where they’re likely to be going to—then we use good old fashioned tracking skills. It’s probably the oldest science on earth, visual tracking, and we use our eyes and many, many lifetimes of experience, as well as some technical skills which have been developed through modern forensics to determine who is coming in and when they are coming in, what direction they go, and a lot of details such as what weapons they carry, and that we know from when they rest their rifle on the ground. We also work out how much water they are carrying, what food they’re carrying, and if they’re wearing shoes. In Malawi and Zambia, for example, it’s unusual to find a poacher wearing shoes; if he is, then he probably came from far away. These are just a few examples.
As you talk about the rangers lacking sophistication, how much more sophisticated on the whole are the poachers than the rangers?
It depends entirely on the area and the type of poachers, but on the whole, and we’re not talking about subsistence poachers who just want to feed themselves, if we’re talking about ivory and rhino poachers, they’re better equipped, better-funded, and in many places far better organized than the rangers. They’re also much better trained and have much better bush skills.
When did you decide to switch onto the path that you’re on now as far as working to curb poaching?
About five years ago I started doing it voluntarily, because I was getting requests to train rangers and scouts. I thought the best thing was to start writing, so I was writing a lot about tracking and bush skills, but it wasn’t enough, so I started spending more time on the ground. But that still wasn’t enough. The more I did it, the more demand grew, and the more I realized the extent of the problem the guys were facing. A lot of the poachers, a majority are experienced former soldiers and freedom fighters, and even conventional military and police, and the rangers are often given just a few weeks of training and are sent to take these guys on. And a lot of them come from urban environments, while a lot of the poachers grew up surviving in the bush.
Are the conflicts often bloody?
They are very often bloody. This is war. In large parts of central Africa and west Africa, the very same people who do the poaching are the the insurgents and rebels, and they fund their operations with conflict minerals, poaching, and banditry.
Are there waves in poaching? Does it only get worse and worse, or does it get better in some ways too as awareness spreads?
It’s pretty much universally bad news and getting exponentially worse. What’s unusual about my situation is I’m traveling all over the continent. Everywhere I go, in the last year I traveled and worked in 12 countries, and what’s striking is that it’s not just the poaching. It’s the universal destruction of ecosystems and biodiversity, habitat destruction, unbridled forestry, and various other things. I get a lot of people saying, “Why do you bother? It’s doomed anyway.” But what I can do is go into a park and turn it around. I read in a study recently that as much as 90 percent of creatures are repulsive to man—think of spiders, and reptiles, and insects—but all of those are just as important as we are, and elephants are, and rhinos are in this planet turning successfully. We have to not just talk about saving animals from extinction, but we should be protecting thriving ecosystems and biodiversity.
If we’re talking about saving the “last ones,” then it’s too late. Look at the browning of the central African rainforest. These are the second largest forests on earth after the Amazon, the Congo Basin, and they’re browning. And that is most likely due to the fact that forest elephants, 80 percent of them have been wiped out in 10 years. That adds to climate change; forest elephants are the gardeners of the forest. Twenty-five percent of the forest species of plants are dependent on the elephants.
What can you do about it?
I go into a park, and I teach them how to reset the mindset. We’re not just going in to arrest people—it goes far beyond that. We use the acronym RESET: R is rules, laws, regulations, and that’s the policing and catching; the E is education, since if people don’t know why they’re doing something wrong, they’re not going to stop doing it; the S is social pressures, because if key people say it’s wrong, then they set the trend for the better; the second E is economic pressure and incentives, because if people are desperately poor and starving, you can’t tell them not to hunt, and that’s a huge problem in places like Malawi; and the last one, T, is technology and tools. All of those together work to change the situation.
How long does a campaign generally last?
I go into an area for 30 days.
