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SOS Rhino : In the News : Current Rhino News : Wyoming doctor recruits army in Africa to save animals from poachers

Wyoming doctor recruits army in Africa to save animals from poachers

  Thursday, October 17, 2002
By Joseph B. Verrengia, Associated Press

JACKSON, Wyo. ˇ Dr. Bruce Hayse doesn't look like a tin-pot dictator. He favors tropical shirts and Western boots, not camo fatigues and a chestful of medals. He drives a muddy truck, not an armored limousine.

So why is this middle-aged family physician living on the summit of cowboy chic recruiting his own army 8,000 miles away in the remote and wretched Central African Republic?

"Don't call it an army," Hayse said, wincing.

How else to describe 400 soldiers brandishing AK-47s? Militia? Mercenaries? Military?

"All of the M-words are bad too," he admonished. "It's an antipoaching patrol," he said. "Purely defensive in nature."

Defending nature by whatever means necessary is Hayse's point ˇ and his passion. In the Central African Republic, where the only reliable things are week-long summer downpours and attempted coups, "necessary" invariably means at gunpoint, even when you're an environmentalist.

OK, Hayse conceded, an extreme environmentalist. But he insists he's not an aspiring Third World strongman or a modern- day Mr. Kurtz paddling upriver into Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

All he's trying to do ˇ with the written blessing of the C.A.R.'s president, he emphasizes ˇ is save what remains of the country's magnificent wildlife and protect its remote villages from brutal gangs of poachers.

These poachers aren't tribal subsistence hunters who shoot or snare exotic antelope for meat. Instead, they set fires to drive every living creature through a fusillade of automatic weapons fire and rocket-propelled grenades. It's not hunting; it's extermination.

Hayse says combat is likely because the poachers "won't allow themselves to be arrested. If somebody has a better idea, we'll listen. But nobody does."

Hayse said in 2001 President Ange-Felix Patasse ceded authority over the entire Chinko River basin ˇ 60,000 square miles ˇ to Hayse's paramilitary forces, some of them recruited from villages that have been terrorized by poachers. Hayse is personally funding the effort, spending more than US$150,000 so far.

Today, his rangers are starting to patrol the Chinko region as the dry season begins: high season for the animal slaughter. Hayse has hired a shadowy former South African commando who fought in civil wars in Angola and Zimbabwe to lead the armed patrols. Hayse calls him Dave Bryant, but his true identity is a secret.

An article about Hayse in the October issue of National Geographic Adventure asserts that one patrol recently captured and executed at least three poachers and that seven more were captured and turned over to the government. Hayse said he was aware of the incidents but still is seeking details.

Attempts by the Associated Press to independently confirm those events and to confirm Hayse's agreement with the C.A.R government, have been unsuccessful. C.A.R.'s ambassador to the United States and officials in the country's capital of Bangui have been unavailable for comment.

"The goal is not to kill people," Hayse said. "But you can't just declare a national park and assume that the animals will be safe. There will be some confrontations, and you have to assume there will be gunfire."

Large conservation organizations initially were intrigued by Hayse's bold move but now are backpedaling. "Allowing a private militia run by expatriates to control the situation using lethal force against Africans will backfire on the government and hurt conservation in the region," said Richard Carroll, who directs the World Wildlife Fund's programs throughout much of Africa, including the C.A.R.

Others said conditions in the C.A.R. are a "no-win situation."

"If conservationists support killing poachers, they will be viewed as preferring animals over people" said Michael Hutchins, conservation director for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, which operates an international task force on bushmeat hunting. "However, if the region's wildlife is hunted into extinction, then many people may starve to death. And who will be blamed?" he asked. "The conservationists, of course."

"It's difficult," Hayse acknowledged. "I don't go to bed at night feeling that I'm doing exactly the right thing."

Poaching in Africa is on the upswing again ˇ a black market worth billions of dollars in ivory, skins, baby animals, and meat ˇ after years of relative quiet. Governments are selling industrial concessions to develop timber, minerals, and other resources. Their deals open lands to illegal hunting that have served as the cradle of evolution. Even in wealthier countries like Kenya and South Africa, wildlife protection is waning as ecotourism budgets are diverted to deal with AIDS, famine, and other crushing social problems.

By comparison, the C.A.R. has been a forgotten Eden. A Texas- sized land with only 4 million people, the former French colony is located in the bull's eye of the continent. It was legendary among some scientists, hunters, and photographers as a bastion of equatorial biodiversity.

