What is it like to work undercover?

Answer by Rory Young:

“My name is Boetie Van Niekerk, but you can just call ‘Bwana’ my friend”…

I am a South African professional hunter looking to buy ivory or rhino horn. I am arrogant, suspicious, and patronizing. I am also greedy and am looking for serious, long-term suppliers and “if you look after me, give me a good price and no hassles, I will keep coming back from more”. I can of course “buy as much as you can supply and want as much as you can sell me as quickly as possible”.
I use “middle men” or “buyers” to deal with “sellers”. You can’t just approach me directly. First, you talk to one of my junior middlemen who will meet and talk with you at length to establish who you are, what you have to offer and how much you want for it. He is an old toothless wonder with bad body odour but fancy clothes and a new watch and a smartphone. You are impressed by his stories of how “big” his boss is and how he pays too much money but can’t get enough. If he verifies that you are a genuine and serious seller he will then pass you on to one of my more senior, trusted, side-kicks. He will insist on inspecting what you have. That will be a big negotiation in itself because no one trusts anyone. However, after lots of backwards and forwards, and maybe some arguing, it will be done.

It will be necessary to verify who we are too and once we get round to talking about meeting with me to do the sale, we will have a brief chat on the phone, mainly to reassure you that there is a real “bigshot” foreign buyer behind the junior guys and you are not just being set up to be robbed of your ivory.

Eventually, when you are happy and I am happy, we will arrange to meet at a location we both feel is safe. Invariably a place as isolated and quiet as possible, with several approaches by road, a crossroads in a rural farming area is good, enough cover to avoid being seen with the contraband but with a view of the surrounding area. The meeting will of course take place late at night so that any vehicles can be heard or seen approaching from a distance and so that we won’t be observed “doing business”.
When we finally meet both parties will almost certainly arrive late, having had people check the location secretly, to ensure that it is not a setup by rangers or police officers or an ambush by thieves.

When we meet, I of course let my men do the initial talking. They will speak in the indigenous language of the area and, as I don’t understand a word of what is being said, my buyers will repeatedly refer to me as this “white prick” or “this shithead”, so as to make you feel that they are on your side really and want to get you a good deal asap, because they hate my guts. All very reassuring for you. You actually outnumber us too, but not enough to encourage you to true to rob us. You are not sure if we are armed or not.

Eventually, I will get impatient with all the blabbering and will rudely interrupt. I want the stuff and I want to go. It is early morning and I am tired. Let’s get down to business…

I snatch at it greedily when you produce it, inspecting it and clearly knowing my business, and you hungrily eye the bulging bag at my feet. After weighing it and examining it we talk price. I argue that I already have lots of ivory as I have been buying in other areas but eventually we agree on what I believe is a good price, as my middlemen have told you I will, but which you all know is outrageously high.

Money changes hands, the ivory is handed over, I mention one word, and suddenly your world takes a dramatic and terrible turn for the worse. You are suddenly on the floor with a boot on your neck and the muzzle of a gun in your face. Your hands are pinned. There is shouting, bright light and other people have appeared from nowhere. You catch a glimpse of your friends trying to run but being slammed to the floor by three men who have appeared from.

I am in reality neither South African nor am I a criminal and, although I really am Caucasian, I do actually speak one indigenous Bantu language and can understand a lot of what is being spoken in others. I was born in Zambia, raised mostly in Zimbabwe, and have spent most of my adult life in wildlife and rural tribal areas in Central and Southern Africa.

I am an anti-poaching and anti-trafficking trainer and advisor. My work is done “in-ops”, so I show the rangers how it is done by actually doing it with them on the job. Once I am happy that they have understood the theory in the classroom and have shown themselves proficient in practical exercises, we go out and find and arrest traffickers and poachers, taking down whole networks if possible.

Going undercover amongst traffickers is extremely dangerous. It is frightening and requires a steady nerve, the ability to really believe, at least temporarily, that you really are a criminal and to play the part believably. It also requires excellent teamwork, quick and effective planning and, above all, incredible trust and confidence between the men working undercover and their support team.

It is never the size of the threat nor its intensity that I find worrying or reassuring. It is the level of control that I and my fellow rangers or trainees have in any given situation.

We are not adrenaline junkies looking for the next big fix. In fact all of the instructors whom I work with and all of the experienced and properly trained rangers who participate, abhor any unnecessary risk-taking or recklessness. An experienced officer knows that to be effective, to stay alive and healthy and avoid disruption to the community and environment, which he needs to get the job done in as professional a manner as possible.
Within the parks, operating on good intelligence, with well trained, experienced and committed officers, in well planned operations, whilst there is always an inherent risk, it is both understood and prepared for as much as possible. We are also on “our turf” and know the terrain.

