Time With The Ivory Soldiers

By John Warren 

“I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up that I was not happy.” 

– Ernest Hemingway

From the earliest memories of my childhood, the untamed spirit of Africa called to me. The catalyst? The 1996 cinematic masterpiece, The Ghost and The Darkness, based on  Col. John Henry Patterson’s true account, Man Eaters of Tsavo. It wasn’t just this film that ignited the flame. Books on Selous Scouts, and the adventurous chronicles of Teddy R., America’s Rough Rider, added fuel to the fire. Together, they mixed a potent cocktail that nipped at my soul all my life.

The changing political landscape brings new challenges. Somalia’s turmoil has intensified conflict near borders as Al-Shabaab fights to exploit trade routes to fund operations. As a result, anonymity was requested. I gave them my word that faces and names would be redacted in any writing. I’ve subtly edited the details. Beyond the adventure, the message stands: Africa’s defenders confront a shifting adversary.

For many, Africa is a land of safaris, sunsets, and picturesque landscapes—the Africa featured in glossy travel magazines. But delve deeper, and you’ll find an Africa that challenges, provokes, and dares you to be capable. This is the gritty core, where survival isn’t guaranteed, and savviness afield thrives.

The rangers I encountered embodied this spirit. They weren’t just guardians of the land; they were its soul, her beating heart. With every patrol and every surveillance operation, they stand as the last line of defense against those who seek to exploit her treasures.

This was not my first experience with the country. While in the military free fall industry, I worked with their special operations brigades, but that was stateside.  This time, I was there to increase their lethality on the ground. Which I was stoked about. It was like deja vu, but instead of a company of Afghan Commandos, it was 30 game rangers, same-same.

Why the need for paramilitary training? The answer lies in their multifaceted role. They aren’t simply wildlife protectors; they’re a rampart against many threats, from poachers to terrorists. These men and four women were handpicked from areas that require sound tactics and reliable rifles.

Consider the rampant wildlife trafficking we all hear about; animal parts like ivory and rhino horns fetch a premium in Chinese black markets. Al-Shabaab has tapped into this illicit trade, using the proceeds to fund their reign of terror. This organization is like a Swiss Army knife; its customers range from tourists and researchers to poachers and terrorists. Sometimes, you need to uncork a bottle of wine. Other times, you need to make someone bleed. What is important is that you have the right tools for the job.

During many patrols, thousands of tea breaks, and countless Tuskers, I grew a fondness for the mission and its people. Most rangers are not part of physically confrontational operations; they focus on tasks like collecting snares, surveillance, reporting, and community engagement for intelligence. Their primary concern is addressing the human-wildlife conflict, especially elephants damaging infrastructure. However, a specialized group tackles poaching and terrorism in their areas of operation.

Their job requires more than traditional soldiering. Tools like drones, intelligence networks, and diplomacy are crucial. But in an ambush, good tactics and fire superiority prevail. The rangers’ kinetic and intelligence-driven operations have significantly reduced the ivory trade. But they’re still getting after it, especially near borders.

Signs of American influence are evident in regions like this. Their two tactics instructors had prior training with the U.S. Army and BORTAC. They both were invaluable as co-instructors. Most rangers are issued AKs or Galils, but they quickly adapted to the AR15/10 rifles we sent. Their weapons handling and accuracy improved significantly over the week. Wyatt Erp’s adage of “speed is fine, but accuracy is final” truly applies to the profession. 

Soldiers bond through shared hardship. Unfortunately, we made contact with zero poachers—a major bummer—but any night you count in the same troops you counted out on patrol is a victory. Off duty and, over fire, we passed around a bottle of Hendricks and exchanged war stories and tales from the bush. The challenges and experiences of soldiering are universal, connecting all who choose this path.

Like many of you who have spent time on the continent hunting and bonding over bushfire beers and gin, I leave a part of me there, a piece I will return to collect and replace with something new. It was an honor to stand alongside Africa’s guardians and help to ensure that its wild heart continues to beat for generations to come.

From the FE Films Archive

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