The War on Poaching: Intelligence specialist uses what she learned fighting terrorism to help save elephants

In the 1930s and '40s, the African elephant population was estimated to be around 5 million. The Great Elephant Census completed in 2016 puts today's number at around 350,000.

In the 1930s and '40s, the African elephant population was estimated to be around 5 million. The Great Elephant Census completed in 2016 puts today's number at around 350,000.

Throughout Africa, countless people are fighting every day to save elephants and other endangered animals from poaching. Here, Kenya Wildlife Service workers practice tracking techniques. (Julia Cumes)

Throughout Africa, countless people are fighting every day to save elephants and other endangered animals from poaching. Here, Kenya Wildlife Service workers practice tracking techniques. (Julia Cumes)

Lt. Col. Faye Cuevas is one of the architects behind a project called tenBoma, a cooperative effort between the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Kenya Wildlife Service that aims to protect elephants by stopping poaching before it happens. TenBoma takes its name from an old Kenyan community policing philosophy, which roughly translates to "10 houses."

Lt. Col. Faye Cuevas is one of the architects behind a project called tenBoma, a cooperative effort between the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Kenya Wildlife Service that aims to protect elephants by stopping poaching before it happens. TenBoma takes its name from an old Kenyan community policing philosophy, which roughly translates to "10 houses."

An aerial census released June 21 reports the population of elephants in Kenya's Tsavo ecosystem increased 15.1 percent between 2014 and 2017 — evidence that programs like tenBoma are working. (Barbara Hollweg)

An aerial census released June 21 reports the population of elephants in Kenya's Tsavo ecosystem increased 15.1 percent between 2014 and 2017 — evidence that programs like tenBoma are working. (Barbara Hollweg)

Citizen Airman/Dec. 2017 -- Satao was one of Kenya’s most famous and beloved elephants. Standing nearly 13 feet tall, weighing close to 13,000 pounds and sporting ivory tusks 6 ½ feet long, the massive African bush elephant was a huge draw for tourists visiting Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park.

Knowing he would be a prized target for poachers, park rangers kept a close eye on Satao, who usually stayed in a small, relatively safe area with four other bull elephants. But when heavy rains began to fall early in 2014, Satao’s search for food led him to an expansive and hostile section of the national park known as a hot spot for poachers.

Authorities tried desperately to keep track of Satao, but they lost his trail as the rain continued to fall in May.

Under the cover of darkness on May 30, poachers shot a poisoned arrow into Satao’s thick grey hide and waited for the majestic creature to die a slow, painful death. Once he fell, they hacked off his face to remove his massive tusks, leaving his disfigured carcass behind.

“It is with enormous regret that we confirm there is no doubt that Satao is dead, killed by an ivory poacher’s poisoned arrow to feed the seemingly insatiable demand for ivory in far-off countries,” the Tsavo Trust said in a statement at the time. “A great life lost so that someone far away can have a trinket on their mantelpiece.”

Unfortunately, Satao’s tragic death is not an isolated incident. Conservationists estimate that an elephant in Africa is killed for its ivory every 26 minutes. Twenty-three tons of illegal ivory were seized across the continent in 2016 alone. More elephants are poached than are born each year. In the 1930s and ’40s, the African elephant population was estimated to be around 5 million. The Great Elephant Census completed in 2016 puts today’s number at around 350,000.

As elephants struggle for their very survival across the Dark Continent, there are countless people who are fighting every day to ensure these majestic creatures aren’t wiped off the face of the planet forever.

One of these people is Lt. Col. Faye Cuevas, senior vice president of the International Fund for Animal Welfare and an Air Force Reserve Citizen Airman. IFAW is a global nonprofit organization that works to protect animals and their habitats around the globe. Its work links the value of the individual animal to the health of the population and ecosystem at large.

It’s not uncommon for Air Force Reservists to take what they have learned during their military service and apply it to their civilian jobs. But it’s safe to say that few have done this as successfully as Cuevas, who is currently assigned to the Joint Reserve Intelligence Support Element on the Joint Staff at the Pentagon.

As an intelligence specialist with the Reserve, Cuevas has spent more than half of her 19-year military career helping U.S. and allied forces track down terrorists in the Middle East and Africa, working with Air Force Special Operations Command and Special Operations Command Africa.

“I came off active duty in 2000, joined the Reserve and was going to law school at Florida State when 9/11 happened,” Cuevas recalled. “I made two calls that day: one to my parents to let them know I was OK and the second to my Reserve element lead, saying, ‘Where do you need me to go and when?’”

