A Ranger's View On Rhino Poach­ing

Tourism Tattler - - EDITORIAL -

Lead­ing counter-poach­ing op­er­a­tions have al­ways been part and par­cel of a ranger's re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. There has been a mas­sive surge in rhino poach­ing across Africa in re­cent years as a re­sult of well-or­gan­ised poach­ing syn­di­cates tar­get­ing this iconic species for their own eco­nomic gains. Threat levels have thus es­ca­lated and Africa's rangers are in­creas­ingly in­volved in armed skir­mishes on a daily ba­sis.

The Game Ranger's As­so­ci­a­tion of Africa (GRAA) re­ports that rangers work­ing in the Kruger Na­tional Park (KNP) re­fer to it as ‘the beast'. “With a size of 19 485km² and tem­per­a­tures that soar to a blis­ter­ing 50°C, work­ing in the field is not for the faint-hearted. Rangers work up to 21 days in the bush un­der these harsh con­di­tions, with­out the lux­u­ries many of us take for granted, and away from their fam­i­lies and loved ones.” With the Kruger alone los­ing up to three rhi­nos a day, rangers are op­er­at­ing on a 24/7 ba­sis, be­ing pushed to their lim­its by this sav­age on­slaught that is rhino poach­ing.

Funda con­firms that rangers be­come familiar with the an­i­mals of the area on their daily pa­trols, and de­velop an at­tach­ment to these an­i­mals. “When you see a rhino ly­ing peace­fully in the bush, you wish some­times you could chase it away to a place where no one will find it and it can­not be harmed,” says Funda. When rangers find a blood bath of a butchered rhino in their sec­tion they lose a part of them­selves.

Op­er­at­ing in this en­vi­ron­ment de­mands con­stant vig­i­lance, even with­hold­ing in­for­ma­tion from fel­low staff to pre­vent any leaks. The threats do not al­ways come from be­yond the fence. Funda be­grudg­ingly ac­knowl­edges, “The value of rhino horn is en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to get in­volved in things they never thought they would get in­volved in.” This was il­lus­trated in 2016 when re­spected sec­tion ranger Rod­ney Lan­dela and vet tech­ni­cian Ken­neth Mot­shotso were caught for rhino poach­ing.

The GRAA pub­lished that Lan­dela had been in the KNP's ser­vice for 15 years and re­ceived sev­eral Achieve­ment Awards. “It can­not be de­nied that there are peo­ple who are will­ing to cross the line be­tween good and bad, right and wrong; but the field rangers of KNP who ar­rested their su­pe­ri­ors must be ap­plauded for do­ing what is right and for ded­i­cat­ing their lives to pro­tect­ing our nat­u­ral her­itage,” con­firms the GRAA.

Poor peo­ple are cheap and rangers are law abid­ing cit­i­zens

Rhino poach­ing is an is­sue that goes far be­yond the fron­tiers of con­ser­va­tion. It is an is­sue of so­cio-eco­nomic stan­dards of the coun­try and na­tional se­cu­rity.

When one doesn't have any­thing to eat, one is not in­clined to pri­ori­tise re­spect­ing nat­u­ral re­source con­ser­va­tion. The truth is that un­til poverty is re­solved in South Africa, par­tic­u­larly in ar­eas sur­round­ing re­serves, syn­di­cates will have a pool of poor peo­ple to re­cruit and poach­ing will con­tinue. For the des­per­ate man try­ing to feed his chil­dren, the fi­nan­cial re­ward he re­ceives in ex­change for rhino horn is an of­fer he is rarely able to re­sist.

Rangers con­tinue to risk their lives pro­tect­ing de­fence­less an­i­mals, de­spite their lim­ited power against the ruth­less poacher who is equipped with state of the art weapons and who has no re­gard for hu­man or an­i­mal life. Funda dis­agrees with peo­ple who re­fer to this poach­ing cri­sis as a war. “It will only be a war once it is de­clared as such by the Pres­i­dent.” War im­plies the rules of bat­tle are used by both par­ties. Poach­ers are crim­i­nals that are not guided by rules. Rangers, how­ever, are gov­erned by the law and respect South Africa's con­sti­tu­tion, which en­shrines the rights of all peo­ple in South Africa and af­firms the demo­cratic val­ues of hu­man dig­nity, free­dom and equal­ity. Should poach­ers be in­jured in the bush, rangers en­sure these crim­i­nals re­ceive the nec­es­sary med­i­cal care. Fight­ing poach­ing is, at times, very re­stric­tive.

