Have you ever met anybody who was a slave?
Answer by Rory Young:
This man is a slave.
I met him in Mali, in the conflict zone. Look closely at him. Look into his eyes. He is the property of another man. His wife, his children and his grand children are also the property of another human being.
He served me food andon several occasions. I was meeting with a group of Tamasheq and other nobles in the Gourma, a part of the Sahel, where North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa meet.
He was extremely grateful and highly honoured when I asked to take his picture. As a slave he of course has absolutely no social standing and is entirely dependent on the good will of his master for his water, food, clothing, health and even his very life. Yes, traditionally his master has the right of life or death over him. The soldiers, rangers and others with whom I work were fascinated that I would want to take a picture of such a person rather than a noble with his robes, swords and other signs of status and power.
Don’t be surprised, he is not so unusual. There are around 200′000 slaves in Mali, possibly many, many more, and slavery in the region is growing. A recentof slaves being openly sold in markets in Libya sparked apparent shock and horror all over the world. This is a reflection of the worldwide ignorance the actual condition of both the human and natural environments.
I work in the conflict zone as chief instructor of the Malian mixed army-ranger anti-poaching brigade, a project supported by, Wild Foundation, The Canadian Fund for International Conservation and others. This is not a place the NGO’s in big, shiny airconditioned SUV’s will come. Nor is it a place that even the Un peacekeepers or other military are willing to enter, except as part of a fast in-and-out mission by air.
I have gotten to know many men like this man. I know the owners, the slaves and I have gotten to know former slaves. None of these people are shy about discussing slavery and how they view it. I have tried to see it as the people of this region do, so as to understand it.
No man wishes to be a slave. However, like a kidnapped person suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, the slaves identify with their master and, get ready for it, often look at them with love and affection. The slave-owners often refer to their slaves as their “children”. Most could imagine life without chiefs and nobles more easily than they could without slaves.
I have also gotten to know a number of former slaves who have risen through the ranks of the Malian Armed Forces to command men who are themselves from slave-owning families. Most of these men have severed ties with their former owners and have a very surprising perspective. They usually refer to both slaves and slave-owners as “their people” and seldom hold a grudge against their former masters. Whilst they appreciate being free they do not look at their slavery or freedom as a question of right or wrong, but rather as a change from one system to another, or even of their own personal upward mobility.
This is I believe is a key to understanding slavery. Slavery is not a simple question of law or perceived freedom. It is a social and economic system in which status, power and wealth are rewarded with entitlement. To stop the slavery, the entire culture needs to change. The whole system.
Returning home to the modern world is always a greater journey for me than simple transportation. It is always very difficult to get my mind out of that world and into the 21st Century. I cannot help but be fascinated with the many parallels and hypocrisies I see around me when I return home.
People in the modern world are shedding their sense of equality and modesty and openly adoring the unbridled pursuit of wealth, power and status as true virtues. Creativity, knowledge, wisdom and society all take a back seat.
It is as though the slaves are agreeing to be slaves in the belief they may somehow make it out of the pit and to the top of the pile. At least the cultures of the sahel do not pretend to be anything other than what they are.
Imagine spending your entire life being completely mistaken about your own ethnicity.
Answer by Rory Young:
Imagine spending your entire life being mistaken of your own ethnicity.
I was born in Zambia to “white Rhodesian parents” and I was surrounded by racism from a young age. Questions of race and racism have been a constant frustrating issue that I have learned to hate with a vengeance. Some of my own family are unrepentant racists.
I was taught that I came from “the best pioneering Rhodesian stock”. My father was particularly proud of this. I once told him that a teacher had said I was cheeky. His reply was, “Tell her it’s because of your good breeding.” Such extreme arrogance either rubs off on you insidiously over time or violently repels you.
Imagine my surprise then to find out I have black African blood running in my veins…
I have a pretty flat nose, made more so by having been broken early on, but am otherwise very pink with green eyes, and although I am now as bald as a coot, I once had soft straight hair. As a child I was blonde, as were all of my four siblings and all are either blue or green-eyed, but my hair turned black as I reached adulthood and then began to retreat at great speed. One sister has always been blonde and blue-eyed.
Both my parents were very obsessed with their genealogy and both came from “old distinguished families”. Yeah, well mostly it would seem…
My father was always very vocal about about the illustrious history of his father’s family, but not his mother’s… My mother went on very much the same about her mother’s family, but was deafeningly quite about the origins of her father’s family.
As I grew older I began to find the skeletons in the closet most interesting, and eventually, quite recently, absolutely fascinating. I discovered that my mother’s mother’s family had been loyalist Irish Catholics (and Episcopalian when it suited them) and my father’s family had originally been rebel Irish Protestants (and then produced Thomas young, the nastiest of my ancestors, a brutal enforcer of the crown in Northern Ireland – or a great hero depending on which side of the blurry line you sit).
I decided one day to look look my father’s mother’s background and lo and behold! He had mentioned her parents had been “Frenchmen”. He failed however to mention they were also gypsies. This was getting interesting…
I was never particularly curious about my mother’s father’s background. I knew that they had originally been 1820 settlers. These were poor Englishmen mostly who settled in the Eastern Cape in South Africa. I knew that my grandfather’s particular lot had moved to Natal (Zululand), but that was it really. His father had been a mathematics professor and his brother was a physics professor, but other than that they appeared to be relatively uninteresting.
