National Park

Park rangers melee in West Africa battle with militants

  • African Parks in talks to expand into West Africa
  • Non-profit group aims to conserve nature and support locals
  • It is active in areas where Islamist militants pose a threat
  • The lines between conservation and conflict can be blurred

DAKAR, April 26 (Reuters) – When a dozen suspected Islamist militants from a neighboring country were seen riding motorbikes in W National Park in northern Benin armed with AK-47 assault rifles, the park rangers went into action.

From an operations room at their base, the park superintendent and two senior ranger officers sent anti-poaching units to pursue the men who eventually fled to Nigeria, according to a confidential incident report reviewed by Reuters.

They also told the Beninese army and police where to position their forces and deployed a plane and helicopter belonging to the park as part of a larger operation to monitor and “neutralize” the target, according to the report. undated park.

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It was prepared by the Anti-Poaching Force to assess the response and make recommendations for improving future collaboration between rangers, military and police, including the establishment of a ‘capable commando/rapid response unit to respond to multiple threats and in particular those linked to terrorism”.

The never-before-seen account of the 36-hour pursuit in June 2020 offers rare insight into how conservation group African Parks has gone beyond protecting flora and fauna and engaging in the pursuit of Islamist insurgents in West Africa.

The blurring of lines between conflict and conservation has raised concern among some experts, who say it could encourage governments to rely on rangers to support their depleted armies and undermine security by making rangers a target for jihadists. .

“It’s not the rangers’ fight,” said Sergio Lopez, president of Wildlife Angel, a French nonprofit that trained rangers in Burkina Faso and Niger until 2019. against terrorism, it is the special forces”.

The non-profit organization African Parks is based in South Africa and manages W and the adjacent Pendjari National Park in Benin.

It is in talks to expand operations to parks in Burkina Faso and Niger and to support the management of a park in Ivory Coast, officials in those countries said.

All four are on the front lines of the battle to contain a jihadist threat that has grown steadily since 2012, when al-Qaeda-linked fighters first seized parts of Mali. Thousands of people have been killed in the uprising and millions have been displaced.

Asked about the report, African Parks chief operating officer Charles Wells told Reuters that the rangers’ actions were in line with the group’s mandate to “ensure the integrity of the park and counter all threats to on him”.

“This is an extreme situation, where national security as well as the last functioning large-scale conservation system in West Africa are gravely threatened.”

He added that the role of African Parks sometimes goes beyond its main objective of preserving the natural habitat and supporting the needs of local communities.

“In a simplistic, ideal world, there might be such a line. In reality, it is indeed blurred.”

There have been several attacks in northern Benin since December, including two on February 8 and 10 by suspected al-Qaeda-linked militants that killed four rangers, their French instructor, two African Parks drivers and a Beninese soldier. .

The Beninese government and Ministry of Defense did not respond to requests for comment on the use of African Parks to counter the militant threat.

Some other conservation groups have been involved in incidents with suspected militants in the area, but African Parks is by far the biggest.

Regional powers have struggled to contain militant violence, and former colonial power France, frustrated by slow progress and facing public hostility to its presence, said it was halving its counter-terrorism force of 5,000 men in the region.

Funded by the European Union and private foundations, African Parks does not charge for its services, although the governments of Benin and Rwanda have pledged to fund their parks.

The group equips and trains rangers who sometimes find themselves facing heavily armed militants, militiamen and poachers.

A European Union official said the EU was not aware of the 2020 incident.

The official added that Beninese forces should lead the response to security threats but that African Parks was, at the same time, responsible for protecting the parks in which it operates “against any type of threat”.

As African Parks seeks to expand into parks that form a vast belt of territory used by activists to push south from strongholds in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger into coastal countries, opinions about its role are divided.

Some regional experts hope this will help counter extremists who are waging an insurgency that leaves large swathes of West Africa’s Sahel region beyond the control of governments.

Nassirou Bako Arifari, Benin’s foreign minister from 2011 to 2015, credited the rangers with helping to hold the line against encroachment by militants from Burkina Faso and Niger.

“Having this presence is like having a buffer between national strength and terrorist groups,” he told Reuters.

But some critics said African Parks’ security response to poaching and activism, including the fencing off of large segments of the parks, has alienated some locals who depend on economic activities on these lands, potentially making them more susceptible to propaganda. activist.

Wells acknowledged that local access to parks was “a complex issue”, but said African Parks had worked closely with local communities to build a “conservation driven economy”.

He added that strict law enforcement was essential to protect the parks and avoid a similar situation in Burkina Faso, where he said the absence of state actors had allowed Islamist militancy to proliferate.

In 2020, African Parks had an operating budget of $84 million spread across 19 parks in 11 countries, and its rangers are trained by former military officers from Europe and South Africa.

Samaila Sahailou, head of Niger’s parks authority, told Reuters talks were underway with African Parks about transferring the management of W National Park to Niger.

Benoit Doamba, who heads Burkina Faso’s parks authority, said his country’s talks were about its W and Arly national parks. These three parks, together with those of W and Pendjari in Benin, form the “WAP Complex” of 10,000 square kilometers.

The WAP is West Africa’s last major refuge for elephants and lions, but much of it has been overrun by militants in recent years.

The Ivorian government said last month it planned to work with African Parks to manage and secure Comoe National Park, where militants have carried out several attacks since 2020.

Describing the 2020 standoff with the militants in Benin, where African Parks has around 250 rangers, the report said: “Our ultimate goal is to limit (the group) in its movements, locate it, contain it and organize an offensive operation to neutralize it. .”

A helicopter and ultralight aircraft belonging to African Parks were deployed carrying army soldiers and a senior ranger ‘in the hope of locating the enemy and destroying them ‘on sight’ before they don’t cross the border”. Eventually, the activists fled.

Wells said the helicopter was used to transport soldiers to strategic positions, and the phrase “destroy it ‘on sight'” did not appear in his version of the report. Reuters was unable to establish why there might be a discrepancy between the two.

In the aftermath of the incident, Wells said the rangers and the army each created their own rapid reaction units, which he said operated with different missions and under different rules of engagement.

The Department of Defense did not respond to a request for comment.

Some analysts see the potential expansion of African Parks – such as the recent arrival of Russian private security companies in Mali – as evidence of a new security strategy in countries like Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger to replace the role played by France and its partners.

“It would appear that these countries are foregoing Western multilateral counterterrorism assistance instead of something they will have more control over,” said Aneliese Bernard, a former US State Department official in Niger.

The French army, which aims to keep some 2,500 to 3,000 troops in the area after its partial withdrawal, said it had no comment on African Parks. He added that he remained committed to the fight against the militants despite the withdrawal.

The defense ministers of Burkina Faso and Niger and the military spokesman of Mali did not respond to requests for comment on the potential change.

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Additional reporting by Ange Aboa in Abidjan and Francesco Guarascio in Brussels; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Alexandra Zavis

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