Fri, Jun 28, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Zambia’s murderous wildlife poachers

Underpaid, ill-equipped and outnumbered, park rangers fight a one-sided war against vicious gangs of poachers. Hundreds have been murdered in the defense of endangered wildlife and their deaths leave their families in jeopardy

By David Smith  /  The Observer, LONDON

CROWN JEWELS

In the early 1990s, Esnart decided to become a park ranger to defend these crown jewels.

Liywali, who trained with her for two years, recalls: “She wanted our animals to be protected so young ones could come and see elephants and buffaloes. She wanted young people to see our natural resources in this country. She wanted to stop the trade in wildlife game meat. This is where death found her.”

Esnart became a ranger in 1995, bringing a crucial income to an otherwise impoverished family. With her mother dead, Esnart helped her father with parenting. Her brother Mawto Paundi, 33, a taxi driver, recalls: “I remember she insisted that I go to school, but I refused. I now regret passing up the opportunity. She was ready to sponsor me.”

Many former colleagues of Esnart claim she was aware of the risks of the job, but never dwelled on them. Mawto, however, says that she confided in him: “There was a time when she wanted to change career, get some money and do something else. She wanted to do something with computers so she could be in the civil service. It was because of the danger of going on patrol in the bush. She was concerned about the risks involved. It was around that time she died. Of course I was concerned as a brother, knowing the dangers of the job and what had happened to others who did it. A lot of other rangers have died. Yet I appreciated what she did for wildlife conservation.”

By 2009 Esnart was working under William Soko, a senior ranger in Rufunsa district, about 80km from the capital, Lusaka, and earning about 1,350 kwacha (US$244) per month. “She was very cheerful and obedient,” Soko recalls from behind his desk in a modest office. “She was a fine lady, ever-smiling, everybody’s darling.”

Esnart was the only woman among Soko’s 20 wildlife police officers, as rangers are formally called. “She was proud to be a pioneer. I gave her challenges, like patrolling through the escarpment. I thought she would say: ‘No, I can’t go’ — I was shocked she went. It definitely changed my perception of women, because I know some males who are afraid to go there. I wouldn’t hesitate to employ another female ranger. I still think about Esnart very much. She died a very sad death. She didn’t deserve this type of death.”

Esnart died on 14 September 2010 in Kabwe in Zambia’s Central Province. She was on a route where poachers were known to transport bush meat. A small, light truck approached her roadblock, executed a U-turn and sped away. Esnart, who was unarmed, and two other officers with rifles gave pursuit on foot into the bush. They found the vehicle abandoned and followed some tyre marks that led to a pile of bushmeat and two poachers, whom they arrested. One of the rangers then left to look for transport.

“One of the suspects had a panga [machete] hidden,” Soko continues. “He moved like lightning. He struck the male officer on the head and knocked him unconscious. That officer has never been the same since — you can see he is not right any more.”

Esnart ran, but the poacher gave pursuit and rained blows on her head until she was dead. Soko was called to collect her body. “I cried,” the 51-year-old admits. “It was a gruesome sight. I left with that grief in me and went to look for the suspects’ house at 3am, and if I had found them, they would be have been mincemeat to bury.”

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