Rhino security chief: hearts, minds and bullets

As a young, poorly educated Maasai, John Pameri walked a hundred kilometres to get a job at Kenya’s Lewa Conservancy – twice. Two decades later he’s head of a 150-strong security team, recently gained his pilot’s licence, and travels internationally to raise much-needed funding. We spoke to him about the challenging, expensive and dangerous business of protecting rhinos in Africa’s reserves.

John Pameri

John Pameri, head of security at Lewa

‘Poaching has shifted from daytime to moonlit nights.’

In Lewa we have a block system. We have 18 blocks of 2.5 km square, each with two rhino monitors based there. Those two rhino monitors have an outpost were they live: we want to make sure we have eyes and ears out there full time. The monitors are not armed, just equipped with radios and binoculars. Their job is to track rhinos in that block, and collect other information, such as how many lions, elephants, Grevy’s zebras there are.

Then we have three sectors, eastern, western and southern. Each has someone in charge, making sure everyone is working, with a vehicle and radio. When someone reports a rhino somewhere, he can drive there without warning, to make sure the report is accurate, to make sure individual rhinos are identified properly.

Anti-poaching patrol, Lewa

Anti-poaching patrol, Lewa

On top of the rhino monitoring structure I have Kenya Police Reservist (KPR) teams. Lewa was the first in the private sector to get KPR, in 2000. These people are employed and equipped by Lewa, but the firearms and some of the ammunition is supplied by the government. The KPR are divided into groups of four men, a corporal and three members. We have one team on standby here in the HQ, where we have tracker dogs and aircraft which we can send out immediately. The other four teams we locate in different areas where we feel there is a threat to rhinos. Only the senior people know where they are. With 150 people you don’t trust everyone – some may be double dealing. We also have eight manned access gates. There is a government [public] road which crosses Lewa, and we have 24hr manned gates on that.

Patrols stay in the field for a month. Poaching has shifted from daytime to moonlit nights, so now we mainly rest patrols in daytime, and deploy them with night vision at night.

Rhino patrols are remotely tracked  via digital radio

Rhino patrols are remotely tracked via digital radio

The poaching we are seeing at the moment is totally different to the poaching we saw three or four years ago. Poachers are now thinking how they can use inside people. Nowadays the poaching of a rhino is well-organised. When you are going to poach a rhino someone will have already given you Ksh 200,000 [£1500] in advance, to hire weapons, plan your attack. Then when the rhino has been poached there’s a vehicle standing in Isiolo [the nearest town], fully fuelled, with a driver, waiting for the horn. There’s another vehicle down the road waiting, and another in Nairobi. In the past you killed a rhino then spent two or three days looking for someone to buy it.

Outside the northern boundary of Lewa is an area used by the Kenyan military for exercises. There are no communities living there. So it is a big threat to us. People can walk from Isiolo, poach a rhino, and walk back in one night. If you hear a gunshot now, it’s a waste of time looking for the carcass – the poachers will have gone. It’s better to set ambushes, then look for the carcass the next day.

‘It’s a huge operation’

From 1983 to 2009 we never lost a rhino on Lewa. The first incident was December 2009. Two rhinos were shot – one died on the spot, the other was injured, we treated it for two months but it died. The second incident, October 2010, was an old female with long horns, shot in the night, within fifty metres of the fence line. There was a further incident in December 2010, a rhino shot, one poacher arrested, the others escaped. In January 2011 the poachers returned but didn’t find anything. We found their tracks and put two teams in to track them. They found the poachers hiding, the poachers started shooting, the rangers returned fire and shot three dead. Then there was nothing until January 2012, when a white rhino was poached. We believe one of our rangers was involved. Then another was shot in September. [Five more rhinos were shot in late 2012, bringing the total to 11 in recent years].

Poached white rhino

White rhino poached on Lewa

We’ve changed a lot of things – the regime of patrols, the use of army teams, concentration on deployment at night. We have night vision and thermal imaging, and we have four bloodhounds, used for tracking poachers. We have dismissed some rangers when we suspected double dealing – there’s a lot of temptation because of the price of rhino horn. We employed an ex-SAS guy to train our KPR.

It’s a huge operation but if we want to protect these animals we don’t have any other options. We have bought a helicopter which can pick up and drop teams and dogs immediately a gunshot is heard and we really need money to run it. We want to have a big spotlight and a thermal image and night vision camera fitted.

I’m also trying to see how I can get some more money to create another reservist team, which will help us cover a large area and have more observation posts. We need money for running costs, salaries of teams: a lot of people are happy to fund equipment, but money for salaries is a bit tricky.

‘We’re trying to work with the community’

Having KPR status allows us to also help the communities outside. We can deal with robberies, and so on. The biggest thing there is cattle raiders.

We’re trying to work with the community. We don’t want people to be looking through the fence, thinking that is where other people work, where white people live, etc. We want them to feel Lewa belongs to everyone.

‘I had a passion for wildlife’

‘When I was growing up I lived in a wildlife area, there were elephants, giraffe, buffalo. I had a passion for wildlife. I wanted to be a ranger with Kenya Wildlife Service or a parastatal. And I also had a thing about rhinos, because we didn’t have rhinos out there. Lewa was known for rhinos.

John Pameri

John Pameri: we want local communities to feel Lewa belongs to everyone

My parents were poor so I didn’t get education beyond primary level. We lived west of Lewa. The first time I came here I walked 100 km to ask for a job. They said I didn’t have a chance that time, but to come back next month. I walked back again and then came back the next month. For me to walk was not such a big thing. I’m a Maasai, the area we lived in was remote with no roads, you had to walk. I started working here in 1992, when Lewa just had a small 10,000 acre sanctuary. I worked in the field for six years without a tent, without a house. My bag was everything. At that time Lewa was not developed like now.

After six or seven years I started to get promoted. I went to South Africa to do a ranger course for three months. I was attached to Meru NP for a month to learn leadership skills. I was promoted to become second in charge of security, then when the head of security retired I took that position. I now have 150 people under me.

Anti-poaching patrol, Lewa

Anti-poaching patrol, Lewa

‘We need to educate people in schools’

In the courts rhino poaching is just a petty case. That’s a big problem. There are three things we need to tackle if we are to minimise poaching:

  • We must partner with everyone around where rhinos are. That’s how we get the intelligence.
  • We need to change the wildlife laws, so that we have stiff penalties for the poachers – jail for 30 years, fines of Ksh 30 million ([£230,000]. At the moment the fines are nothing. There are proposals but they have not yet been passed.
  • The police, the judges, don’t understand what wildlife crime is all about. Kenya Wildlife Service were not being involved in wildlife prosecutions. KWS have now trained four wildlife prosecutors who will be dealing with wildlife prosecution.

We are trying to bring the prosecutors and judges to Lewa, to show them around, to talk to them about how many rhinos we have in the country. A lot of them didn’t understand that there are only 600 rhinos in the country. We need to educate people in schools, in colleges. Everyone must understand the resources we have in Kenya.

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4 Comments on “Rhino security chief: hearts, minds and bullets”

  1. themasaidiary March 26, 2013 at 3:32 pm #

    Reblogged this on The Maasai Diary and commented:
    Epa eh! Quite so!


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    […] As a young, poorly educated Maasai, John Pameri walked a hundred kilometres to get a job at Kenya's Lewa Conservancy – twice. Two decades later he's head of a 150-strong security team, recently gai…  […]

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