Undercover work on the other hand, is, as far as I am concerned, the most nerve-wracking type of work I have done. In the areas I work, there is very little or no technology available to make our work easier. We often end up sitting alone with criminals and out of comms with our fellow rangers. Often this is necessary and deliberate as we need to build trust.

The worst is when a tip comes in at short notice and there is little time to reconnoitre, investigate or plan. Such missions are only undertaken when an experienced team is in place. They can easily go wrong and we occasionally find ourselves pursuing armed individuals in a vehicle or on foot.

Often, communities or syndicates will be closed to outsiders and we have to carefully work out who is who, and how we can break into the circle. That can take a lot of time and requires a lot of patience. We will send in men to try and gather information, identify possible informants and try to understand who is doing what, why, when and how. I do not like sending men into such situations but often we have little choice. We try to make it as safe as possible by ordering them to withdraw as soon as there is the slightest suspicion or aggression towards them. We will hide teams at strategic points around the areas, both concealed and undercover to move in if necessary.

Although this type of work is stressful and dangerous, it is also exciting and, most importantly, it is highly effective. Along with running informants and interviewing suspects it is one of the best sources of intelligence and regularly results in successful operations.

Whilst I personally dislike ad hoc undercover ops in urban areas, I absolutely love pseudo operations in rural areas. This is when officers form fake poaching gangs and pretend to operate in an area, moving out of a park with (actually seized) contraband, weapons and dressed and behaving like any real poaching group. In some parks areas where the vegetation is very open, this is sometimes one of the most effective ways of getting close enough to attempt an interdiction.

Oh, and don’t worry that I may be letting the cat out of the bag by telling you all of this… Undercover and pseudo ops cause chaos for the poachers just by everyone knowing they are happening in an area. No one knows who they can or can’t trust and talk to. No one can approach anyone new to sell something. No one can ask for assistance from local people or even from other poachers…

Our work is funded through donations to Chengeta Wildlife We are having unparalleled success on the ground, working with different African governments and regional organizations. The work is tough. Rangers have to be able to do everything from undercover work to tactical tracking to crime scene investigation and much more. We train them in a comprehensive methodology that we develop and we train them. We help those officers who need the help the most, not just the “celebrity” conservation areas. If you would like to help support us, know more about what we do or share our efforts with others please visit http://startsomegood.com/Venture…

What is it like to work undercover?

Our Life In The First World: Part Two

The following is a true story.

I bought a bicycle.

I live in the Netherlands now, and “when in Rome do as the Romans do”, so I bought a bicycle.

I didn’t just buy any rusty old tingalingaling thing, I bought a mountain bike. Yes! I need to stay fit and strong because in the real world I’m an anti poaching ranger! I can’t let myself get all flabby and anaemic looking like some of the apparitions I have seen lurking around this place. I need to remain lean, agile, ready for action! I must buy a mountain bike ride it far, hard and fast, up and down as many dunes and dykes as possible. Through forests! Over streams! Through Amsterdam! (Well maybe not through Amsterdam, I’m not suicidal)

So, I was determined to put all my effort into getting from A to B as quickly as possible, on my basikoro, dressed to blend in with the natives, and determined to show them how a real man from Africa rides his bicycle. I really was sure that every self respecting bush cyclist back home would be suitably impressed with my efforts. I mean I’m not carrying double beds or entire banana plantations on the back like they like to do, but I have a good frown on my face, I go like dammit and I make sure I sweat like I would on a hot day in the Zambezi Valley.

And then despite all this effort, cost and psyching up, my whole dream soured and blackened into a sad and depressing nightmare. My vision was shredded by a cruel happening.

An old grey-haired man on what looked like a girl’s bike overtook me.
I drew on my reserves, pulling my spirit back from the great abyss and recovering from my shock. I would not let such a disaster happen to me. I changed gear, leaned forward, gritted my teeth, narrowed my eyes and went for broke…

I pedalled like the devil himself was on my tail. I tried harder and harder, peddling faster and faster, putting every last bead of sweat into catching him, my thighs aching with excruciating pain, the blood pounding in my ears, my breathing loud with the terrible effort I made. And still he moved further and further away.

I failed. I had let myself down. I let down the reputation of all African rangers with my pathetic performance. It was tragic. The old man slowly disappeared into the distance, sitting smartly upright, back perfectly straight, clearly putting in no effort whatsoever. And then to totally destroy whatever little pride I had left, I smelt the smoke from his pipe wafting in the air around me. He had been achieving this tremendous speed on a girl’s bike whilst smoking a pipe and expending no effort whatsoever.

