Better Boots on the Ground

written by Bill Clark and John Irwin · photos by Bill Clark

The horrible poaching of tens of thousands of elephants in Africa each year has motivated people around the world to demand greater efforts to protect the great pachyderms from criminal exploitation. Ultimately, this can be accomplished only by dismantling the primarily Asian markets that provide the enormous financial incentives for ivory poaching. But for the moment, efforts to close those markets have been largely ineffective, and the principal burden for protecting surviving elephants falls heavily on African shoulders.

One of the most common demands is that African wildlife agencies put “more boots on the ground”—more rangers to meet and deflect the poaching challenge. Several African countries have been sensitive to this need and indeed have recruited more rangers to provide increased protection for the elephant herds within their national boundaries. Kenya, for example, has recruited, trained and deployed an additional 1,182 rangers over the past two years. But it is not merely a matter of putting more boots on the ground. Africa also needs better boots on the ground. Africa needs rangers who are better trained, better equipped, and better motivated.

The need for improved quality is very real because the poaching gangs that rangers are confronting have become increasingly sophisticated and dangerous. Prices paid for contraband elephant ivory have skyrocketed in recent years. A poacher can expect about $150 per pound for ivory; since a typical elephant carries about 20 pounds of ivory, that means $3,000 for one evening of dirty work. It also means poachers can invest some of their profits in their business; African wildlife rangers are increasingly encountering gangs equipped with GPS units, night vision goggles, satellite telephones, and other sophisticated technology. M16 rifles are also becoming more common in the poacher’s arsenal. Beyond this, the increased financial incentives have made poachers more aggressive and more prepared to take greater risks in shoot-outs with ranger units.

In sum, African wildlife rangers are confronting more belligerent, competent, dangerous and aggressive adversaries. They have little option other than to improve the quality of their own rank and file if there is to be any success in protecting the vulnerable elephants.

The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) is broadly reputed to be among the very best wildlife agencies in Africa. It has a spirited and disciplined ranger force backed by an agency leadership and a national sentiment that is very much sympathetic to the elephants. This is an excellent environment for making progress, and the co-authors of this report traveled to Kenya recently to help the best rangers in Africa become even better.

Our intent is to make a very serious examination of how KWS makes rangers. We are scrutinizing the infrastructure of the KWS recruit training base at Manyani, in Tsavo West National Park. We are looking at the curriculum—what are KWS recruits being taught during the grueling six-month boot camp? We are looking at methodologies—how are these subjects taught, and how well is the subject matter retained by the recruits? And finally, we are looking at the institutional ethos of KWS in general, and the training environment in particular. How does KWS teach its recruits to be persistent, resourceful, courageous, team-oriented, and of impeccable integrity?

Our point of reference is the United States Marine Corps (USMC) recruit training. Although we are not trying to convert KWS rangers into clones of American Marines, we are identifying situations in which the USMC has addressed specific issues of recruit training, and recommending how these might apply to KWS. Although there are many important similarities between KWS and USMC training requirements, surprisingly few of them are of a particularly military nature.

Training infrastructure is very important. This is the bricks and mortar of the training base, and it needs to be very good if the base seeks to graduate very good recruits. Gone are the days when administrators thought that rustic living and training conditions would create tougher rangers. Thatch-roofed barracks with wood-strip walls are things of the past, as are toilets and showers that are only accessible via a 50-yard dash across the outback.

There should be no nostalgia for fire hazards that have poor ventilation and are hard to keep clean. A cost-effective modern barracks is airy, well-lit and safe. It is also spacious enough for instructors to conduct impromptu classes, and it provides the proper conditions for recruits to get a good night’s sleep. They need it. Their curriculum has them running hard for 26 weeks of very strenuous and demanding training. Tired recruits just can’t keep up.

Similarly, staff housing needs to be modern. It needs to provide for the basic necessities of the instructors and their families—a bit of space, some quiet, and plumbing that works. KWS is presently transitioning to improved staff housing and, remarkably, can build an entire block of four two-bedroom apartments, including water and electricity, for the Kenyan equivalent of about $35,000.

Modern classrooms are needed, as well as a good kitchen and mess hall, a dependable sewer system, reliable electricity and water—even a new swimming pool. This last item might seem an outlandish extravagance—until one learns that drownings are the second most common cause of fatalities in the line of duty for KWS. At least a dozen rangers have drowned in recent years while engaged in work to protect wildlife. Some were swept away while trying to ford the Galana River. Others drowned when their boat foundered while crossing Lake Turkana. A sergeant drowned in a small pond that was only four feet deep. He didn’t know how to swim. He fell in and panicked.

