Spec Ops Lessons for Anti-Poaching and Community Conservation
by Billy Birdzell, founding member of Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command - Thursday, May 16, 2019
Photo credit: The author and Chief of the General Staff of the Kenyan Armed Forces, General Jerimiah Kianga, and other senior leaders of the Kenyan military discuss upgrading their Heckler & Koch G3 rifles to the M4A1 with Special Operations-modified accessories.
In an effort to combat illicit trafficking, in 2016 U.S. Marines were in Senegal at the request of the host nation government in coordination with the U.S. Embassy in Dakar. Senegalese soldiers completed a month-long training exercise with the Marines. (U.S. Marine Corps Photo by Staff Sgt. Jonathan P. St. Ann)
While there are many non-profits and NGOs that explicitly exist to support anti-poaching operations or have developed programs to do so, funding, equipping, training and advising foreign security forces, which includes private guards, game scouts and foreign law enforcement, is subject to a range of federal laws. Allowing a foreign national to look through the night vision goggles you bought at a local store can potentially be a criminal act. For example, the U.S. government’s International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) control the export and import of defense-related items and services on the U.S. Munitions List. Funding a group in an ITAR-prohibited country like Zimbabwe, where security services have a long history of human rights violations, can turn into a fiasco if that group uses force in an illegal manner or does business, such as buying ammunition, with an entity that is connected to bad actors.
The author shoots a WWII Vintage Bren Light Machine Gun that had been re-chambered in 7.62 x 51mm NATO, which was still in use by the Kenyan military. Reliability left much to be desired. The Kenyan sniper in the background is shooting a U.S.-provided MK-11 semi-automatic sniper rifle.
For USSOF, foreign internal defense largely entails living with, training alongside and advising the forces in a partner country. This ensures they are better able to address their security issues, with their resources, in effective ways that comply with international law. It also includes passing out a lot of soccer balls and collaborating with groups whose members have a severe allergy to the smokeless propellant cordite as they often have expertise in the types of work that create offensive, strategic results. These activities, which largely revolve around community development—especially education, jobs and health services—change the paradigm or conditions that incentivize insurgents, smugglers and poachers to take up arms. Community conservation, the activities that tie the economic benefits of wild game and wild habitat to a local population, are an essential complement to security enhancements and should be planned before we start issuing night-vision goggles and teaching fire-and-maneuver.
Sgt. Robert Torres with Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Africa 13 works with Burundi National Defense Force soldiers on map reading skills in Bujumbura, Burundi, during an eight-week training engagement. Building partnerships with African nations continues today with similar skill-building training.
Never in our history have we had so many members, with so much experience, who are so passionate about and willing to support anti-poaching and community conservation programs abroad. Plus, we have never had such an incredible opportunity to directly support U.S. Foreign Policy and National Strategy in pursuit of our shared passion. David Bernhardt, the new Secretary of the U.S. Department of The Interior, was the keynote speaker at the annual NRA HLF Dinner. He also is a co-chair of the Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking, which gives him both statutory authority and responsibility to coordinate with governmental departments and private entities to create effective solutions. In collaboration with the International Wildlife Conservation Council (IWCC), which was created to advise the Secretary, hopefully we will be able to put shared objectives ahead of historical opposition and create a coordinated plan that is more effective than previous approaches. Perhaps the best part of being in U.S. Special Operations is having the opportunity to do that which has never been done before.
About the Author: Billy Birdzell is a U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer, U.S. Special Operations team leader and author who specializes in training anti-poaching units in Africa.
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