KZN Rangers take on tough terrain in fight against poaching
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Wildlife rangers from KwaZulu-Natal will join their counterparts across the continent, along with social media influencers and celebrities, to raise funds lost during the Covid pandemic which has caused a surge in wildlife poaching and decimated the wildlife tourism industry across Africa.
Local rangers from Somkhanda Community Game Reserve in Northern Zululand, which is home to the Big 5, will join more than 150 ranger teams from 20 African countries in The Wildlife Ranger Challenge, a series of events starting with the launch of World Ranger Day today.
The teams will take part in physical and mental challenges, which will culminate in a 21km virtual marathon as the finale, on September 18.
The call to arms to save Africa’s wildlife in a global campaign #ForWildlifeRangers was kicked off this week by British adventurer and TV presenter Bear Grylls, who issued a challenge to anyone who would like to “Train Like A Ranger” or take part in the virtual marathon.
The Wildlife Ranger Challenge is being co-ordinated by conservation organisations, Tusk and Natural State among others, which have partnered with 60 conservation areas to raise funds for at least 5 000 rangers across the continent to enable them to continue working, feed their families and protect Africa’s iconic wildlife.
According to recent research, the global wildlife tourism economy generated US$100bn in 2018, providing 9 million jobs. The pandemic brought cross-border travel to a halt and The International Labour Organisation has suggested that African tourism operators have suffered a 70% plunge in bookings.
As revenue streams for conservation areas dried up and essential funding for anti-poaching measures being virtually eliminated, more than 50% of rangers reported budget cuts which included retrenchments.
Rangers have been stretched to capacity and continue to see drastic cuts in resources and an increase in subsistence poaching because of the devastating economic impact of Covid-19.
This reduction in capacity to fight poaching has also resulted in an increasing threat to wildlife as cross-border poaching incursions by syndicates and illicit trade take advantage of international borders re-opening.
The Somkhanda wildlife rangers team, who will take part part in the challenge, spoke to the Independent on Saturday early on Thursday morning before heading out on patrol.
Sibusiso Mathe, who has been at Somkhanda since 2013, said the whole team were fit as they constantly patrolled, while they had also been doing exercises in preparation for the challenges ahead.
“During lockdown no-one was allowed to visit, but we have continued to work hard and try as best as we can. We hope, believe and are praying for our country and for our guests to return,” said Mathe. He grew up in Zululand and became interested in wildlife in Grade 10 when he went with a friend on a rhino monitoring trip.
“I was inspired then to become a ranger,” said Mathe.
When asked what his favourite wild animal was, his voice portrayed his smile: “They are all my favourites.”
Another Somkhanda ranger who will take part in the challenge, Sinanelo Mabaso, said: “We are the eyes and ears of nature and we have to protect our animals.”
The Wildlife Ranger Challenge was held for the first time last year in response to the devastating impact of Covid. It raised US$10m for salaries and equipment to support 9 000 rangers, who protect more than 4 000 000 sq kms across Africa.
SA non-profit organisation Wild Trust (Wildlands Conservation Trust), which is supporting the challenge, has encouraged South Africans to join the challenge and participate in the virtual run.
Wild Trust’s Buyisiwe Makhoba Dlamini said this week that challenges would include physical elements, such as who completes the most sit-ups in two minutes, while mental challenges, such as a wildlife quiz, would be completed and shared with social media followers.
“For the 21km virtual race, rangers will have to dress in their full kit, including backpacks (22kg for men and 15kg for women), as well as weapons (if they carry one) and will have to do the best time they can. The fastest team will receive a prize.
“Rangers train daily across some crazy terrain and do far more than look after wildlife. They are often first responders in emergencies as well as carrying out lots of other duties.
“Our rangers need to be helped and looked after,” said Makhoba Dlamini.
The Covid impact has been felt across Africa, with Rhino Ark in Kenya reporting that tourist revenue for Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) had plummeted by 96%, while Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe has reported an 8 000% increase in traps and snares recovered between May and July 2020, stating, “once lockdown restrictions started easing, poachers leapt back into action”.
For further information on the Wildlife Ranger Challenge, the events, and details of how to contribute to the wildlife cause, go to www.wildliferangerchallenge.org
The Independent on Saturday