OK, so you know I have to ask you about Cecil the Lion, and about the impact of this American media whirlwind. You haven’t said much about big game hunting, so if you wouldn’t mind addressing that as well …
Of course. Let me touch on the American hunters first. There are two models for conservation in Africa. One is called protection, and that is protecting with no consumptive usage, so areas are set aside for education, enjoyment, and the benefit of the public and for future generations. What happened in Zimbabwe is, you have those national parks, and until the 1960s, professional trophy hunting was banned. It was illegal. What I’m telling you here hasn’t got into any of the newspapers, because they don’t understand it. In the ‘60s, [the government] created what are called “safari areas,” so they took tracts of land and turned them into sustainable hunting areas. We’re talking specifically about trophy hunting, so people would hire a hunter to come out and hunt a buffalo or a lion or whatever. He would be a licensed professional hunter—I am a licensed professional guide, and we have the same training.
In the ‘60s, they created an industry, then in the ‘80s and ‘90s they went into the rural farming areas, the traditional tribal areas where the animals had been wiped out by the government deliberately [for foot and mouth disease control, among other similar reasons]. In these traditional tribal lands, in the ‘80s, there was a complete change in attitude, and they said they could protect animals, and that the locals would benefit from consumptive tourism. You know, the animals are not going to be as numerous in those areas, and they’re going to be more skittish, but in the ‘80s a lot of farmers began doing away with all their crops, and they started turning it over to the game. There wasn’t enough photographic business to go around for safaris, so those wildlife areas were created for hunting. And this is where there is a problem …
Kenya did exactly the opposite—hunting was happening all over, and they turned around and stopped all the hunting. What’s interesting is that while [animal] populations in places like Zimbabwe have grown, they have been developed for hunting. I’m not saying whether the hunting was right or wrong; personally, I have no time for people wanting to kill elephants, or lions, or anything else. I’ve had to do it for my work, and it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life. That said, I’ve nothing against anyone hunting for the pot; I eat meat, but I don’t get a thrill out of killing. But the problem [in Zimbabwe] is this—if you do away with all the hunting in those areas, it is almost certain all those areas will be turned over to agriculture. We will lose those wildlife areas. If people want to do away with trophy hunting, then somebody is going to have to pay to take care of those areas. These governments don’t have the money to protect the parks they do have, let alone all of those hunting areas.
What tends to come of a massive media spectacle like that which is currently surrounding the Cecil scandal?
It’s a whole mess, because the land where the American hunter shot Cecil, they say that it belongs to the Zimbabwean guy. He isn’t the owner of that land; that particular land was taken away from a white farmer in Robert Mugabe’s crazy land redistribution program and not paid for, and he doesn’t have title. Zimbabwean law says if an animal is on your land, you own it, and if the animal is not specially protected, it’s yours. In the case of Cecil, they were saying this guy owns this land, so you get into this whole mess resulting from the colonial days when we whites took away all of the land, and now Mugabe, who is a freedom fighter, is trying to reverse that 100 years later by redistributing commercial farms and crippling the economy of the country. Now you have Cecil, and they killed him on land that didn’t belong to them. Cecil was lured out of the park. Zimbabwean law says if you are pursuing, or doing anything with the intent of killing an animal, then you are hunting it. When they baited him from the other side of the fence, in the park, they were hunting him, even though they were outside. So technically they did poach him, they were poaching, there’s no question.
With regards to the publicity, yes, the publicity is great for poaching, we need that. However, we don’t need everyone to suddenly be about banning all hunting, because we would have vast areas that are set aside for pure protection suddenly with no income. You won’t have hunting, but you will have rampant poaching.
Assuming you can get past the Cecil questions, what will you be talking about in Boston?
The problem with poaching in Africa is that it touches everyone in the world, through funding terrorism, banditry, affecting economies of countries, and so on. What’s not getting out is that it’s not a problem that can’t relatively easily be solved. It is not an insurmountable problem, but if the very basics are not done, if the men on the ground don’t have basic training, then it doesn’t matter how many announcements there are from President Obama or anything else.
Young will speak at HubSpot’s INBOUND 15 gathering, as well as on Friday, September 11 at 1pm in the Webster Room of the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.