Over the next few years, Cuevas deployed to the Middle East several times in support of AFSOC and Air Force Reserve Command while also completing law school.

“I spent two tours in Baghdad in 2005 and 2006 and another in direct support of Air Force Reserve Command in 2008,” she said. “I was embedded with the Iraqi special operations forces and learned a lot about how to work with a partner force.”

Working with Special Operations Command Africa between 2010 and 2016, she led intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support for more than 100 special operations missions in west, central and the Horn of Africa and developed an intelligence system tailored to operations on the continent.

As senior vice president for IFAW, she has taken what she has learned about counterterrorism and used it to help create an innovative new program designed to safeguard the iconic African elephant and other species living in the landscapes they call home.

While the similarities between terrorists and elephant poachers might not seem obvious to most people, it was crystal clear to Cuevas.

“Being an intelligence officer really shaped the way I think about everything, so it was only natural for me to take an analytical intelligence approach to things when I took this job with IFAW in 2015,” Cuevas said recently during a phone interview from her home in Nairobi, Kenya.

Cuevas is one of the architects behind a project called tenBoma, a cooperative effort between IFAW and the Kenya Wildlife Service that aims to protect elephants by stopping poaching before it happens. TenBoma takes its name from an old Kenyan community policing philosophy, which roughly translates to “10 houses.”

“Traditionally, tenBoma expounds the belief that if the people in 10 neighboring houses look out for each other, they are better off than if the people in each house only look out for themselves,” Cuevas said. “We’ve taken that basic concept of prioritizing community involvement and applied it to the big business of poaching because it really does take a network to defeat a network.”

“TenBoma embeds specialized advisors and mentors within communities who can observe illegal activity and create an integrated conduit for information, reporting and analysis, which drives highly effective enforcement operations to stop the wildlife trafficking cycle and dismantle criminal networks,” according to the IFAW website.

“We’re trying to do a better job of gathering information on indicators ‘left of the crime’ then aggregating and sharing that intelligence to stop poaching before it happens,” Cuevas said.

“It can be something as simple as using a satellite image to map local community reports of suspicious human behavior with elephant migration corridors established from GPS collar data. We know from past cases these movement patterns could be an early warning that poachers are in the area, so we can send rangers out to investigate.

“Sharing information is critical, and it allows us to identify the critical links within the poaching syndicates — those individuals, cells or businesses that, if removed from the network, will have the greatest impact in stopping these terrible acts of violence.”

Cuevas said she sees a lot of similarities between the work she is doing now and what she did during several deployments for the Reserve to Iraq and across Africa following 9/11.

“You have to go after the bad guys after they commit a crime — whether they’re terrorists or poachers — but you are far better off trying to disrupt their networks before the crimes ever happen,” she said. “That’s what we are trying to do with projects like tenBoma.”

Under tenBoma, IFAW and the Kenya Wildlife Service are trying to disrupt poaching networks by:

* predicting locations and communities most at risk from poaching;
* empowering communities at the source of wildlife crime through development, alternative livelihood projects, human-wildlife conflict mitigation, and trained, mentored and supported community rangers;
* prioritizing community involvement in stopping wildlife crime through local reporting networks (communities become the first line of eyes and ears against poaching); and
* building mutual trust between the communities and enforcement entities through key leader engagements and taking action toward addressing grievances about wildlife.

The early results from tenBoma are promising. There have been no poaching incidents in the IFAW tenBoma target areas in the two years since the program was implemented. Three major operations have uncovered new poaching networks and led to several arrests and further investigations. High-level U.S. and African military leaders are embracing anti-poaching efforts as part of their counterterrorism mission. More than 70 intelligence and investigation officers in Kenya have been trained and equipped to carry out the tenBoma mission. The project is currently expanding across borders to include other conservancy and law enforcement partners.

“We are starting to see progress, and it is certainly encouraging,” Cuevas said.

An aerial census released June 21 reports the population of elephants in Kenya’s Tsavo ecosystem increased 15.1 percent between 2014 and 2017 — evidence that programs like tenBoma are working.

Unfortunately, the successes being experienced in Kenya aren’t being seen throughout all of Africa. Experts estimate between 30,000 and 40,000 elephants are still being killed every year on the continent. In the Congo forest area alone, the elephant population has been reduced by 60 percent in recent years.

“We have a lot of work to do, but we are on the right track with programs like tenBoma,” Cuevas said. “We have to attack these poaching networks at all levels, from stopping the demand for ivory in Asia and other places to denying operational space to poachers and dismantling wildlife crime trade syndicates connecting the two. Fortunately, there is a lot we have learned from the ongoing war on terror that we can use in our war on poaching.”