Meet Africa’s guardian angels
Investec Asset Management and Land Rover, in Cape Town. The 86-year-old former archbishop had been coaxed from retirement by the Duke of Cambridge, patron of the British-based charity.
At the same event, Graca Machel (Nelson Mandela’s widow) presented the Tusk Award for Conservation in Africa to Brighton Kumchedwa, while former president FW de Klerk handed the Tusk Wildlife Ranger Award to joint recipients Solomon Chidunuka and Lucky Ndlovu for their antipoaching work.
By video link, the Duke of Cambridge reinforced the message that poaching “should have no place in our modern civilised society”. “Ivory, rhino horn, pangolin and lion parts are the fuel of extinction – these products today represent the cruel death of truly majestic creatures that are fast disappearing from our world,” he said.
Labuschagne, 60, was born in Malawi, raised in South Africa and has spent 34 years in conservation. He worked in South Africa before supervising the return of black rhinos to Malawi’s Liwonde National Park, setting up a successful anti-poaching system in Tanzania’s Serengeti and helping Paul Tudor Jones, the American philanthropist, establish the Grumeti game reserve on the Serengeti’s western border.
By 2010, Chad’s government was so desperate to save Zakouma, its flagship national park, that it took the bold political step of employing a foreign entity, African Parks, to manage it. During the previous few years, thousands of elephants had sought refuge in the park from various regional conflicts. They herded together, making themselves targets for Sudanese horsemen armed with AK-47s who rode down on old cattle tracks from the north in the rainy season. Several rangers had been killed and morale was low.
African Parks gave Labuschagne free rein, and he immediately ended the practice of abandoning Zakouma during the rains when much of the park is under water and rangers’ mobility impaired. He deployed two aircraft and built all-weather airstrips, collared elephants so he could trace their Tusk Award winners Rian Labuschagne, below, Brighton Kumchedwa, above; Solomon Chidunuka, below left; and Lucky Ndlovu, top right movements, and abolished the old system of static ranger posts so he could deploy his men where they were needed. He improved the park’s horsemounted patrols, more effective in the rainy season.
These and other innovations have worked. Zakouma’s elephant population now exceeds 500 and continues to increase. Fewer than a dozen have been shot since 2010, and the poachers have escaped with just two tusks. In 2012, six patrolling rangers were ambushed and killed as they prayed at dawn but none since.
The park’s other wildlife is also recovering. Zakouma’s lions, buffaloes, cheetahs, wild dogs and rare Kordofan giraffes are increasing, and although Labuschagne has now returned to work in the Serengeti, he is confident black rhinos will shortly be reintroduced to Zakouma for the first tim time since the Seventies. “Thanks to Rian, Chad has witnessed one of conserv conservation’s great success stories,” said Cha Charlie Mayhew, Tusk’s CEO.
Labus Labuschagne attributes much of his success to his wife, who takes care of adminis administration. “The day I married Lorna w was the day I saved my
backs backside,” he said. As a junior ranger in Zambia in 1999, Solomon Chidunuka dressed in old clothes, took a bu bus to a notorious poachers’ lair, an and won their confidence by pre pretending to be an ivory buyer. He t then summoned colleagues who a arrested 25 suspects and put many in prison – and he never looked back. During a career that has seen him become senior wildlife warden in charge of three national parks, he has participated in numerous undercover missions. He has built up intelligence networks that often alert him before poachers have entered a protected area.
Chidunuka, 50, reckons he has made 200 arrests. He slashed elephant poaching in the Lower Zambezi National Park, where he worked for 13 years; and he has lost none of Zambia’s only population of black rhinos in North Luangwa National Park, which he oversees. One of the first Zambian rangers to receive paramilitary training, he believes in leading by example – and not even the recent amputation of his left leg due to diabetes will stop him.
The second recipient of the ranger award is just as persistent. In July 2016, Sergeant Lucky Ndlovu, head of a canine unit in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, suspected an insider was poaching rhinos. He spread misinformation about his unit’s movements, mounted an ambush and caught a regional ranger – his boss’s boss – and a vet. He and his team then retrieved a gun and a rhino horn that the suspects had allegedly jettisoned after realising they were trapped. The pair are now awaiting trial.
That was just one success in Ndlovu’s six years in charge of a canine unit in Kruger’s Intensive Protection Zone, home to 5,000 rhinos. Since 2014 his six-man team and two tracker dogs – a Belgian Malinois named Ngwenya and a foxhound named Chico – have caught around 70 poachers and retrieved around 40 firearms. Now 55, Ndlovu has been shot at, gored by a buffalo, chased by rhinos and confronted by lions. But he is determined that there should be rhinos left for his children to protect. Since 2013, Brighton Kumchedwa, 50, has been director of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife, determined to end Malawi’s status as a soft touch for elephant poachers and a major transit route for illegal wildlife traffickers from Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia.
Forceful, personable and tireless, he has co-opted the president and cabinet; persuaded parliament to approve a draconian new Wildlife Act imposing penalties of up to 30 years for wildlife crimes; and convened a top-level committee to coordinate the anti-poaching efforts of the police, military, intelligence, immigration, judicial and anti-corruption agencies.
Kasunga’s elephant population, once numbering 2,000, is beginning to recover from a record low of 40. Ivory seizures have fallen by a third, suggesting traffickers have moved elsewhere. “I’ve had to do things differently and see what happens,” said Kumchedwa. “It seems to be working.”
For more information about Tusk and the awards, see tusk.org