GRIM RE­AL­I­TIES IN A POACH­ING WAR

Sunday Times - - OFF THE SHELF - — Paul Ash

HEART OF A GAME RANGER by Mario Ce­sare, pub­lished by Jonathan Ball, R250

FOR any­one who thinks there isn’t a war go­ing on in SA’s wildlife re­serves, con­sider this ex­cerpt from Mario Ce­sare’s new book about his life and work com­bat­ing poach­ers in the Oli­fants River Game Re­serve.

“Cir­cling vul­tures, which used to sig­nal ex­cited an­tic­i­pa­tion of preda­tors on a kill, now bring dry-mouthed fear. I jump at the sound of my cell­phone ring­ing, and when my field rangers call in on the ra­dio, I as­sume the worst, un­til I hear that all is OK.

“When I phone Klaserie war­den Colin Rowles for what­ever rea­son, as with [Oli­fants chair­man] Quentin Suss­man, I al­ways pref­ace the con­ver­sa­tion with ‘No shit’ — just in case they feel the same anx­i­ety when their phones ring and my name pops up on their screens.”

Ev­ery day, Ce­sare, chief war­den at the pri­vate re­serve, con­fronts the toll ex­acted on rangers, game guards, vets, con­ser­va­tion­ists and track­ers as they fight to pro­tect the an­i­mals in their care.

Few peo­ple want to be a ranger any more, he says, not in rhino coun­try, where poach­ers armed with high-pow­ered ri­fles and au­to­matic weapons are an ev­ery­day threat.

These days, rangers must moon­light as man-hunters, work­ing from what he calls “war rooms”, where maps clut­tered with red-backed pins show the sites where they’ve found car­casses of butchered rhi­nos.

Un­til such time as there is a work­able and last­ing so­lu­tion to the rhino-poach­ing cri­sis — or all the rhi­nos are dead — this is the re­al­ity of work­ing in the bush.

Heart of a Game Ranger is not an easy read. These are not tales of fight­ing off ma­raud­ing lions armed with only a penknife, or sto­ries of khaki-clad high-jinks in the bush, but a story of a war he would rather not be fight­ing.

De­spite the blood­shed, there is hope. The pro­tec­tors con­stantly evolve new strate­gies to com­bat poach­ers. A nearby re­serve has not lost one rhino to poach­ers since de­horn­ing its an­i­mals — as Ce­sare notes, no poacher will try to shoot a de­horned rhino, not when do­ing so will alert ev­ery tracker and anti-poach­ing unit within earshot.

But all these ef­forts will be for noth­ing, Ce­sare writes, if peo­ple are not proud and pro­tec­tive of the nat­u­ral world.

The first step will be to in­stil a sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity by teach­ing ev­ery­one that the wild is not some­thing apart from us; it de­ter­mines who we are as peo­ple.

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