Elephant Poacher Joins our Team

Two major elephant poachers asked to come out of the forest to rejoin society.

Kitona in front of termite mound

Kitona, previously an infamous elephant poacher, on recent trip with TL2 teams into Park.

Once, in 2018, Ranger and Kitona sent an emissary to Bangaliwa “we are ready to talk with the general.” We had no way to handle a major surrender.  Less than a year later, on our return to Opala, we stopped the dugout at a small village Olemandeko, to heat up lunch.   As we beached the dugout, three men with AK47s stepped out of the shadows.  

 “We could have shot you, but we didn’t, we want to turn ourselves in.”

Ranger and Kitona_elephant poachers

Again, it was Ranger (far left) and Kitona (far right, next to me).

We heated up our lunch and moved on.  But knew we had to do something.  Ranger had already spent time in jail for killing elephants; both have been involved in serious elephant slaughter, most recently north of the park in 2015.  Several army officers, who “sponsored” that carnage were convicted, but the poachers went free.  

Unlike the Maimai bands in the buffer zone, these poachers are not involved in crimes against humanity: they don’t torture, rape, pillage and burn – but, they do kill elephants.

If they would truly reform, it would remove an important threat for elephants.   It would also help differentiate between the cruelty of Maimai and the illegal exploitation of poachers.  When Thoms asked Ranger to join his Maimai band, Ranger refused.  Poaching only.

With the help of the parks service, ICCN, and specifically its branch linked to the army, CorPPN, we were able to contact the national ministry of defense and get an official pardon and letter for Ranger’s and Kitona’s reintegration.

not quite at ease

Kitona, in white and black shirt, is still clearly worried at the start of interactions with the army to hand over his weapons.

We started the process.  Alas, Ranger balked, he had already spent two years in prison.  Was this a trap?  Nevertheless, the process went ahead with Kitona and the band of hunters that he brought out of the forest.

the AK 47s turned in

First Kitona handed over two army rifles ;

handing in arms

then each member of his team came forward with their shotgun or poisoned arrows. Some wearing protective “gri-gri” (magical protection).

The steps are shown in this short film:

Now what? Its promising, but the process is not over.  

sign to abandon poaching

Kitona’s poaching band signed individually that each refused all poaching, but they are not yet officially integrated into the park service, ICCN.

John and Kitona_Biondo

Nevertheless, Kitona joined John on his recent monitoring patrols in the northern park.  

A series of short-hand Delorme messages from John:

May 30th PM: Camp at Losekola. No sign of poachers. Kitona: humorist not comedian. Naturalist. Records bats, hyrax on phone at night to share morning. Showed where he saw Lox [elephant] 2018

June 1st AM: Spent night in edo [natural clearing] sector. Lots of Lox [elephant] sign. Lox vocalized during night, Kitona recorded, also crowing paon [Congo peacock] on his phone.

Kitona's "signature" on a tree copy

Kitona points out where he had left his mark on trees in earlier years.

June 1st PM: Back at Losekola for night. Discovered 2 more active edos [natural clearings]. We surveyed 7. Most had Lox. 4 had bonobo sign. 7 cameras set [camera traps]

June 2nd PM: Returned Obenge. 4.5m [4.5 meters long] python drowned in project fishnet this morning. Kitona cleaned and drying skin for us.

python caught in fishnets

Kitona took over the basic python taxidermy.

John’s assessment:  Kitona loves and knows the forest.

Kitona also worked with our camp leader, Bebe Bofenda, tracking a mysterious primate.  

Bebe Bofenda and John Hart near Biondo

Bebe Bofenda, camp leader, takes a selfie with John on recent search for mysterious monkey.

Bebe’s assessment of Kitona: “Kitona is courageous, very social and ready to work hard.  This is our first mission with him.  We need more to really get to know each other, but one thing is clear he wants to join the ICCN guard force.”

Kitona in poachers camp

Kitona with guards in a poachers’ camp that they will burn.

Following a visit by Kitona to Ranger’s forest base, Ranger again sent a letter saying he is ready to come out of the forest and turn in his guns.  Hopefully we can make this happen.  

Ranger's letter restating commitment copy

Ranger, again, writes that he wants to turn in his guns — now, in July 2020.

Like so many major efforts in Conservation, the true consequences and importance of these surrenders will be seen over the next few years.  Success will depend upon integration of the poachers into ICCN. It will also depend on  the poachers’ own capacity and determination to contribute and our quickness to detect problems, and our resolution to make it work.

Kitona and guard in camp

Kitona relaxing with a park guard in camp.

We thank Elephant Crisis Fund and Wildcat Foundation for making Kitona’s peaceful transition possible.

One Comment

  1. Daniel Alempijevic
    Posted 2020-07-21 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

    Great work on facilitating the integration of these important poachers into the patrol teams. Hopefully Ranger will follow after seeing that Kitona is pardoned. This sets a great example for other poachers, that there are positive alternatives.

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