Picking through dense jungle, rarely snapping a twig or bending a blade of grass, the British Army’s “super tracker” silently moves inches closer to a poachers’ camp, knowing a single sound could draw the attention of ruthless killers armed with AK47s and grenade launchers.
Cpl Gyanendra Rai, 31, of the 1st Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles was sent by the British Army to answer an SOS from the Gabon government. The central African country is desperate to stop poachers slaughtering its rare forest elephants, 36,000 of which have been killed in the past 10 years.
Embedded within a 16-strong group from 2 Rifles infantry battalion, Rai granted The Daily Telegraph an in-the-field demonstration of his work as he teaches his skills to local rangers. “The poachers’ biggest fear is getting lost in the jungle,” he said. “They leave bullet cartridges in crooks of trees pointing in the direction they are heading so other poachers can follow, or machete crosses marked on trees to show where they have hidden their ivory.
“When following humans you are looking for regularity of signs — footprints, the round mark of the end of a cane, or cargo or a weapon being dragged. You are also looking on the ground for cigarette butts, wrappers, human materials.”
Rai, who fought alongside Prince Harry on his debut tour of Afghanistan in 2007, learned his craft as a tracker in Brunei, where the SAS are sent to learn jungle skills and evade capture. He now faces ruthless poacher gangs who will stop at nothing to get their prize — including slaughtering baby elephants with tusks an inch long and using children as young as eight as mules to carry their weapons and contraband. Christian Mbina, Gabon Park’s technical director, says being shot at by poachers is common for his men.
“The poachers are not necessarily very specialised but they have very heavy duty weapons — Kalashnikovs, machetes, grenade launchers,” he said. “Fortunately we have not had an eco guard killed. But just last year we had a soldier who was shot on patrol and is still disabled from this injury. They know every day when they go out it could cost [them] their lives.”
Cpl Rai fought in three Afghan tours, where another member of his regiment, Cpl Dip Prasad Pun, received a Conspicuous Gallantry Cross in 2010 for fighting off 30 Taliban fighters, battering the last one with a machine gun tripod when his ammunition ran out.
Levison Wood, TV explorer, Army Reserve officer and ambassador for The Tusk Trust, says the work Rai is doing to save Africa’s elephants is essential.
“There are so few left it’s critical we do all we can to support conservation.”
—The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2017