Faye Cuevas Brings Higher Intelligence To Africa's War On Elephant Poaching

Faye Cuevas, Esq. currently serves as Senior Vice President for the International Fund for Animal Welfare

Faye Cuevas, Esq. currently serves as Senior Vice President for the International Fund for Animal Welfare

"We spent two weeks in Kenya. And there was rarely a day we were not awed. Watching animals in the wild pulls you closer to the earth. And helps you understand the ferocity and fragility of life," said NBC correspondent Harry Smith, in the June debut of 'Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly'. 

The minute I heard 'Kenya', I knew we would set down at the wonderful David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust: A Haven for Elephants and Rhinos.

 

AOC and GlamTribale are passionate about elephant conservation and Harry Smith's segment on elephants in Africa did not disappoint. DSWT operates the most successful orphan elephant rescue and rehabilitation program in the world. We have fostered elephants with DSWT, and you can, too. 

Meeting up with DSWT was like meeting an old friend. But Smith's excursions with two other women introduced us to woman power in action in Kenya. First up is Faye Cuevas. 

Lieutenant Colonel Faye Cuevas

Cuevas enrolled in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) as a student at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, Minn. A law career and travel made the ROTC attractive to her, a decision that served Cuevas well. After graduation and four years on active duty as a counterterrorism intelligence officer in the Air Force, Cuevas started law school four weeks before Sept. 11.

"When September 11 happened, I made two phone calls: first my parents, and second to my reserve boss to let him know I volunteer to go, whenever he needed people to go," Cuevas told me.

She didn't put her degree on hold. For the next four years, Cuevas worked on her law degree during the school year, then deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan for four months, returning in the fall to resume law classes. She passed the bar exam and deployed three days later.

20 years later, Faye was still in the air force, but ready to make a big change. In 2015 she refocused her intelligence skills into the world of conservation, training her expert eye and knowledge of procedures on poachers, with a particular eye on stopping the massacre of African elephants. 

Today Cuevas is the Chief of Staff and Senior Vice President for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), one of the largest conservation nonprofits in the world. She helms IFAW's anti-poaching program in Kenya—a partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) called tenBoma.

Taken on Feb. 25, 2016, Faye Cuevas of IFAW speaks with Capt. Kenneth Ocheing, a warden with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), in Tsavo West National Park, Kenya. (Nina Schwendemann/IFAW via AP)

Taken on Feb. 25, 2016, Faye Cuevas of IFAW speaks with Capt. Kenneth Ocheing, a warden with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), in Tsavo West National Park, Kenya. (Nina Schwendemann/IFAW via AP)

Calling herself "the accidental conservationist," Cuevas can pinpoint the moment she realized that she wanted to fight poaching.

"The first time that I saw an elephant in the wild was in Amboseli National Park here in Kenya two years ago," she said in Feb. 2016. "It was life-changing."

"At the current rate of elephant decline, my 6-year-old daughter won't have an opportunity to see an elephant in the wild before she's old enough to vote," she said. "Which just is unacceptable to me, because if that is the case then we have nothing to blame that on but human apathy and greed."

"The Kenya Wildlife Service and other many conservation groups are doing fantastic conservation work," Cuevas said. "However, the reality is that there are other challenges — from a cyber perspective, from a global criminal network perspective — that really necessitate security approaches integrated into conservation strategies."

Enter tenBoma -- or '10 homesteads' -- which uses technology to pull together diverse sources of information, from rangers to conservation groups. She analyzes the data to "create value in information in ways that it rises to the level of intelligence."

In a 2016 story on the work of Cuevas and her tenBoma team, wildlife crime is estimated to be worth $10-$20 billion a year globally, according to Interpol. Kenya Wildlife Service, with a long history of fighting elephant poaching is working closely with Cuevas. 

TenBoma is currently being tested in the Tsavo Conservation Area, which covers over 42,000 sq. kilometres (16,200 sq. miles) encompassing two of Kenya's biggest national parks.

The huge, unfenced area is notoriously difficult to patrol, but it has seen a decline in elephant poaching in recent years. The proportion of elephants in the Tsavo area that died from poaching dropped by 11 per cent in 2016, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. That is largely due to long-running efforts by non-profit groups working with the Kenya Wildlife Service in the area.

Supporters of tenBoma hope the app will improve that trend even more. There are plans to expand the concept into other conservation areas — perhaps even to other continents.

After a year of running tenBoma from Washington, Cuevas decided on a more hands-on approach and moved her family to Kenya's capital, Nairobi. 

"It is a war that we have not won, but I would say it is a war that we are winning," Cuevas said. "And if we can continue with the same momentum, we can ultimately win the war."