Boots on the Ground
THERE ARE A great many excellent and hardworking game rangers in Africa. Men and women who will apply the regulations, follow standing procedures and extend themselves, even when it comes to bucking local communities, councils and their fellow, less diligent rangers.
Of course there are those who just don’t give a damn. The rot starts at the top; if the leaders fail to ensure the rules and procedures are followed, then why should others bother?
It began with the discovery of a dead white rhino. After an aircraft was called in to investigate, four more rhino carcasses were found in the same area – all with their horns missing.
After lion, hyenas, vultures and rot, little was left. The remains of a large dead animal’s dried-out skin, bones and the poisoned, stained ground around it, can remain visible for many weeks, or even months, depending on the season. Patrolling field rangers can detect large dead animals by abnormal vulture concentrations, or the presence of numerous hyenas and/or lions. Diligent rangers patrolling in their stretch of the reserve, can pick up any change in the ‘rhythm’ of the bush. Scattered impala could mean poachers have been there and broken up the herd/s or, perhaps it was merely wild dogs that were recently observed in the area. Sometimes it is missing the regulars, such as a waterbuck or nyala bulls. Tracks too, can tell a story. Boots on the ground is what game reserve conservation is all about.
The incident caused absolute hell in head office. Why had the carcasses not been detected before? Had nobody heard shots? Five dead rhino should not go completely undetected. What about the patrolling rangers? A very experienced former game warden was sent to investigate. How often did they patrol? Where did they patrol in relation to the dead rhino? The paperwork seemed fine and indicated that the area in which the rhino had been poached was patrolled regularly, as per regulations.
After questioning the staff, there was still no explanation and the Sergeant in charge of that section was adamant that all patrolling was taking place.
The official decided to walk the patrol route to see how close it got to the carcasses and the four rangers that usually did the patrol were made to join him. Carrying the map marked with the kill sites, they set off on the 9km walk. The official noticed that some of the rangers were a bit portly and did not look very fit. After 3km he was forced to call a halt as the rangers were having trouble keeping up with him. After 5km he abandoned the walk entirely as the rangers were too tired to continue!
It was blatant from the evidence that no patrolling had taken place. Neither the Sergeant nor the Reserve Warden could offer an explanation. The entries in the daily logs were thus presumed false and both senior men were suspended. Other staff was drafted in and a patrolling system resurrected.
On completion of the enquiry, the investigating official was able to determine that no patrolling had taken place for probably two years or more. Checking by senior staff at that section and at the main field staff office had also not taken place. Both senior park officials were suspended, but this was later rescinded. The field rangers were given a warning. The rhinos, unfortunately, lost out.
With the retirement of older, experienced staff and a portion of these being replaced by the new age ‘just a job’ brigade, things can only get worse.
I once helped an old-timer regain authority over a small game reserve. A wonderful, well respected Zulu in his sixties, who never failed to give me an outrageous hug, in public or in the office. With no support from above, he had actually been sleeping with his own pistol under his pillow. Locals had taken to throwing their dogs over the fence which then trapped buck against it for them to spear. He reportedly shot a dog in the air as it was flung over the top of the fence! He is now the problem animal ranger for another game reserve and goes alone to hunt down the fence-breakers.
I fear that these wonderful old-time rangers, along with the young ‘out of fashion’ super-efficient section rangers, will soon be a thing of the past. God help us, or rather, God help the game!