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

Kanyembo says that news of her death had a terrible impact on him: “It pained me spiritually, physically. There was that hurt in me.”

Esnart’s story chimes with those of many park rangers: gratitude for a job of any kind to feed and clothe numerous dependents, but low pay and the constant threat of a violent demise. In the absence of government support, her family was rescued by donations from the Thin Green Line Foundation.

NO SAFETY NET

What safety net, then, for other grieving spouses and children left to pick up the pieces? It is a question that corrodes the spirit of the Kalounga family back in Rufunsa where, down a bone-shaking dirt track, is a gate to the Lower Zambezi national park decorated with the skulls of buffalo, elephant and sable. Mathias Kalounga, 49, is among the rangers who patrols and camps there for unbroken stretches of 15 days. He has a wife and nine children aged from three to 22.

“I love keeping God’s creation,” he says. “I’m not afraid of anything. I have been shot at. We met some poachers and they started shooting and there was an exchange of fire. The poachers ran off and left their cooking equipment. I was not afraid at all.”

However, the danger weighs heavily upon his wife, Loyce. “It was close to the camp and we even heard the gunshots. I was worried that my husband might be killed and not make it home. He was outnumbered — three rangers against four poachers. I wish he did a different job, because this one is very dangerous. When I worry, I don’t feel well.”

If the worst happened to Mathias, Loyce, a housewife, would be left alone to fend for her children. “The authorities don’t care about other people’s lives,” she says. “We see what happens. Esnart was working for the government, but when she died the government did not look after the orphans. It’s a big responsibility to feed my children and send them to school. When my husband dies, the government will do nothing to help me and my children. We will be in very big problems.”

Even in life, the family endures deep hardship. Mathias and Loyce share the sole bed while their children sleep on the floor. There is no electricity or running water. Mathias earns just 1,700 kwacha per month: “It’s very little, not enough to pay for the children to go to school. Some of them do and some don’t.”

When Zambian Vice President Guy Scott was informed that Esnart’s family had still not received any government support, he said that something had gone wrong and asked for her name so that it could be rectified.

One of the fiercest battlegrounds is also one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations: South Africa, where on average a rhino is poached every 11 hours. Backed by international crime syndicates feeding a demand for horn in the Far East, poachers have been known to use helicopters, specialized silent tranquilizers, body armor, night-vision equipment and mercenaries experienced in rhino tracking.

Officials have vowed to “fight fire with fire” and deployed troops in the famed Kruger National Park, where gun battles are increasingly common. Major-General Johan Jooste, who heads the joint military, police and game ranger operations, recently described the influx of poachers from Mozambique as an “insurgency” requiring a “counter-insurgency.”

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