I didn’t tell my wife. I didn’t share it with my children either. No one. It was to much.I kept this worrying secret to myself and instead lay awake at night wondering what had happened to me. How had I lost all strength in such a short time? How had I allowed these lanky, blonde-haired town-dwellers who live on cheese to sap my strength and destroy my self esteem. They had somehow shown how wrong my certain pride in myself and my kind had always been…

I could not give up. I would not give up. I reassured myself that my muscles had just not done such work for many years and I had probably not organized my equipment properly. I would return!

I raised my saddle, readjusted its angle and raised my handle bars too. Oil onto the chain, better clothes with more room for my legs to achieve a better range of movement, a high energy, low volume meal, and I set off once more. I would be fearless. I would give my all. I kissed my wife and my children goodbye, ignored their puzzled expressions and went once more unto the breach!
My pace was good. Humming a powerful martial tune helped as I was sure it would.

I passed a couple of teenagers with school bags, neatly zipping close by, my incredible speed apparent from the wind created by my passing. It was thrilling. I was back and I meant business…
I passed a group of pre-schoolers with teacher. They didn’t stand a chance. The power was mine!

I looked ahead for a worthy opponent. Maybe another man on a mountain bike or even someone on a racing bike, dressed in tight-fitting clothes. I would have my revenge and restore my honour!

And then it happened.

The sweet-looking, grey-haired old lady overtook me, flying past at a speed that I knew immediately I could never hope to match.

I was a broken man. Far from home. No pride. No more self respect…

I dismounted sadly and pushed my beautiful, shiny machine towards my destination, wondering what would become of me, a man with no more self respect, no strength, a man who could not even keep up with old women.

I pushed my bike into the line and squeezed it into the rack, realizing as I did so that the bike next to it was just like the one the elderly dear had been riding. I was amazed. It was massive. I mean massively made, an exceptionally heavily built frame and large chain and hubs. Strange, large hubs. A strange metal box under the carrier…

A battery!

Sweet mercies!

Our Life In The First World: Part One

Our Life In The First World: Part One

What is the most brutal, painful and violent way to die?

Answer by Rory Young:

The Brutal Reality That No One Wants To Face… Welcome to my world…

There are many horriffic ways to die. However, few are so common as what you will see in the following pictures.

I took the first series of shots last week whilst on an area reconnaisance patrol in one of Malawi's National Parks. It shows a ranger triggering a large home-made gin trap. One of the men under my command just missed stepping on it as he was focused on flank security for the tracker nearby.

The tracker amazingly spotted it from behind and to the right from a distance. Tracker-scouts are trained not to walk on game trails for this reason, as well as to not leave signs of their presence for poachers to see. The picture below that shows what one of these traps did to a baby elephant.

You can see in the above picture how well concealed these terrible devices are.

In this picture the ranger pushes on the trap with a stick.

In the above shot the trap is triggered. Look at the size of it compared to the rangers ankle/leg.

Now look at what one of these sick machines did to this poor creature. It survived for days in agony with sepsis streaming through its system before a vet saw him and after trying to see what could be done, asked a friend of mine mercifully put him out of his misery.

These horrible contraptions are equally a threat to the rangers. Some are deliberately intended for elephants. They are huge and chained to large leadwood trees. Stepping on them will simply remove your leg at the knee. The smaller one such as that in the picture will destroy the bones in your leg. We have no helicoptors waiting to swoop in an pick us up and these areas are inaccessible to vehicles. The only way to get a wounded man out is by carrying out through swampy ground and then boat. At least a day.

I am lucky, I at least have insurance, thanks to Chengeta Wildlife. Most of the rangers don't. Being injured can also mean financial ruin for them and their families.

Here is another terrfying, slow and agonizingway to die.

A wire noose round your neck slowly strangling then loosening over and over until eventually it tightens enough to cause you a slow and painfull final strangulation.

These wire snares are not only good for strangulation though. Here are some more shots of lions dying from starvation because they are caught by wire or by infection or loss of blood.

Caught by the leg.

Caught round the chest.

Maybe these are really not painful, sickening or frightening enough. In which case there is having your horn hacked out of your face while you are still alive…
I guess I better stop there. Those who have complained I have been spammy in trying to gather support to stop this holocaust might be offended…

To those who have tried to spread the word or who have even just told someone else that there is a tragedy happenng or simply acknowledged it, thank you.  To the men and women I work with in the field and to those who struggle on our behalf to find the money, I love you all.

I am so, so tired right now of seeing scenes like this in real life.


What is the most brutal, painful and violent way to die?