As its own turmoil rages, Israel wages lesser-known fight to save Kenyan wildlife

Click photo to download. Caption: A former Israeli Air Force plane, which was restored by Israeli volunteers at Herzliya Airport and then donated to the Kenya Wildlife Service for its fight against animal poaching, flies over the Ngulia Hills of Kenya's Tsavo West National Park. Credit: Courtesy Bill Clark.

By Alina Dain Sharon/JNS.org

At the moment that you’re reading this article, someone on the African continent is selling ivory or rhinoceros horns and making a fortune. Ivory, which comes from elephant tusks, is worth about $900 per pound on the black market. A typical elephant carries about 22 pounds of ivory, which comes out to nearly $20,000 for shooting one elephant. Rhinoceros horns are worth as much as $30,000 per pound. 

An article in the October issue of AOPA Pilot magazine examined the ongoing efforts of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) to combat animal poaching as well as the involvement of Dr. Bill Clark, an Israeli-American conservationist dedicated to wildlife protection. Clark has been working with KWS to combat poaching in Kenya for decades, and, as it turns out, he isn’t the only Israeli engaging in such collaborative efforts. The fact that Israel is dealing with Palestinian terrorism within its own borders (most recently the Nov. 18 attack on a Jerusalem synagogue that killed five Jewish worshippers), as well as monitoring regional threats like the Syrian civil war and Iran’s nuclear program, has not stopped Israeli government organizations and private companies from helping Kenya with wildlife preservation in more ways than one. 

While living in Israel, Clark has led the Yotvata Hai-Bar nature preserve for several years and has worked for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. He has also been involved with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). 

A study published in August in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal showed that from 2010 to 2012, poachers killed about 100,000 wild African elephants for their ivory, a population decline of 2-3 percent a year. The country of Kenya alone loses nearly 40,000 elephants a year and in 2013  lost about 59 rhinoceroses.

Click photo to download. Caption: Elephants in Kenya. Ivory, which comes from elephant tusks, is worth about $900 per pound on the black market—a lucrative proposition for animal poachers. Credit: Maryam Laura Moazedi via Wikimedia Commons.

“The [animal] birthrate cannot keep up with that,” Clark told JNS.org.

Poachers tend to operate through syndicates. Ivory is used to make vanity tables, signature seals, jewelry, chopsticks, and luxury items like fancy decorative carvings. The rhinoceros horn is used in Asian medicines and is believed to reduce fevers, cure cancer, and act as an aphrodisiac.

“A poacher can get for one night of dirty work in the bush more than a ranger is going to earn in a couple of years,” Clark said.

To combat poaching, KWS has about 3,000 rangers, half of which are assigned to anti-poaching and wildlife protection duties. They are divided across 18,000 square miles of protected land, which amounts to one ranger for every six square miles. Encountering poachers is a dangerous experience that can result in serious injury and even death.

AOPA Pilot described Clark’s initiative to bring two Israeli police K-9 officers to Kenya to coordinate deployment of dogs that can help stop fleeing poachers. One of Clark’s other endeavors involved purchasing several old airplanes from the Israeli Air Force for about 3 Israeli shekels per kilogram (78 cents per 2.2 pounds) and having Israeli volunteers work on their restoration, which took more than a year. Five of those airplanes were then donated to KWS, and Israeli flight instructors volunteered to travel to Kenya to train KWS pilots on how to fly the airplanes safely and proficiently.

“This is how we’d pass the weekend: pita, hummus, Coca Cola, and rebuilding an airplane,” said Clark.

Click photo to download. Caption: Zvi Ozer, an Israeli pilot and flight instructor who volunteers in Kenya, is pictured here teaching five Kenya Wildlife Service pilots in a "bush classroom" under an acacia tree at Kilaguni in Tsavo West National Park. Credit: Courtesy Bill Clark.

KWS pilots must fly at low altitudes in order to see what is happening on the ground. But the Tsavo region’s eastern and western national parks cover more than 20,000 square kilometers (7,722 square miles).

If they see something, KWS pilots can radio for backup by providing GPS coordinates of the location and a description of the suspects. More often, however, KWS pilots find an animal carcass, allowing them to pinpoint the location of a poaching gang in the park. 

In 1977, Kenya was the first nation to abolish all safari hunting and commercial exploitation of wild animals, and it is now the country with the most comprehensive laws on poaching. Just a year earlier, following Israel’s Operation Entebbe counter-terrorism mission in neighboring Uganda in July 1976, Kenya began to develop a cordial relationship with Israel on wildlife and many other issues.

When the Israel Defense Forces undertook the operation to rescue airplane hostages being held in Uganda, it could not have conducted its raid without Kenyan cooperation.