Unlike most Americans, most African children do not learn how to swim. Rather, they are taught that water is dangerous—home to hippopotamuses, crocodiles, malaria-carrying mosquitoes, and blindness-inducing parasites transmitted via black flies. Conversely, no USMC recruit is allowed to graduate from boot camp without learning how to swim and demonstrating serious levels of competency in areas such as jumping off high platforms into the water, staying afloat while encumbered with heavy personal gear, and swimming minimum distances. Given the KWS drowning fatality rates, adoption of this Marine policy might be warranted.

Curriculum is another topic of keen interest; like the infrastructure, it must keep up with the times. Being a wildlife ranger means much more than merely chasing some poachers out in the bush. Rangers must acquire many technical skills during basic training if they are to match wits with poaching gangs backed by international criminal syndicates generating at least $2.1 billion a year in retail sales. Rangers must be law enforcement officers, skilled technicians, and diplomats. They must be able to identify and handle evidence, and preserve its admissibility so it can be used in court to prosecute criminals who exploit elephants.

KWS has effectively stopped all elephant and rhinoceros poaching during the daylight hours for the past three years—so poachers are doing much of their dirty work at night. To address this, rangers must know how to maintain and use sophisticated night vision equipment.

They also must know how to use modern digital encrypted radios for communication out in the bush and know how to use GPS to pinpoint locations.

Rangers must be proficient at first aid and be able to treat gunshot wounds and other ailments. Poachers are very dangerous, and most of the 65 KWS fatalities in the line of duty have resulted from gunfights with poaching gangs. Many fatalities have resulted from excessive blood loss due to a lack of elementary first aid training and equipment.

Finally, rangers need to have very good interview skills. A poacher captured in the bush has a lot of important information that the ranger needs to know: How many other poachers are now in the area? What weapons do they have? Where is their rendezvous point? Where would you take the poached ivory? And many other questions. There are important advantages to questioning an arrested poacher in the field, especially when the poacher has critical, time-sensitive information. But the questioning must be done in a legal manner that respects human rights. And this also requires careful training.

While curriculum itself is very important, so is the way particular topics are taught. Training methodology—how the instructor imparts knowledge to the recruit in a manner that facilitates rapid learning and long-term retention—is key. And this is an area where USMC drill instructors excel.

A Marine drill instructor’s ability to climb inside a recruit’s head and secure his undivided attention is legendary. The methods used to teach a particular subject have a direct impact upon how well it is learned. Each subject requires its own method; techniques used to teach a recruit how to march are not the same as those used to teach that same recruit how to react in a high-pressure environment.

Ethos is perhaps the most important element of training. This is the culture of the organization. It is the spirit that strongly influences how a ranger will behave, and what he or she will do in a particular situation. Cultivating ethos means cultivating virtues such as persistence, dependability, devotion to teamwork, loyalty, and trust. Skillful ethos training can teach both physical and moral courage.

Just like USMC recruits, most KWS ranger recruits are recent graduates from high school without much experience in the “real world.” They come from varied ethnic backgrounds (Kenya has 42 distinct ethnic groups) and from varied family circumstances. And just like USMC recruits, most KWS recruits enlist because they want to be part of “the best.” KWS has an excellent reputation in Kenya and commonly attracts young people who are prepared to make extra efforts. These good intentions provide instructors with fertile grounds for teaching core values such as honesty, personal integrity, and respect for the dignity of others.

Despite all of the international implications of the criminal exploitation of elephants, the ranger’s function in its essence is to enforce the wildlife laws of his or her own country, and only good citizens can do that effectively. That is precisely what the elephants need today.


The co-authors are both honorably discharged US Marine Corps veterans. John Irwin served as a career Marine and was medically retired after 26 years of service—which included time serving as a drill instructor at Parris Island, South Carolina; teaching at Drill Instructor School; rewriting the Marine Corps’ Standard Operational Procedure for Drill Instructors manual; and training Marines prior to deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan. Bill Clark also served in the Marine Corps, but only for one enlistment—just enough to teach him the long-term merits and benefits of Marine training. After being discharged, he went back to school, earned a PhD in wildlife biology, and pursued a career in wildlife law enforcement. He has been associated with KWS since the day it was created in 1989, and presently serves as a KWS honorary warden and US liaison.

This project enjoys the cooperative support of AWI and the Greenbaum Foundation.