GRIM REALITIES IN A POACHING WAR
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.