Native tribesmen called the tumbling, chocolate-brown Chinko River the "River of Elephants" because tens of thousands would wade and trumpet in its riffles, sharing the waters with hippos and crocodiles. Vast herds of buffalo, giraffe, and antelope of every stripe migrated through a savannah three times larger than the legendary Serengeti, stalked by lion and leopard.

But for the past several years while the world wasn't looking, poachers have swept across the eastern border from Sudan during the winter dry season. Scientists estimate that 95 percent of the wildlife in the Chinko region has been lost. But the carnage doesn't stop there. Tribal women are raped and men enslaved as tons of bushmeat are smoked black and crusty on campfires. Then it's packed on horses and camels to be peddled in Sudanese markets and offered on menus in African and European capitals ˇ all despite international restrictions on game trafficking.

Antipoaching patrols with shoot-to-kill authority aren't new. Throughout Africa, Asia, and South America, governments have created national parks and mobilized their armies to capture poachers and secure their borders. Even in the chaotic C.A.R., where the presidential palace is guarded by Libyan paratroopers loaned by Moammar Gadhafi, the government offers certain wildlife some protection in parks and reserves to the southwest with help from organizations like the W.W.F.

But on the eastern frontier, where schools, hospitals, and even roads are rarities, the responsibility apparently is being left to the burly, 53-year-old Dr. Hayse.

It's a bizarre but somehow fitting role for the iconoclastic Hayse and his home base of Jackson, a staggeringly beautiful playground for tycoons and celebrities that still likes to show off its roots as an independent outpost of the old Wild West. Just up the road is Yellowstone National Park, North America's version of the Serengeti. In the 19th century, before it came under federal protection, hunters all but wiped out its bison, wolves, grizzlies, and other predators.

In the 1970s, Hayse was a founding member of Earth First!, an underground environmental movement known for acts of sabotage, tree-sitting, and road blocks.

Hayse opened a medical clinic in Jackson in 1983, before the average house cost $1 million and before baristas were pouring steaming espresso drinks on every street corner. As newer medical plazas filled with plastic surgeons and orthopedists, he has continued to treat working-class and immigrant patients, often free of charge. In 1992, the Chamber of Commerce named him Citizen of the Year.

In his spare time, Hayse pursued high-octane adventure, leading rafting parties on wild rivers around the world, surviving whirlpools, killer bees, malaria, and crocodiles. In 1998, his activism was rekindled when he led the first raft trip down 300 miles of the muddy Chinko, a place "as wild as you'll ever see," he recalled during a late bistro dinner.

Hayse frowned beneath a droopy, butter-smeared mustache that resembles the outstretched oars of his river raft. At first, he exulted in the Chinko's isolation, he said. But he soon realized the surrounding forest was silent. The wildlife he expected was missing in action. His party found a few burned-out campsites littered with elephant pelvises and handfuls of spent ammunition.

"I was so depressed," he said. "It was a paradise. Yet day after day on the river, we saw nothing." The only populated village was Rafai, at the Chinko's mouth. Tribal elders greeted the rafting party with tales of terror at the hands of poachers. "It's fine to float down an unexplored river, but at a certain point there is an ethical obligation to do something more," he said.

He and his friends created African River and Rainforest Conservation (ARRC), a nonprofit group. In addition to the mysterious mercenary "Dave Bryant," Hayse hired a political liaison and a community development specialist. They are arranging for well-drilling, medical care, and loans for small business.

If the poachers are defeated, Hayse and wildlife biologists agree there probably are sufficient remnant populations of elephants and other species to repopulate the Chinko basin over many years. Ecotourism or even regulated big game hunting could help raise money.

ARRC estimates its paramilitary patrols and humanitarian programs will cost $600,000 annually. Wealthier mainstream conservation groups have not rushed to help, fearful of the ARRC's tactics. At least one private donor in Wyoming backed off, citing her attorney's advice that "the use of deadly force is not a charitable activity."

Hayse is in too deep now to bail, but he's exhausting his finances. "I've put in most of what I have to my name, and I can't keep doing that," Hayse said. "It feels really scary. It could turn into a total quagmire."

That's not the only swamp here. What about a physician's pledge to do no harm? How does Hayse square that with armed conflict? The Chinko ecosystem is dying, he said, and the poachers are an infection that will require strong medicine to cure.

Hayse is a member of the Wyoming Medical Society. A spokeswoman for that group said Hayse's activities are not the sort of issue the group addresses.

The doctor wishes people would focus less on the mercenaries and guns and more on the humanitarian and scientific programs he has planned.

Fat chance. He nods, wearily. "I'm doing something I believe in: protecting wilderness," he said. "On the other hand, it means doing something that means other people will get killed."

Copyright 2002, Associated Press
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