And then one day I was reading about the results of DNA studies on the Afrikaners (South Africans of mostly Dutch, German and French Huguenot descent). A study that had discovered that not only were Afrikaners an average of 7 percent Sub-Saharan African. Some far right wing racists in South Africa desperately try to refute this, and the gymnastics they achieve and the lengths they will go to to do this are quite hilarious. There was even an incident in South African parliament in the early 1980’s, after the release of the first revelatory study of church records which clearly showed an admixture of both African(6–12%) and Asian blood (+-2%), when one legislature punched another for saying “The Van Wyks are black!”
I continued reading, laughing quite heartely, and then there it was, “the descendants of the 1820’s all have sub- African admixture. And then, “most notably those who migrated to Natal”.
At first I was simply too surprised to speak, but then the laughter began and simply wouldn’t stop. The more I thought of all my snotty relatives sitting around waffling about being “good Rhodesian pioneer stock, but failing to mention the fine Zulu coursing through their veins.
I will be taking great pleasure in pointing out to horrified relatives that they are in fact not white after all!
The soldiers mounted up onto their troop carriers and heavy support wagons as we prepared to go out into the Malian desert and carry out our first anti poaching mission just South of Timbuktu. With a sense of urgency we left behind a skeleton guard and drove out of camp onto the potholed road under a scorching sun. A sun which having already been up for a few hours by 9 am, was chastising us for loitering.
We were in Mali as part of the Mali Desert elephant project. This a Wild Foundation project run by Wild Foundation and partnered with Chengeta Wildlife who are providing critical combat tacking tactics for a brand new anti poaching unit. Lead by Rory Young an expert tracker and combat tracking trainer the team is providing ‘in ops’ training to this new unit.
Turning off the road, we passed beneath one of the towering monoliths which…
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Should wildlife charities donate money to poachers' villages for education, food, water and shelter… by @RoryJAYoung
Answer by Rory Young:
Yes, they should assist poachers' villages but not by just donating money. Donating money does not make something shameful. Education and social pressure can make something shameful. Doing so is a solution to ignorance. Assisting villages on the other hand is a solution to the problem of poverty that can also drive people to poach…
There are many reasons that poachers kill wildlife, among them for food, medicine, wealth, protecting crops and even for sport. However, I have only once met someone who claimed to poach because he wanted to wipe out all the animals in an area. He was a notorious poacher in Vwaza Wildlife Reserve in Malawi and boasted that he would kill all the elephants in the park. Unfortunately for this individual, he walked into our camp during anti-poaching ops, and then raised his weapon when ordered to lower it… but I digress…
Solving the problem of poaching is entirely about changing people's behaviour. Arrest and imprisonment will not work on a starving child's father. Sensitization will not work on greed-driven syndicate. The appropriate solution needs to be applied to a specific poaching problem.
Every park has a different mix of poaching activity. In one place it may be driven by poverty on a grand scale and in another it may be primarily driven by ignorance or greed. I use the acronym RESPECT when considering appropriate solutions for a particular protected area.
R is for Rules, Laws and Regulations. Having clear laws and penalties is a basic necessity. That does not mean that certain situations in breach of these laws should not necessitate common sense tolerance. It does mean however, that such tolerance should be a part of the system of justice and not just a random acceptance of the destruction of wild areas via "turning a blind eye". Having a codified set of rules for the protection of wildlife and wild areas can and should ensure that a government, its agencies and its political leadership are obliged to deal with the problem and is the basis upon which policing can be implemented to stop and deter poaching driven by criminal greed.
E is for Education. Most poachers I am involved in apprehending invariably state during interrogation that they know what they are doing is illegal, yet few can explain why it is wrong. They simply think the government is being unreasonable. Education can have a great impact but is a slow process and a long-term solution requiring support at all levels of government and needs to be applied to all demographics to create a change in general opinion.
S is for Social Pressure.
Closely linked to education and the powerful African philosphy of Ubuntu or Munu, social pressure is an especially powerful tool in Africa. Similar to the "Law of Jante", it is a taboo to put yourself above those around you and to go against the consensus. This social pressure can take many forms, especially via the traditional leadership and aims to influence community opinion.
P is for Policing, Law Enforcement and Deterrence.
This is a necessity in all areas and whilst it is most appropriate for greed-driven criminals it is also necessary for all other types of poaching as it provides a deterrent as well as a means of identifying those in need of and assisting those who desperately need help. Even if driven by poverty, poachers still have to know that what they are doing is not an acceptable solution and governments and NGO's need to be aware of the problem.
E is for Economic Incentives and Poverty Alleviation.
It is quite simple. Starving people will kill to eat. I would do the same to feed my children if they were starving. This does not mean that poverty alleviation is the only answer. It is not, people often poach because it is an easier way of obtaining protein or because they simply like bush meat. A person caught poaching for food still needs to be treated with leniency via the justice system in addition to being given whatever assistance is possible.
C is for Community of Man and Nature.
Harmony between human and wildlife is dependent on knowledge, understanding and commitment to protection of nature. Human-wildlife conflict is a major reason for poaching. Imagine a lion had once killed your child or a herd of elephants had destroyed your crops and therefore your means of survival. The overall attitude of man towards nature is what needs to change in order to ensure harmony. Poaching is a problem that begins and ends with people.
T is for Technology, Tools and Infrastructure
From roads to fencing to drones to satellite imagery , it all has a role to play. This does not mean of course that technology is anything but a useful tool in itself.
All of these elements need to come together in a pragmatic, cost effective and practical set of solutions as a doctrine.
If there was any one single element that could stop poaching I would jump at the chance. However, it is simply not the case. It is a complex problem requiring intelligent, well thought out solutions that take into account many factors. Every country is different and every protected area in every country has a different poaching problem.
My work with Chengeta wildlife is an effort to provide realistic solutions that are implemented through support in training to those in authority.
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 toWe 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
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…