Julius Lokinyi was one of the most notorious poachers in this part of Kenya, accused of single-handedly killing as many as 100 elephants and selling the tusks by the side of the road in the dead of night, pumping vast amounts of ivory into a shadowy global underground trade.

But after being hounded, shamed, browbeaten and finally persuaded by his elders, he recently made a remarkable transformation. Elephants, he has come to believe, are actually worth more alive than dead, because of the tourists they attract. So Mr. Lokinyi stopped poaching and joined a grass-roots squad of rangers — essentially a conservation militia — to protect the wildlife he once slaughtered.

From Tanzania to Cameroon, tens of thousands of elephants are being poached each year, more than at any time in decades, because of Asia’s soaring demand for ivory. Nothing seems to be stopping it, including deploying national armies, and the bullet-riddled carcasses keep stacking up.

Scientists say that at this rate, African elephants could soon go the way of the wild American bison.

But in this stretch of northern Kenya, destitute villagers have seized upon an unconventional solution that, if replicated elsewhere, could be the key to saving thousands of elephants across Africa, conservationists say. In a growing number of communities here, people are so eager, even desperate, to protect their wildlife that civilians with no military experience are banding together, grabbing shotguns and G3 assault rifles and risking their lives to confront heavily armed poaching gangs.

It is essentially a militarised neighbourhood watch, with loping, 6-foot-6 former herdsmen acting as the block captains, and the block being miles and miles of zebra-studded bush. These citizen-rangers are not doing this out of altruism or some undying love for pachyderms.

They do it because in Kenya, perhaps more than just about anywhere else, wildlife means tourists, and tourists mean dollars, a lot of dollars.

Villagers are also turning against poachers because the illegal wildlife trade fuels crime, corruption, instability and inter-communal fighting. The conservation militias are often the only security forces around, so they have become de facto 911 squads, rushing off to all sorts of emergencies in areas too remote for the police to quickly gain access to and often getting into shootouts with poachers and bandits.

A non-profit army

In 1989, during Africa’s last poaching crisis, Ian Craig sat up on a rock in the craggy Mathews range of northern Kenya, where his family owned a big cattle ranch, and watched helplessly as poachers mowed down a whole herd of elephants.

Mr. Craig, often considered the grandfather of Kenya’s community conservation efforts, began enlisting local men. At first, the national government refused to arm them, saying there was absolutely no way it was going to deputise civilians, especially when Kenya, like many African countries, has a shoot-to-kill policy for any armed poacher spotted in a wildlife zone.

But after Kenya’s wildlife department changed leadership in the mid-1990s, Mr. Craig prevailed, and he has slowly but steadily built a non-profit army. The Northern Rangelands Trust, the umbrella organisation he helped found in 2004, is made up of 19 communities, with another 32 asking to join. It has 461 scouts patrolling nearly 8,000 square miles. — New York Times News Service