Faye Cuevas Is Protecting Elephants Using Counterterrorism Techniques

Approaching the problem from a military standpoint made sense for Cuevas.

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Mar 2 2017, 8:00pm

Humans of the Year

Growing up in a small town in Minnesota, Lieutenant Colonel Faye Cuevas said she never imagined she would end up spending her days tracking poachers in the Serengeti.

It wasn't a straight shot from her hometown to Kenya, either: first she spent years serving as a counterterrorism intelligence expert in the US Air Force, fighting against Al Qaeda and Joseph Kony. Oh, and she also earned her law degree at the same time.

"If, at the time, you would have said 'hey Faye, you're still going to be in the Air Force 20 years later,' I would have thought it was crazy," Cuevas told me. "There I was: a kind of rudderless poli-sci major, and then not too long after that I'm an intelligence officer, and then not too long after that I'm an intelligence officer with special operations command."

Cuevas's years in the Air Force gave her valuable expertise in collecting intelligence on terrorists in order to improve our efforts to stop them. But in 2015, she made the leap to conservation, and is now using those skills to collect similar intelligence on poachers, in an effort to stop the decimation of elephants.

"The way we collect, process, and deliver information to drive decisions in drone warfare is very much the same process we use in a counter-poaching context."

"It is completely different and yet, in many respects, completely similar," Cuevas said. "The way we collect, process, and deliver information to drive decisions in drone warfare is very much the same process we use in a counter-poaching context. Because if there's anything the US military has gotten incredible adept at, it really is collecting information and data."

Cuevas is the Chief of Staff for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), one of the largest conservation nonprofits in the world. She helms IFAW's anti-poaching program in Kenya—a partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) called tenBoma.

In this role, she's emphasized the need to collect and analyze as much data as possible on poachers. In this context, there isn't a need for satellite imaging or telephone intercepts the way there is in counterterrorism, but the information the group collects—things as simple as when and where poaching tends to spike—is just as valuable. They use it to make real-time decisions about when, where, and how to send out anti-poaching officers. In part due to these efforts, the total number of elephants killed in Kenya dropped from 384 in 2012 to 96 in 2015 and the birth rate for elephants in East Africa currently outpaces the rate at which the animals are being killed.

Cuevas started her career by enrolling in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) while a student at the University of St. Thomas. Cuevas said she wasn't sure what she wanted to do, but knew she wanted to go to law school and wanted to travel. When she saw an ad in her school paper for the ROTC, which would help her cover her tuition while also giving her a chance to travel. She signed up the next day.

Cuevas told me she kind of fell into intelligence—it was the only program ROTC offered at her university—and ended up following her command officer into special operations. But she fell in love with the challenge of the job, and spent four years on active duty before heading back to school for her law degree. When Cuevas started law school, it was four weeks before September 11.

"When September 11 happened, I made two phone calls: first my parents, and second to my reserve boss to let him know I volunteer to go, whenever he needed people to go," Cuevas told me.

But she didn't put her degree on hold. For the next four years, every summer as soon as school let out, she deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and returned in the fall to continue her studies. Cuevas deployed three days after taking the bar exam. She passed.

Cuevas told me her new role has allowed her to continue to push herself, and she said it's rewarding to see a direct impact from her effort. But she still looks at things through a military lens, and when it comes to the war on poaching, she said we can't afford to get complacent.

"There are incredible efforts out there and initiatives in Africa and Asia, and people are doing a lot of incredible work," Cuevas said. "But I would also say we haven't won. There's still a lot to do."