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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?
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
All Rights Reserved