U.S. Air Force Intel Analyst Deploys Her Military Skills to Stop Elephant-Poachers
To Faye Cuevas, poaching is warfare
by KALEIGH ROGERS
While working as a counterterrorism intelligence agent for the U.S. Air Force in Africa, tracking Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, Lt. Col. Faye Cuevas wasn’t particularly interested in elephants. But the animals kept popping up during her surveillance operations.
“We would see them all the time — elephants and cows,” Cuevas told me over the phone. “To me, initially, where elephants were was really, I don’t want to say irrelevant, but I didn’t understand the relevance to my mission.”
But she soon learned that the elephants could be a signal for valuable information — if the elephants felt safe enough to be in a certain area, it usually meant bad guys weren’t close by. The connection between wildlife and criminal activity made something click in Cuevas’s head.
“I heard professional conservationists explain the poaching crisis and to my ears, as an intelligence analyst, it sounded an awful lot like [fighting] a terror or insurgent network,” Cuevas said.
So she started to volunteer, finding ways to lend her counterterrorism intelligence skills to the fight against elephant poachers. In November 2015, after 19 years of military service, she officially joined the International Fund for Animal Welfare as chief of staff, heading its anti-poaching program in Kenya under a partnership agreement with the Kenya Wildlife Service called tenBoma.
Cuevas is still an intelligence officer in the Air Force Reserve, but she spends most of her time these days applying her skills to a different kind of fight. And it’s working.
In 2012 and 2013, elephant and rhino poaching in Kenya reached an all time high. Poachers slaughtered more than 200 elephants by the end of 2013. At the rate elephants are still being poached across Africa, conservationists estimate the species could become extinct in as little as 10 years.
Over the last three years, the Kenyan government has cracked down on poaching, beefing up the KWS and enacting stricter laws. Things have improved — the total number of elephants killed in Kenya dropped from 384 in 2012 to 96 in 2015 and the birth rate for elephants in East Africa currently outpaces the rate at which the animals are being killed.
But the overall problem persists, and Kenya remains a thoroughfare for poached ivory from other parts of Africa on its way to Asia. That’s why IFAW and KWS are doubling down on new strategies, including a more tactical, military-style approach.
For years, KWS has kept detailed data on poaching and wildlife numbers, mostly filed away in cabinets. The tenBoma team pulled out six years’ worth of elephant mortality data and did historical trend pattern analysis to identify poaching hotspots.
They noticed that in one particular area, the southern ranchlands, poaching activity would spike just before each of the two annual rainy seasons, in the spring and fall. So KWS deployed a targeted presence just before the first rainy period this year — surveying the area, talking to locals, doing vehicle stops.
“We’d seen an uptick in poaching activity for the last six years, but this year we saw zero reports of poaching,” Cuevas told me. “That was at the end of February and as of today there are still zero reports of poaching from that location.”
Her tactics go beyond analyzing stacks of data. Before joining U.S. Special Operations Command Africa, Cuevas deployed multiple times to Iraq and Afghanistan, working as a counterterrorist intelligence analyst. One method she used there is a U.S. military targeting cycle called F3EAD. That stands for find, fix, finish, exploit, analyze, disseminate.
Over the last few weeks, Cuevas and her team have deployed this structure against poachers in Kenya for the first time.
Using the F3EAD strategy, the tenBoma team facilitated a KWS-led operation using informants to track one tentacle of the ivory poaching network and target higher level nodes within it. They conducted a sting operation, buying illegal ivory and making arrests, and conducting mobile device forensic analysis on scene.
They were able to crack into an ivory broker’s phone and extract 450 pages of information detailing the whole operation — photos, text messages, geolocation data. From there, they were able to identify other tentacles of the network, and share the information with government authorities.
These methods aren’t going to end the ivory trafficking industry overnight. But Cuevas believes that using the military’s tried and true strategies can have an impact down the road.
“Even though [poaching] is described as war,” Cuevas said. “No one was taking a military strategy.”