BEAUFORT & BLAKE MEETS: CRAIG MILLAR, HEAD OF SECURITY AT BIG LIFE FOUNDATION
Elephants are disappearing at the terrifying rate of 1 every 15 minutes, their deaths caused by corruption, violence and the illegal ivory trade. The job of tackling this crisis head on is left to a small group of brave individuals including Craig Millar – head of security at the Big Life Foundation.
We recently caught up with Craig to hear how his team takes poachers head on and what effect the recent Netflix documentary ‘The Ivory Game’ had on the future prospects of the African elephant.
CAN YOU TELL US A LITTLE BIT MORE ABOUT WHAT YOUR JOB ENTAILS?
“I head up the security and field operations side of the foundation - we’ve got about 230 rangers, 14 vehicles & 20 motorbikes based across a vast area in East Africa. It’s my job to make sure patrols are reporting on daily incidents and any poachers within the reserve - ultimately arresting those that are breaking the laws. We have around 1.5 million acres to cover so I’m often flying the yellow Super Cub around as travelling by ground can sometimes mean we’re too slow.
“I also work closely on all our intelligence work – we’ve got a big network of undercover operatives that are our eyes and ears across the reserve. It’s my responsibility to coordinate them with the local government to arrange and execute the arrest of poachers. Frontline security is just one aspect of the foundation though - we also run a compensation programme for local farmers whose livestock is killed by predators.”
YOU’VE ARGUABLY GOT THE BEST JOB IN THE WORLD! HOW DID YOU GET INTO THE ROLE?
“Kenya is oddly quite a small place and having grown up here I’ve known the Big Life Foundation’s founder Richard Bonham for quite a while now. Whilst at university in Newcastle I decided to do my dissertation on the compensation scheme here in Kenya – I volunteered for two months over two summers and conducted all my research in the field.
“That was my initial introduction, then after uni I worked in Nairobi for a year doing conservation work but it was all office bound. I hated being stuck behind a desk and so got in touch with Richard to see what difference I could make on the ground. I’ve been here five years now – it’s scary how quickly time flies!”
WHAT IMPACT HAVE YOU SEEN SINCE THE IVORY GAME WAS SCREENED ACROSS THE WORLD?
“We haven’t seen a huge amount of change unfortunately, but these things do naturally have a lag time. Through the work of our intelligence networks, the arrests we’ve made and the seizing of ivory there’s been an overall reduction in the price of Elephant ivory. Whilst the Chinese government has promised to ban the sale of ivory It’s really too early to say what effect the film has had. That said, it did help raise public awareness of what’s going on but we’re still facing a day-to-day battle.”
IN THE FILM IT’S PRETTY CLEAR YOUR ROLE IS MORE THAN JUST PROVIDING FRONTLINE SECURITY FOR ELEPHANTS. ARE YOU STUCK IN THE MIDDLE - FIGHTING POACHERS BUT ALSO HAVING TO APPEASE LOCAL FARMERS?
“Yeah! It’s a double-edged sword really – ultimately, we’re after the poachers but the local communities also see it as our job to manage the wildlife and prevent them from destroying crops or killing livestock. So, any sort of problem, conflict or damage that wildlife cause (which is huge) – they rely on us heavily.”
I’M GUESSING BEING FLUENT IN SWAHILI MASSIVELY HELPS THEN?
“I wouldn’t be able to do what I without local language skills. Growing up I had a basic understanding and thought I was fluent but as soon as I immersed myself I fast realised that it wasn’t quite up to scratch. Over the last five years it’s really developed and has helped me negotiate some tricky situations.”
IN THE DOCUMENTARY YOU MENTION THAT POACHERS ARE RUTHLESS IN THEIR PURSUIT OF IVORY AND ARE WILLING TO HARM ANYONE THAT GETS IN THEIR WAY. HAVE YOU HAD ANY CLOSE SHAVES?
“Luckily not too many! But, there was one instance when I was somewhere I really shouldn’t have been – we knew that there were heavily armed poachers in the area, so me and a team made sure we were fully prepared in case of ambush. Two days later we managed to arrest them and found out that they had been watching us closely and had planned to attack. We were beyond lucky that day! There’s naturally a lot of risk involved with the undercover work we do but it’s my job to make sure our whole team are kept safe at all times."
HOW BIG IS YOUR TEAM THEN?
“We’ve got 230 rangers at the moment, the vast majority of those Maasai – all with extensive local knowledge. Were the biggest employer in the county, which shows what opportunities are out there. In order for a local to become a ranger they go through a rigorous recruitment process – we have to take into consideration their tribe, their clan, sub-clan and age before they can come on board. We take them through rigorous physical & mental tests to make sure they can handle the role!”
IT SEEMS LIKE YOU’RE FIGHTING A TOUGH BATTLE! IF WE WERE TO CARRY ON THE SAME PATH, HOW FAR AWAY WOULD THE EXTINCTION OF AFRICAN ELEPHANTS BE?
“It’s a complicated one really. If the rate from 2013/2014, when we were losing about 30,000 elephants a year across the whole continent, carried on then it would have been 15-20 years. That’s factoring in a small slow-down of that rate as part of that figure was represented by areas like southern Tanzania, Mozambique, Central & Western Africa where there were minimal levels of protection. The rate dropped pretty quickly as the rate of protection was immediately stepped up once people had a good understanding of the issue at hand.
“Where I am, we were able to react quickly with greater levels of protection when the poaching crisis really began to rear its head. This has forced poachers to start looking in other areas though...”
WHAT ELSE DOES THE FOUNDATION WORK ON?
“Security work is by far our biggest programme but there is a lot of work going on in the background as well. We do a very big education project – supporting schools, teachers and provide wildlife scholarships for young individuals who want to help preserve the natural habitat. We've put about 300 children all the way through to university!
“We also arrange the Maasai Olympics. Traditionally the local tribes would hunt lions as a sort of ritual and so our aim was to create a new ‘competition’ for them to show off to each other that wouldn’t involving harming the natural wildlife. The Maasai people would use this killing of lions to woo potential girlfriends so we’re hoping to swap that with sport!
“Our main goal is to improve the livelihoods of local people so that they’re able to view the local wildlife as something worth protecting as a valuable resource, rather than a burden and potential source of short-term profit. We want to change the mindset of local people to ensure future generations are able to enjoy African wildlife.”
WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU CRAIG? ARE YOU GOING TO DEDICATE THE REST OF YOUR LIFE TO THE PROTECTION OF AFRICAN WILDLIFE?
“There’s nothing confirmed on paper but I know that I will be here forever. I love it…”