Meet Africa’s guardian an­gels

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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

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