Written by Steve Mclnanon, CNN

Steve McClendon has had a career in wildlife conservation that spans 36 years and includes deep observation and knowledge of these animals.

He has driven through miles of bush with Kenya's elephants, witnessed tiger trekking through Kenya's Masai Mara conservation area, seen the mighty warthog on African plains and downsized fish in the Galapagos. But none of this came close to what he witnessed when he stumbled upon a team of poachers.

"I was driving along on the road to Mau, and I saw headlights in the distance, I thought they were dead, I thought it was like the aftermath of an accident. In a couple of minutes I was surrounded by four men with an AK-47, who was carrying one of the AK-47s next to his body -- he just stood at the window waiting for the other two men to get out," McClendon recalls, laughing.

McClendon, a conservationist and wildlife expert, first noticed the endangered porcupine in Kenya in the 1970s. The species is under threat because of ivory poaching and habitat loss.

"I remember in the '70s when I first saw these porcupines, they were a very beautiful creature to look at. But they didn't live in the vegetation. They lived in the road. We started hunting them, but they didn't want to be hunted. One of the challenges is that they are really shy, so they aren't being seen by the public," McClendon explains.

So-called "hit men"

A morning on the trail

McClendon says, for decades, Kenya's poachers have struggled to be seen and seen by the public. Increasingly, poachers have resorted to a new tactic. These "hit men" take out the porcupine and other local animals with a powerful surface-to-air missile.

"These young guys are the ones, as they come in and out of the areas with the anti-aircraft weapon, they stop and hang around. I get the feeling that they know I am there and that we don't want to be seen," McClendon says.

After a few minutes, two of the gunmen with anti-aircraft weapons fired a close-range shot at McClendon. Luckily, he's still standing.

"We all kind of jumped up at once, I don't know, I said, 'Shut up, shut up'," McClendon says.

After a few minutes of being driven around the Toyota Land Cruiser, two of the armed men were gone. One of the men, Shaka, the hit man, was left standing nearby. After a tense few moments, McClendon requested a shot. Shaka shot him in the leg. McClendon was treated by villagers, with locals from the Mau conservation area helping to cover the bill.

Behind the mask

McClendon believes there could be up to 2,000 poachers in southern Kenya. Typically, traffickers come in with a truck full of cargo and their face covered, so passersby don't see them.

Poachers attempt to take the bodies of fallen wild animals like Kenyan porcupines off the road -- or leave them on it. They hide them, stuffed with meat or some other food, before dumping them in the bushes.

McClendon says about a third of his work involves tracking poachers, while the other two-thirds is focused on eradicating poaching in the Kenyan wilderness.