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The ivory police

A former Australian commando is using military tactics to curb poaching in Africa. Is that the right way to save the continent's vanishing animals?

Monitor correspondent Mike Pflanz talks with Pat Murphy of CSMonitor.com about his cover story on anti-poaching efforts in Africa in the Mar. 3 issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.
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It's a little before midnight, and a matte-green Land Rover pickup with its headlights off and its dashboard darkened creeps along a dirt track beside a 10-foot-high electric fence. At the wheel, driving by moonlight and keeping the engine as silent as possible, is a former Australian Special Forces sniper with years of experience with this kind of mission from having served a dozen tours in Iraq.

Three armed men dressed in camouflage stand in the flatbed, their eyes scanning the fence line and the terrain ahead for the telltale ridge of sand that has been turned by a boot, or a blade of grass slowly springing back to upright, or the faint residue of wood smoke in the still air.

All could point to an invasion.

Fresh footprints are visible from a male lion that passed this way less than an hour ago. A herd of a dozen eland antelope emerge from the bush to the left. Ahead, a startled spring hare bolts for its burrow.

Farther on, something else catches the driver's attention. He stops and unfolds his mountain of a frame from the truck's cramped cabin and raises a night-vision scope to his eye, an infrared light in his hand. He scans the valley below while the other men fan out around the vehicle, establishing a perimeter.

Two electric lights flicker in the far distance. They would be invisible without the extra gear, equipment more apt to be found on a battlefield than here in a Zimbabwean game reserve a short drive from Victoria Falls. The driver, Damien Mander, a no-nonsense Australian who is a former elite soldier and gun for hire, quietly calls over his colleague, Chelepele Phiri, a mild, composed Zimbabwean with a quick smile who nonetheless handles his rifle with meaningful menace. Together, they focus on the pinpricks of light a mile away.

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