The Game Rangers As­so­ci­a­tion of Africa works closely with re­serves like the KNP to en­sure rangers are con­tin­u­ously re­ceiv­ing spe­cialised train­ing to bet­ter equip and em­power them­selves to make in­formed de­ci­sions dur­ing con­flict sit­u­a­tions. Some of these cour­ses in­clude the Pro­tected Ar­eas Se­cu­rity Op­er­a­tions Plan­ning (PASOP), Ad­vanced Field Ranger Train­ing and Counter In­sur­gency Tracker Train­ing (CITT) and the Use of Force.

A ranger’s heart

The Kruger is di­vided into 22 sec­tions, with des­ig­nated sec­tion rangers and field rangers per sec­tion. Op­er­at­ing un­der these con­di­tions takes

its toll on the rangers' well­be­ing. On their daily pa­trols, rangers be­come familiar with the an­i­mals of the area and de­velop an at­tach­ment to cer­tain an­i­mals, know­ing where to find them and where their pre­ferred graz­ing ar­eas are. “When you see a rhino ly­ing peace­fully in the bush, you wish some­times you could chase it away to a place where no one will find it and it can­not be harmed,” says Funda. When rangers find a blood bath of a butchered rhino in their sec­tion they lose a part of them­selves. Poach­ers are also start­ing to take the ears and tails of poached rhi­nos. This has al­ready hap­pened in a num­ber of cases in the KNP – whether the muti trade is jump­ing on the band­wagon is still open for de­bate. Such scenes are im­mensely de­bil­i­tat­ing for the ranger who has com­mit­ted his/ her life to the con­ser­va­tion of wildlife.

The Chief’s tool­box

Kruger's anti-poach­ing unit and rangers are con­tin­u­ously rais­ing their game to en­sure they are pre­pared for poach­ers' ever-chang­ing tac­tics. Dogs, he­li­copters, firearms, mo­tor­bikes and night vi­sion equip­ment are just some of the tools within Chief Ranger Funda's tool­box. Funda notes that these tools are all work­ing very well in this bat­tle, “but noth­ing will be able to re­place my ranger.” While Funda's po­si­tion has el­e­vated to Chief Ranger, his heart is still with the rangers work­ing in field. Funda is not in the field as much as pre­vi­ously, which means he is able to en­joy warm meals and a soft bed to sleep on. How­ever, he never for­gets the ranger in the field that has sac­ri­ficed ev­ery­thing, know­ing they can be killed in the bush by ruth­less poach­ers, all to pro­tect South Africa's wildlife. One thing is cer­tain in these ter­ri­ble poach­ing times – field rangers are an ir­re­place­able force.

Rhino Con­ser­va­tion Awards

The Rhino Con­ser­va­tion Awards, held an­nu­ally since 2012 to cel­e­brate those that con­tinue to fight rhino poach­ing, will be held on 21 Au­gust, un­der the pa­tron­age of Prince Al­bert II of Monaco. The Awards were founded by Dr. Larry Hansen and Miss Xiaoyang Yu, are spon­sored by ZEISS, and held in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the South African De­part­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Af­fairs and the Game Rangers As­so­ci­a­tion of Africa.

There are five cat­e­gories: Best Field Ranger, Best Con­ser­va­tion Prac­ti­tioner, Best Po­lit­i­cal, In­ves­tiga­tive and Ju­di­cial Sup­port, Best Rhino Con­ser­va­tion Sup­porter, and Spe­cial Award for En­dan­gered Species Con­ser­va­tion.

For more in­for­ma­tion visit www.rhinocon­ser­va­tion­awards.org

Xolani Nicholas Funda, Chief Ranger of the Kruger Na­tional Park, says that Rangers are fight­ing an up­hill bat­tle against lawless crim­i­nals while they them­selves must up­hold the let­ter of the law.

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