Click photo to download. Caption: A rhinoceros at Lake Nakuru National Park in Kenya. Rhinoceros horns are worth as much as $30,000 per pound—a lucrative proposition for animal poachers. Credit: Paul Mannix via Wikimedia Commons.

“Israeli C130 Hercules airplanes could not travel to Uganda and back on one tank of gas, so they needed a place to stop to refuel,” Clark said. The Israeli rescue plane “stopped in Nairobi on the way back, and had to go through Kenyan airspace in order to get to Uganda,” explained Clark, adding that the airplane was “on Kenyan radar, but nobody [in Kenya] said a word.”

“After the raid, [then] Ugandan President Idi Amin was so enraged, that he literally murdered hundreds of Kenyans who were in Uganda at the time,“ Clark said.

Israel therefore believes that it owes a huge debt to Kenya, particularly because the African nation paid such a heavy price for helping the Jewish state. Since 2008, KWS has had a memorandum of understanding with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA).

“This gave [our collaborative] activities more legitimacy,” Rony Malka, the head of the law enforcement, security, and safety division at the INPA, told JNS.org.

For instance, the INPA—with Clark’s involvement—provided night vision equipment to KWS rangers and trained them on how to use it. Israelis trained Kenyan rangers in first aid, a crucial need given KWS’s 61 fatalities in the line of duty over the past 20 years.

“Poachers are dangerous and they kill, they kill from ambush… they’ve had women killed, murdered from ambush, shot point blank, so it’s serious,” Clark said. In many of these cases, the victims “bled to death because nobody in their units knew how to apply a compress bandage or a tourniquet,” he said. 

“We identified a dozen of the very best Kenyans who took [our] training [and] sent them to Israel for a few weeks, where Magen David Adom (an emergency services organization) gave them advanced training. … Now they are the instructors who are teaching rangers in the KWS how to do first aid,” said Clark.

The INPA’s largest project relating to KWS in the last two years involves DNA forensics. An Israeli wildlife DNA forensics analysis laboratory with a database of 9,000 specimens is operating at the Hebrew University’s Koret School of Veterinary Medicine. A similar laboratory has been established for KWS in Nairobi that deals with “identifying animals for the purpose of finding supporting evidence for criminal prosecutions” against poachers, Malka said. 

Since the establishment of this laboratory, KWS representatives have visited Israel for training in the Israeli laboratory.

If elephant skin or meat is discovered, “first I can know if this is from a wild animal, second I can know which animal the specimen comes from, and third I can know what environment the specimen was taken from,” Malka said. 

The Kenyans, according to Malka, “really want to succeed, to learn, to build special units. They invest a lot in the battle to protect wild animals.” Malka said Israel’s collaboration with KWS receives government funding for the purpose of training Kenyan rangers in both Israel and Kenya, but that additional subsidies are needed to purchase more night-vision gear and other equipment for KWS.

Another player in the Israel-Kenya collaboration on wildlife preservation is Maisha Consulting, an Israeli company founded by Nir Kalron that specializes in countering environmental crime.

In 1994, Clark took Kalron’s father, who was a pilot in the Israeli Air Force and later a civilian pilot, to train KWS pilots.

“I remember my father returning from Kenya, sharing his experiences, and speaking about [Clark],” Kalron told JNS.org

This early exposure to Clark inspired Kalron to collaborate with him later in life and to found Maisha, which now has both Israeli and international staffers from intelligence and special forces backgrounds.

According to Kalron, poaching is not limited to the killing of animals like elephants and rhinoceroses.

“In some cases the animals are preferred alive,” he said. For instance, he said that catching African grey parrots “is a very lucrative business,” and reptiles such as snakes are also sought-after commodities. 

Maisha is involved with training rangers throughout the African continent in inspection, first aid, and everything that has to do with basic methods of resistance against poaching. The company collaborates with local and international policing and intelligence agencies, NGOs, and other initiatives that work in this field. 

The company also integrates and adapts open-source technology to create “very affordable and effective means” that can be applied in the intelligence fight against poaching, so that natural parks can be monitored effectively, Kalron said. Other than its work in Kenya, the company currently works on projects in the Central African Republic, Congo, Uganda, and Cameroon.

As an Israeli working in Africa, Kalron largely encounters very positive attitudes from locals, a sentiment echoed by Malka.

“I feel at home there,” Kalron said. 

“Of course there are many conflicts there… if I suddenly fall into some hole that was dug by [the] Boko Haram or Al-Shabab [terror groups],” that would clearly be a crisis, but regular Africans are extremely friendly and welcoming, he said.

Malka said Kenya as a whole represents an example of religious cooperation among Christians, Muslims, and others. 

“[Kenyans] show great appreciation for things that are being developed in Israel, they come to study here,” he said. “This makes religion a beautiful thing and not warlike.”

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Posted on November 19, 2014 and filed under Features, Israel, World.