My letters are usually training-related, but this time I want to share with you a personal story that affected me in a profound way. The details of the location and the names will be reserved for a full report later, when the project is complete and I can be sure that everyone is safe.
I’ve been involved in a number of conservation-training projects in my career, many of which I will be discussing at ClickerExpo in 2018. One of my recent projects has been to change the migration route of a large herd of elephants. The current route takes them through poacher territory and has resulted in the slaughter of dozens of elephants every year. The plan is to use remote training* (see below) to re-route the elephants and direct them to a safer path. The project requires multiple environmental-impact surveys, specialized permits, and a team of more than 150 people representing a dozen organizations. Several large conservation organizations are funding and monitoring the project. The project has been in the planning stages for more than four years, and was to begin in November of this year, the start of the dry season and the time of the next elephant migration.
In June, I traveled to Africa and met with local park rangers who were key to organizing logistics onsite. The trip was a scouting mission to finalize important details, look at locations, and observe the elephants. I was greeted at the airport by a park ranger whom I will refer to as Keller. Keller was my liaison with the ranger team, and was going to be the onsite ground team leader in November. Keller proved to be a very kind man, admired by his ranger team, a good leader, and very knowledgeable about the local elephant herds.
As I watched the elephants, I was even more motivated, if that’s possible, to make this project happen. If successful, the project had the potential to save 40 or 50 elephants, every year for the foreseeable future. I felt angry that poachers were slaughtering these endangered animals in alarming numbers, and proud that I might be able to play a small part in changing their fate. Keller and his ranger team members were equally motivated and thrilled that this project was getting underway.
On day four, we began a planned week-long trek along the annual elephant migration path. The goal was to introduce me to the terrain, look at planned locations for route changes, and discuss the behavior-adjustment plan in detail. I was amazed at the incredible landscape and the many animals along the route. I kept pinching myself to make certain that this was real and that the project was actually about to happen.
It was mid-morning, the heat of the day had not yet hit us, and our two jeeps were travelling along a bumpy dirt road when I heard a tat-tat-tat sound in the distance. I remember thinking, “I wonder if that’s an African woodpecker.” Then Keller, seated next to me in the driver’s seat, yelled into his radio something about machine-gun fire. What happened next is a bit of a blur. Keller and the driver of the other jeep made sudden U-turns and we travelled at top speed toward a grove of trees. The tat-tat-tat sound continued and was followed by a loud explosion, which we later learned was the result of a rocket launcher. Our jeeps had no top and we were not wearing seat belts. I remember flying through the air and seeing the landscape spin around me, until I hit a tree and blacked out.
Much of what I share next was pieced together from conversations with my colleagues and the brief recollections of what happened over the next few hours and days. I awoke, perhaps a few minutes later, to see both jeeps overturned. One of them had sustained serious damage and had plumes of smoke drifting from the engine. The tat-tat-tat sound had stopped, and it was eerily quiet. I remember my whole body hurting, but I was able to stumble over to one of the jeeps and found one of the rangers trapped underneath it. Although I don’t remember doing so, the ranger tells me that I lifted the jeep and pulled him to safety. This man weighs nearly 300 pounds, so I still find that story astonishing. If the story is true, I must have had a great deal of adrenaline rushing through me.
A medical helicopter finally arrived, along with two medics. There was only room in the helicopter to airlift two people at a time, so one of the medics stayed with us while the two rangers with gunshot wounds were taken to the hospital. We were a long way from a major city and a modern hospital, so it would be several hours before the helicopter could return and take the other two rangers and then, finally, come back for me. Since they were triaging, taking the most serious injuries first, I would not get to the hospital for many hours. The medics arranged for a vehicle to come in from a local village and drive me to a tribal doctor for care in the interim.
I remember that the tribal doctor had me write my emergency contact information on a piece of bark, which he put on a string and hung around my neck. Next, he said that he needed to “take off my hair.” I remember being confused by that, but I slowly realized that he wanted to shave my head, which he did. He then took some large green leaves, dipped them in what seemed to be a plant-based medicated fluid, and strapped them to my now bald skull. This was a tribal remedy that I have yet to fully understand, perhaps meant to reduce inflammation. Approximately ten hours after the incident, I was airlifted to a hospital. Due to my complications, I was placed in a medical coma for several days. Thankfully, my treatment went well, and I made a speedy recovery.
Keller ended up being hospitalized for more than a month, as his gunshot wounds were serious and nearly cost him his life. I am happy to report that he is home and recovering well, although he is still not back at work. We have all kept in touch and are all, thankfully, on the road to a full recovery.
Investigation into the incident has indicated that the attack was probably planned by poachers who were trying to send us a message. As a team, we are examining safety precautions before we move forward with the next phase of the elephant-migration project.
Since the incident, one of our major funders has pulled out of the project. However, the other principal funders have stepped in to fill the void. The five of us involved in the attack agree that the project should move forward once safety and security issues have been resolved. When and how the project will proceed will not be made public, for obvious reasons.
I have always had a great appreciation for how short life can be, and for the need to live every day as if it is the last. This experience was a reminder not to put off for tomorrow what you can do today. When I wake up each day on The Ranch and take care of chores in the barn, clean up after the donkeys, train the alpacas, or give an affectionate scratch to the goats, I know I am lucky. I feel privileged to be able to do those things. I never want to lose track of what is important. Whether the project is large or small, I will continue to be grateful for the opportunities I have and to appreciate time for the gift that it is.
*Remote training is training in which the trainer does not interact with the learner directly. Reinforcers are delivered in creative ways that appear to come from the natural environment. This type of training is increasingly being employed in wildlife-conservation projects to prevent habituation or any contact whatsoever with humans. This technique also has increasing applications in pet management to deal with separation anxiety and other behavioral challenges while the pet is alone at home.