The deadly side of wildlife conservation

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Uganda Wildlife Authority rangers. For game rangers, protecting wildlife has become a life-threatening mission. PHOTO | MORGAN MBABAZI 

By Bamuturaki Musinguzi

Posted  Saturday, February 4   2017 at  13:11

In Summary

  • Poaching has become sophisticated. It is no longer ‘subsistence’ hunting. It has shifted into the realms of international crime characterised by highly organised networks. The poachers use helicopters, night-vision equipment, veterinary tranquilisers and lethal arms fitted with silencers.

East Africa is renowned for the teeming wildlife that attracts millions of tourists from around the world annually.

But lurking in the shadows, the menace of poaching has been growing and in the past two decades has taken on a deadly dimension that has seen not just seen the decimation of wildlife species but also the killing of game rangers who are at the forefront of wildlife conservation.

For game rangers around the world, protecting wildlife has become a life-threatening mission since poaching became one of the fastest growing international crimes, especially now it is linked with terrorism and wildlife trophy trafficking.

Thousands of rangers around the world face the threat of death daily in the line of duty, from rogue soldiers abetting poaching, rebels in unstable countries, drug and smugglers’ cartels and even from the wild animals they are meant to protect.

According to the International Ranger Federation (IRF), an average of 100 game rangers die annually protecting wildlife, with over 1,000 recorded fatalities between 2004 and 2014, a figure that could easily be double that since many developing countries do not keep detailed records.  

Of the 56 rangers who lost their lives in the line of duty between 2013 and 2014 worldwide, 29 were killed by poachers, according to the 2014 report by IRF, which has been monitoring ranger deaths since 2000. The 2014 death toll reached 102, with poachers and militia responsible for 69 of those deaths.

As more deaths are reported every year, the figures represent only the confirmed deaths from 35 countries that voluntarily report to the IRF, and the actual number worldwide could be double or triple that reported.

Real war

In Uganda, according to Uganda Wildlife Authority deputy director of conservation Charles Tumwesigye, “About 25 rangers have lost their lives in the line of duty over the past five years across all protected wildlife areas. Some were murdered by poachers and others by armed robbers targeting cash paid by tourists at national parks gates in protected areas.”

On March 21, 2011, the management of the Kidepo Valley National Park — a pristine conservation area perched in the corner of Uganda’s northeastern border with South Sudan and Kenya in Kaabong district, 700 kilometres from Kampala — received a report that gun shots had been heard in the northern part of the park and rangers were responding to the incident. One of them was Corporal Samuel Loware.

“We encountered 16 armed poachers who were already carrying away buffalo meat. In the exchange of gunfire that followed we lost one of our officers, Leopold Masereke. All the poachers escaped, but one who suffered gunshot wounds dropped a G3 rifle with 10 rounds of ammunition,” Loware recalls.

Lance Corporal Samuel Okello, 33, told The EastAfrican: “I have encountered poachers several times, but the most dangerous incident happened in July 2012 when we were driving to the northern part of the park in a team of 19 rangers and we came face to face with a group of poachers crossing the main road.

“We all jumped out of the truck and took cover, as an exchange of gunfire with the poachers ensued. We lost a UPDF private. I don’t recall his name. We killed two poachers while the rest escaped, but we recovered two guns,” Okello adds.

Park fires

In Uganda, poachers have been known to deliberately start fires in some sections of the parks so that grass while grow there and attract wild animals that they can then kill either for meat or trophy.

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