The killing of Cecil, a supposedly protected lion, at the hands of an American big-game hunter in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park last summer, made headlines worldwide. But away from the glare of the world’s media are thousands of men and women who put their lives on the line everyday in an attempt to combat Africa’s wildlife poachers.
The Game Rangers Association Africa estimates that some 22,000 rangers and volunteers work across the continent’s 355 national parks. According to the International Game Rangers Federation, which has been monitoring the deaths of rangers since 2000, 27 of them were murdered in the past 12 months.
In the volatile Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 140 rangers have lost their lives in the last 15 years.
The main task of wildlife rangers is to record game population numbers, deepen drinking holes for elephants, hyenas, zebras and other animals, and scare off ruthless poachers.
But these rangers are woefully under-armed against poachers that carry increasingly sophisticated weaponry.
On the Mozambique side of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park (which straddles the border with Zimbabwe) rangers only carry torches, GPS trackers and mobile phones to face off against poachers armed to the teeth with R4 assault rifles and night vision goggles.
"Before ambushes happen, poachers have the advantage. [They have] time to study and track the movements and methods of game park rangers," Frederick Seamus, lead data officer in southern Africa at CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), explains to Equal Times.
High risk for paltry wages
Poachers mainly target rhinos and elephants because their tusks fetch high prices in Asia and the Middle East, particularly in the United Arab Emirates, Singapore and China.
The Kenyan-based Save The Elephant Trust says the price of illegally harvested ivory tusks once peaked at USD$2,200 per kilo in China. It has since dropped to USD$1,100 after the current president Xi Jinping cracked down on illicit ivory markets. By comparison, most rangers barely earn a living wage.
While the number of poachers killed or injured is unknown, “80 per cent of Africa’s ranger murders are caused by ruthless poachers and militias who prowl game reserves, poisoning and felling rhinos, elephants, sandalwood and elephant cubs,” explains Theresa Sowry, head of the Southern Africa Wildlife College and coordinator at the Peace Parks Foundation.
Rangers are also vulnerable to “revenge killings” according to Johan Jooste, the Anti-Poaching Projects Commander at the South Africa National Parks Agency, “when poachers’ camps are disrupted”.
In fact, wildlife rangers can be sitting ducks for the poachers. In the dry season, for example, some rangers who wear green uniforms are exposed by the dry, golden landscape. On the other hand, sophisticated game poachers – some ex-army snipers and mercenaries – have extensive knowledge of bushcraft. "These rogue former soldiers are difficult to confront,” says Jooste. “They can fire false gun shots to lure game wardens into death traps. Poachers are military-grade insurgents."
He cites the example of April 2014 when Emmanuel de Merode, chief warden of Virunga Park, survived a hit in a roadside ambush. De Merode is widely known and hated for his efforts to stop charcoal production and oil exploration in the area.
Lack of support, patchwork of rules
Across Africa, the punishment for poachers varies. In Zambia, convicted poachers can earn jail sentences of up to 20 years, while in Kenya, most poachers escape with a mere fine.
Sometimes strict rules of engagement, while protecting the innocent, can also be a hindrance for rangers. "The law says we rangers can only fire at poachers in self-defence," says Maino Souza, Mozambique country representative for the Game Rangers Association of Africa.
"Ours is a deadly and thankless job. We tiptoe, hunting a poachers’ column for days in biting forest heat. Upon sight we are not allowed to forcefully challenge the poachers. We can only stalk or arrest them. It’s unworkable. They fire at us, evade us," says Souza.
In South Africa, where authorities engaged in approximately 70 firefights in 2015 and recorded 300 poacher sightings, the law hampers rangers too. When a ranger wounds a poacher, the South Africa police investigation can traumatise a ranger, their family and community standing.
And then there’s the mental pressure. Witnessing the deaths of both colleagues and animals alike means that post-traumatic stress disorder is a serious risk for these men and women. The stress of the ethical parameters of their work, also takes its toll. "Rangers ask themselves: ‘Should we shoot poachers to kill? Should we kill human beings and save wild animals? Rangers are humiliated in court when judges ask for DNA evidence to prosecute a detained poacher," says Ivan van Preetch, a senior psychologist for rangers at the South Africa National Parks Agency.
Etoni Wago, director of training at The Kenya Wildlife Service, says his organisation is aware of such dilemmas. "We fund staff activities to improve our rangers’ morale, heal their heartbreak and anger,” he tells Equal Times in a phone interview.
But more needs to be done to protect the people that protect Africa’s wildlife.
"Governments in Africa give little pensions to the families of murdered rangers. Funeral costs can overwhelm families; health needs spiral and the dreams of rangers’ children are shattered. Rangers families live in constant fear for the future," says Peter Fearnhead, one of the founders of the African Parks Networkin a video conference interview.
Fearnhead’s NGO works in Zambia, Malawi, Chad, Rwanda and DRC to provide support for rangers’ widows, paying the equivalent of a three-year salary to their families.
"We understand in Mozambique rangers are treated as regular volunteers. Their names are not listed on the government pensions register," he says.
Ranger widow Stella Lumbga and her family struggle, her husband having succumbed to injuries after herders and park wardens clashed in May outside Kenya’s Meru game reserve.
"Once a ranger’s murdered, the public forgets,” she says. “We as a family now sell firewood to survive."