Hunted: Taking the sting out of poachers’ fire on game rangers
By Charles Mpaka:
A rifle slung on his shoulder, a game ranger swaggered on a cleared western stretch of Kasungu National Park boundary along villages in Kaphaizi area in the district.
He was one of the three rangers prowling the area that October afternoon 2022 — all of them in new ‘combat’ uniform and new boots.
“Our job is to protect the wildlife in the park from poachers, and also to protect people from the animals in the park,” the ranger told this reporter, grinning with satisfaction.
On condition of anonymity, he spoke of their new-found motivation following a five-year project in and around the national park.
For more than two decades, Kasungu National Park suffered massive degradation. Lying in the Malawi-Zambia conservation area, the park was a frontier of rampant elephant poaching for ivory, an illegal trade that brought the population of the species from around 2,000 in 1970s to 50 in 2015.
Between 2017 and 2022, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) implemented a USAID-supported ‘Combating Wildlife Crime’ project seeking to stabilize and increase elephant population in the park.
The pinnacle of the project was the translocation in July last year of 263 elephants and more than 300 other species from Liwonde National Park, managed by African Parks, to Kasungu National Park.
Also targeting Lukusuzi and Luambe national parks in Zambia, the project, among other activities, promoted law enforcement operations in the three wildlife reserves.
It supported rangers with equipment and training and bolstered their ranks through recruitment of additional rangers.
It trained law enforcement agencies in investigation and prosecution of wildlife crimes.
It also engaged communities on their role in management of wildlife.
“These activities have reinvigorated us,” the ranger continued. “This job is naturally very risky and when you are ill equipped both in terms of knowledge and tools and you lack motivation, it’s worse.”
Over the past few years, following a number of management concessions and investments by international projects, Malawi has made progress in building law enforcement capacity in some of the wildlife reserves and also bringing communities aboard conservation activities.
This has resulted in a marked reduction in cases of poaching, according to the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW).
But the existential threats game rangers have been facing on the frontline remain.
On February 10, 2023, after five months of investigation, police in Chikwawa district arrested a poacher for murdering a ranger inside Majete Wildlife Reserve, also managed by African Parks.
The poacher, Yohane Njolinjo, had stabbed game ranger Bendius Amasi, 31, in October last year while he was on patrol with a colleague during which they intercepted a band of poachers in the reserve.
In April 2022, another ranger, Given Gondwe, was beaten to death by a village mob as he pursued a poacher from the community who had killed a rhino in Liwonde National Park and walked away with its horn.
In 2022 alone, a total of 16 rangers were injured by poachers in the country, data from DNPW show. The cases occurred in seven of the Malawi’s nine wildlife reserves.
The murders of Amasi and Gondwe may have added to the continental tally of the threat that continues to visit men and women deployed to protect Africa’s wildlife treasures.
According to Game Rangers Association of Africa (Gara), in 2022, Africa experienced the worst in terms of deaths of game rangers, recording 100 deaths — 95 of whom died in the line of duty.
In 2021, 92 rangers died, 46 of them murdered while in the frontline.
Between 2011 and 2021, 565 game rangers died in the line of duty in Africa, with 295 of these murdered by terrorist groups or poachers, Gara reports.
The game rangers at Kasungu National Park said that the threats on their lives have only reduced.
One of the rangers who said has worked in the field for over 10 years in a number of parks in Malawi said “the better trained we have become, the more daring some poachers seem to be becoming.”
“Perhaps that’s because of the high profits we hear about the trade. But we also know that some of the poachers from these villages do so for their basic survival,” he said.
He added that while rangers at the national park have become more efficient in handling some of the poaching incidents, the continuation of the threats suggests a lot more needs to be done.
The rangers said that the murder or injury of one game ranger, even in a territory far away, takes a toll on them.
“You hear a colleague at Majete or at Kruger National Park (in South Africa) has been killed by poachers. Every day you venture out into the bush, the image plays out in your mind that poachers can also kill you today just like they killed your colleague yesterday. That’s overwhelming,” another ranger said.
Sam Kamoto, Country Manager for African Parks said although there are relatively few incidents and injuries on the ground in Malawi, losing a ranger in the line of duty has a profound effect on the rest of the team.
He said the organization works within a set of clearly-defined standard operating procedures which guide its training and support of rangers to the highest levels and in relation to the threats they face in their respective parks.
But he said African Parks is always devastated by any tragic loss of life, injury or incident against any of its game rangers.
Awareness and livelihoods
To stem the tide of violence against game rangers and foster conservation, management and operation of any protected areas, communities are a critical player, Kamoto said.
Which is why African Parks undertakes serious awareness and education of communities around the wildlife reserves it manages on the benefits of conserving the natural environment.
Further, it supports communities in livelihood initiatives for them to see the tangible benefits of conserving wildlife.
Kamoto said by raising awareness and educating the communities on the benefits of conserving the natural environment and ensuring that the communities see the real benefits of conserving these areas, it also ensures their continued support.
“All these efforts help to build a critical constituency for conservation, and will ensure the long-term survival of the country’s natural heritage,” he said.
DNPW Director Brighton Kumchedwa said any threat on the lives of game rangers is a threat to conservation.
“It demotivates them as they fear being killed or injured. This is counterproductive to conservation because apart from putting lives of rangers at risk, wildlife too is at high risk we may end up losing iconic species and achieve no meaningful impact on tourism development for the country,” he said.
The department is therefore targeting to “seriously engage” traditional and political leadership in communities on the proper way forward to avoid continuation of harassment of rangers while on duty.
Case for community approaches, demand
In a January 26, 2023 webinar which this reporter monitored, Rosaleen Duffy, a political ecologist with research interests in politics of biodiversity conservation, especially wildlife trafficking, also argued for community approaches in conservation.
Duffy, a professor in International Politics at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, said with the rise in illegal wildlife trade, there has been a global policy shift in how poaching is confronted.
She noted the increasing investment in weapons, high-tech surveillance systems and intelligence networks which she said are effectively replacing traditional instruments such as notebooks, computer models and sample jars which scientists have been using.
Duffy argued that this ‘militarisation’ is also affecting funding distribution such that livelihood projects for communities are getting less financial support as compared law enforcement interventions.
The strategy ignores the contribution of economic inequalities and social injustices to poaching, she said.
It also disregards the differences between subsistence poaching which she said may have less significant impact on wildlife populations and commercial hunting which targets more valuable species such as rhinos, elephants, pangolins and tigers that are in demand for trade.
“This can in part explain the ongoing resistance to them [anti-poaching methods] and helps to understand why illegal hunting of wildlife might continue even if there may be heavy penalties,” she said.
According to Duffy, the focus on security makes it harder to develop methods that might be more effective – which includes providing sustainable livelihood alternatives to communities and reduction of demand for wildlife products in wealthier countries.
“That’s what needs to be addressed,” she said.
Then, perhaps, there can be peace on the frontline.