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

Recalling the day of her mother’s funeral, Anna is tearful yet composed. “I was told by my aunt. It was very disturbing and shocking. My mother was very brave. I’m proud of her. I think about her a lot. It’s very difficult now because I don’t get to see my brothers and sisters often. I don’t know how they are doing.”

Across the city Esnart’s son, George, 14, lives with his uncle, Mathews Phiri. “Mum didn’t tell me much about the job,” George mumbles shyly. “But I knew it was dangerous.”

The long flat road to Mumbwa, 135km from Lusaka, passes through a broiling marketplace selling farm produce, knock-off furniture and Manchester City soccer mugs. A sign for a traditional healer from Malawi promises penis enlargements and the magical return of runaway spouses. In Mumbwa, is the simple house that Esnart bought, but never occupied. It is now home to her siblings and three other children: the boys Annex, 12, and Chimunya, 8, and her adopted seven-year-old daughter Irene. Their father Annex, a polygamist who already had a wife when he met Esnart, died from an illness. Now the trio lives alongside her sister Abigail’s two children.

There is electricity here and a digital TV and DVD player, but water must be fetched from an outside pump. Beyond a torn sheet in a doorway is the main bedroom, where foam oozes out of a split mattress, paint is cracked on the walls and a weathered mosquito net hangs limp. The family toilet is a dark pit in the ground in a ramshackle backyard shed.

Abigail, 31, is in charge of Esnart’s estate and has kept her sister’s ranger’s uniform. “It reminds me of her because she used to wear it often,” she says, sitting in a cramped, stuffy lounge with a fridge parked in the corner. “But I rarely look at it because it’s painful.”

She still feels bitterness toward the poachers whose actions that day continue to ripple through their lives: “I can’t forgive them because the impact of what they did is still being felt now. The main problem is that I’m the only sister looking after the kids, and I don’t have a job. Sometimes I do piece work, but it might not suffice to look after the needs of the children. They miss their mother. I would like them all to be in one place, but I can’t manage to keep all of them. They miss each other very much.”

Another of Esnart’s brothers, Muyeni Paundi, 22, a taxi driver, chips in: “The authorities should have done more. When the incident happened, she had no firearm and they had no handcuffs. They should also give financial support, especially for the kids. They were supposed to. Esnart’s children need to be together for that brother and sister relationship.”

A family friend wanders in, wearing the camouflage uniform of a wildlife police officer. Ellison Kanyembo, 47, had known Esnart since they were at training school in the 1990s. “We were tribal cousins,” he recalls fondly. “She was good to me. We were like brother and sister, helping each other. She was courageous. She admired the job and was not frightened. She liked going in the field and seeing animals. She liked adventure in the wilderness. She liked cooking and she cooked fritters for me sometimes. I saw her three days before she died. It was as if she knew she was going to die. She said: ‘Look after my children — this one, that one — I don’t know if I’ll come back.’ It was like she was saying goodbye.”

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