How Anti-Terrorism Tactics Are Being Used to Fight Elephant Poaching

Lieutenant Colonel Faye Cuevas is using her 19 years of intelligence service to help protect elephants.

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Jul 13 2016, 9:00am

Image: Jon Mountjoy/Flickr

While working as a counterterrorism intelligence agent for the US Air Force in Africa, tracking Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army, Lieutenant Colonel Faye Cuevas wasn't particularly interested in elephants. But the animals kept popping up during her surveillance operations.

"We would see them all the time: elephants and cows," Cuevas told me over the phone. "To me, initially, where elephants were was really, I don't want to say irrelevant, but I didn't understand the relevance to my mission."

But she soon learned that the elephants could be a signal for valuable information: if the elephants felt safe enough to be in a certain area, it usually meant bad guys weren't close by. The connection between wildlife and criminal activity made something click in Cuevas's head.

"I heard professional conservationists explain the poaching crisis and to my ears, as an intelligence analyst, it sounded an awful lot like [fighting] a terror or insurgent network," Cuevas said.

So she started to volunteer, finding ways to lend her counterterrorism intelligence skills to the fight against elephant poachers. Last November, after 19 years of military service, she joined IFAW officially as Chief of Staff, heading its anti-poaching program in Kenya—a partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) called tenBoma. Cuevas is still an active reserve intelligence officer with Air Force, but she spends most of her time these days applying her skills to a different kind of fight. And it's working.

IFAW Chief of Staff, Faye Cuevas shows two KWS rangers how to use the mobile phone app used to collect anti-poaching data. Image: IFAW

In 2012 and 2013, elephant and rhino poaching in Kenya reached an all time high, with more than 300 elephants slaughtered by poachers by the end of 2013. At the rate elephants are still being poached across Africa, conservationists estimate the species could become extinct in as little as 10 years. Over the last three years, the Kenyan government has cracked down on poaching, beefing up the KWS and enacting stricter laws. Things have improved: 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. But the overall problem persists, and Kenya remains a thoroughfare for poached ivory from other parts of Africa on its way to Asia. That's why IFAW and KWS are doubling down on new strategies, including a more tactical approach.

For years, KWS has kept detailed data on poaching and wildlife numbers, mostly filed away in cabinets. The tenBoma team pulled out six years' worth of elephant mortality data and did historical trend pattern analysis to identify poaching hotspots. They noticed that in one particular area, the southern ranchlands, poaching activity would spike just before each of the two annual rainy seasons, in the spring and fall. So, KWS brought a targeted presence just before the first rainy period this year—surveying the area, talking to locals, doing vehicle stops.

Read more: Joseph Kony Is Killing Elephants to Fund War

"We'd seen an uptick in poaching activity for the last six years, but this year we saw zero reports of poaching," Cuevas told me. "That was at the end of February and as of today there are still zero reports of poaching from that location."

Her tactics go beyond analyzing stacks of data. Before joining the US Special Operations Command Africa, Cuevas was deployed multiple times to Iraq and Afghanistan, working as a counterterrorist intelligence analyst. One method she used there is a US military targeting cycle (kind of like a step-by-step intelligence guide) called F3EAD: it stands for find, fix, finish, exploit, analyze, disseminate. Over the last few weeks, Cuevas and her team have deployed this structure against poachers in Kenya for the first time.

"Even though [poaching] is described as war, no one was taking a military strategy."

Using the F3EAD strategy, the tenBoma team facilitated a KWS-led operation using informants to track one tentacle of the ivory poaching network and target higher level nodes within it. They did a sting operation, buying illegal ivory and making arrests, and conducting mobile device forensic analysis on scene. They were able to crack into an ivory broker's phone and extract 450 pages of information detailing the whole operation: photos, text messages, geolocation data. From there, they were able to identify other tentacles of the network, and share the information with government authorities.

These methods aren't going to end the ivory trafficking industry overnight. But Cuevas believes that using the military's tried and true strategies can have an impact down the road.

"Even though [poaching] is described as war," Cuevas said. "No one was taking a military strategy."