“Worldwide, about two rangers are killed every week,” says Sean Willmore, president of the International Ranger Federation and founder of the Thin Green Line Foundation. He admits that this is only an estimate and the number could really even be double.
Similar to soldiers, every time wildlife rangers step out to work, they face death, injury and torture from poachers and the wildlife that they are risking their lives to protect can equally take their lives as well. As poaching becomes more militarised to cash in on the huge market in Asia for ivory and rhino horn, the battle is becoming harder to win. Wildlife rangers are often poorly paid, have few resources and are not trained in heavy combat and still they wade into the bush to protect these animals and face poachers ready to gun them down.
In Virunga (where Soco International have pulled out of drilling for oil in the national park) 150 rangers have been killed since 2004. In April 2014, Prince Emmanuel de Merode (he holds a PhD from The University Of London on Congolese conservation issues), Virunga’s head warden was shot in an ambush. This was presumed an assassination as a result of his attempts to stop poaching and oil exploration. He survived several gun shot wounds to the chest and abdomen and returned to his position on the 22nd of May 2014.
Florence Hadia Abae, a ranger in Kenya, was pregnant and the mother of a small boy when poachers shot her in the face in Tsavo National Park (where recently, Satao, the magnificent tusker, was killed) in March 2012. Her colleague was killed in the ambush as well.
In South Africa (and many other African countries) rangers are not permitted to shoot unless in self defence. This means that sometimes they can only helplessly watch a poacher and until they pick up a rifle and aim it at the ranger, there is nothing they can do.
“Being a ranger was not a choice but a calling,” says Stephen Midzi, whose base is Shangoni Post in Kruger. “I was born for this, so had to fulfill what has already been written in my book of life.”
On the ground, the communities are helping in any way they can. Often the poachers come from their communities and it is with bravery that they step up to hand them in. Ltadamwa Lardagos, a conservancy ranger in the Northern Rangelands in Kenya was killed on May 11th when cattle raiders ambushed him and his comrades. The villagers reported where the cattle raiders had moved to and later that day they were apprehended. Dexter Chilunda, on May 23rd, was killed by poachers in Zambia’s Liuwa Plain National Park. The community offered information to arrest the poachers who were then apprehended.
Every poachers apprehended is a success, but not for long. They are replaced quickly and really it is the people who run the operation that need to be brought down. Even when the poachers are caught, the law is so flimsy that often they get a ‘slap on the wrist’ rather than a sentence. Kenya Television Network’s showed a report that stated that “the country has only 11 kingpins behind the country’s largest onslaught on rhinos and elephants” and that they “are known to authorities.” It is often corrupt government officials who profit from the poachings who are protecting the operators.
On the 23rd of June a rhino calf, later named Wyntir, came to wildlife sanctuary, Care For Wild, in South Africa after being orphaned when her mother was poached. This brave calf rescued herself by walking onto a road to attract the attention of tourists in their car. She would not leave the car and a team of skilled vets came to sedate and treat her. Wyntir is now being cared for at the sanctuary and is doing well. How many more Wyntir’s will there be this year alone?
The sacrifice these rangers are making is incredible and it is getting harder every day for them to save the wildlife.
“With blood gushing out of her nostrils and mouth, in saddened silence we watched her die in front of us,” – Don English on a rhino that they watched die after apprehending two poachers who told of shooting a rhino in Kruger National Park, South Africa. The rhino’s calf watched as its mother died from her wounds.