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

Wanda Mkutshulwa, managing executive of corporate services for South Africa national parks, says: “Except for an accident between a ranger and a soldier who mistook each other for a suspected armed and aggressive poacher, there have been no fatalities of rangers in the Kruger national park related to suspected poaching in the past five years. This is something we live in fear of and, with the escalating incursions into the park and the increasing aggression of the suspects, it is only a matter of time before this happens.”

“We are dealing with an enemy that has no rules and respects none, while the rangers are expected to first attempt arrest and can only shoot once they are shot at. The poachers are in control of time and place, because you never know where or when they will surface due to the size of the park — which is about half the size of Switzerland and bigger than Swaziland,” she says.

The rangers are the “forgotten victims” of the poaching war, according to Sean Willmore, an Australian-based conservationist, documentary maker and president of the International Ranger Federation. Willmore is the driving force behind the Thin Green Line Foundation, whose champions include Jane Goodall, the celebrated British primatologist.

“Rangers are often outgunned, outnumbered and out-resourced by illegal commercial poachers,” Willmore says. “And, sadly, on a weekly basis, they are shot at, hacked to death and sometimes even tortured if they survive the bullets. I have many graphic and horrifying examples.”

The foundation says it has given support to 80 widows and more than 550 orphans of rangers killed in action, but still has more than 900 widows waiting for help. Willmore adds: “With little or no compensation, many rangers’ widows and children are often left destitute and below the poverty line. The children are often taken out of school with no source of income for the family. The poverty cycle for these families is set in motion. This is the thanks we give these rangers and their families for risking their lives for the animals we all care about.”

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