Being part and parcel of counter-poaching operations has always been a ranger’s duty and the massive surge in rhino poaching in recent years has seen threat levels escalate. Rangers across Africa are increasingly involved in armed skirmishes, sometimes on a daily basis.
The Game Ranger’s Association of Africa (GRAA) reports rangers working in South Africa’s Kruger National Park (KNP) refer to the iconic game reserve as “the beast”.
“With a size of 19 485km² and temperatures that soar to a blistering 50°C, working in the field is not for the faint-hearted. Rangers work up to 21 days in the bush under these harsh conditions, without the luxuries many take for granted and away from their families and loved ones,” according to the GRAA.
With Kruger alone losing up to three rhinos a day, rangers operate on a 24/7 basis and are pushed to the limit by this the onslaught that is rhino poaching and the well-organised poaching syndicates behind this particular wildlife crime.
Xolani Nicholas Funda, Kruger Chief Ranger, confirms rangers are fighting an uphill battle against lawless criminals while they themselves must uphold the letter of the law.
He points out rangers become familiar with animals in their areas of operation while on daily patrols and develop an attachment to these animals.
“When you see a rhino lying peacefully in the bush, you sometimes wish you could chase it away to a place where no-one will find it and it cannot be harmed,” Funda said adding “when rangers find the blood bath of a butchered rhino in their section they lose part of themselves”.
Operating in this environment demands constant vigilance, even withholding information from fellow staff to prevent any leaks. Threats do not always come from beyond the fence, Funda begrudgingly acknowledges.
“The value of rhino horn is encouraging people to become involved in things they never thought they would get involved in,” he said, recalling the incident when section ranger Rodney Landela and veterinary technician Kenneth Motshotso were caught poaching rhinos last year.
According to the GRAA Landela had been in the Kruger National Park’s service for 15 years and was the recipient of several achievement awards. “It cannot be denied there are people willing to cross the line between good and bad, right and wrong; but the field rangers of Kruger who arrested their superiors must be applauded for doing what is right and for dedicating their lives to protecting our natural heritage,” was how the GRAA described the incident.
With this in mind, the Rhino Conservation Awards have been held annually since 2012, celebrating those who continue to fight the rhino poaching war. The 2017 ceremony will be held on August 21 at Monte Casino, under the patronage of Prince Albert II of Monaco. The awards were founded by Dr Larry Hansen and Miss Xiaoyang Yu, are sponsored by Zeiss and are held in collaboration with the South African Department of Environmental Affairs and the GRAA.
Unofficial kill figures show South Africa has lost 483 rhinos to poachers in the first five and a half months of 2017. There has been no official rhino kill statistics released by Minister Edna Molewa’s Department of Environmental Affairs but conservation NGO Stop Rhino Poaching Now indicates “more than 400 rhino have been poached in South Africa by mid-May, 2017”.