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

However the suspects had gone and, more than two years later, are still on the run. It is thought one was Congolese and may have returned home. Soko adds: “If they are in Zambia, they will be caught. You can run for 10 or 20 years, but if you shed human blood you get caught. I can never forgive them. They have to pay.”

Soko took Esnart’s body back to her home village, where her father, himself a former park ranger, was “understanding.” The funeral brought a big crowd of mourners and there were songs, Bible readings and preaching. As is traditional, Esnart’s colleagues fired their guns in salute to a fellow ranger.

However, since then Esnart’s family have received no financial compensation from the authorities she served. Soko, who is also chairman of the Game Rangers Association of Zambia, complains: “The government should have done a lot more because of the misery the children are subjected to. Their life simply collapses when they lose the breadwinner. She was a single mother and when she died everything went.”

“I don’t know what the government is thinking. What I do know is that they are silent. The Thin Green Line is the only organization in the world to come to the aid of the children,” she says.

Rangers in Zambia, Africa and the world should not be abandoned by their governments, Soko argues: “It is a very dangerous job. Every year we have a death. It’s nonstop. For as long as there are poachers, there are going to be deaths. If my daughters wanted to become rangers, I wouldn’t allow them.”

A short walk from Soko’s office is the rudimentary house where Esnart lived, built of a reddish mud-brick, with a flimsy wooden door and a corrugated roof weighed down by rocks. It is surrounded by bare earth and dust. The faceless, unnamed poacher whose machete struck down Esnart also splintered a family. Her five children now live far apart in three separate towns in the care of various relatives.

The eldest, Anna Phiri, 17, is not so different from many teenagers: she enjoys going out and her favourite TV shows are Hannah Montana and Shake It Up. Her best subject at school is English, and she wants to be a journalist one day. “I wouldn’t be a ranger because there is not enough security,” she says.

Anna’s father, Gawa Phiri, also a game ranger, died from meningitis in 2006. She lives with his sister, Martha Phiri, a primary-school teacher, her husband, Maxwell, an accountant, and their four children in eastern Lusaka. The approach road is dusty, bumpy, unpaved and fringed with rubbish. Outside the grey concrete-block house is the stench of raw sewage. Anna’s bedroom has two double beds shared by four children. Dolls and teddy bears are strewn around the room. A green curtain is strung up by the window and the walls are pockmarked under a corrugated roof and naked lightbulb. A shoebox is perched on top of a wardrobe.

Barefoot and wearing a turquoise dress with white leggings, Anna rummages in a suitcase and produced a homemade photo album. It includes a picture of her mother with short hair, a blue T-shirt, light trousers and an unsmiling, careworn look. “I feel very bad when I look at it.” Among her most precious possessions is a red and white dress that belonged to her mother. “It means a lot to me. I will wear it one day.”

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