While we often focus on the elephant side of poaching, they aren't the only ones being terrorized. Poaching has a very strong human element to it as well, one that is perhaps even more heartbreaking than what happens to elephants.
Last week four men were killed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in Garamba National Park. They were part of a 10-men force working to track down the collar of a poached elephant. While tracking the collar, the men walked right into a poaching camp, where poachers opened fire, starting an exchange of gunfire between the two parties.
According to African Parks, a helicopter was immediately dispatched to rescue the men, but only six were able to be rescued. One sustained injuries and the helicopter, which was damaged by the gunfire, was unable to fly back for the four remaining men. Their bodies were found and retrieved last Thursday, Oct. 8.
The four men leave behind their wives and 14 children. According to National Geographic Photographer Brent Stirton, the life of a ranger is not just a personal risk; it's a family risk as well. "It's just another consequence of what it means to be a ranger in these conflict lands," he says. "It just means that it's not just you at risk, it's very much your family too."
This tragedy is an example of how dangerous and costly wildlife trade can be. Not only are 96 elephants killed every day for their ivory, the lives of humans that seek to save these beautiful creatures are taken from them, often by their neighbors. In 2015 alone eight men have lost their lives, according to Peter Fearnhead, CEO of African Parks.
Unfortunately, poaching is a common occupation among the citizens of these African nations, mostly because of poverty. In order to feed themselves or their families, they must kill beautiful creatures. A few nations, such as Kenya and Botswana, have established programs that employ former poachers and use those same skills to save the species they once hunted, but the poor economies prevent this approach from being widespread.
As it currently stands, poaching is a lucrative trade that often yields a better financial return than conservation, and the violence that ensues when the two sides meet is heartbreaking. As Stirton says, "There is definite heroism in these parks in terms of what the rangers are up against, and whatever support we can offer them is the least we can do."
Kerry Skiff is a conservation advocate and recent journalism graduate of Northern Kentucky University. She follows the ivory trade around the world, and uses her voice to educate Americans about their role in animal conservation.