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Wildlife Warriors

11 min read

Updated 01 July 2021

Picture of Chris McIntyre

By Chris McIntyre

Managing Director

*A version of this article originally appeared in the July 2021 Bush Telegraph newsletter. You can read our recent newsletters and sign-up to receive these in your inbox on our Bush Telegraph newsletter page.

World Ranger Day takes place on 31 July 2021, dedicated to celebrating the commitment of wildlife rangers across the globe to protect and preserve the natural world. There are thousands of these tough, brave men and women across Africa, tirelessly doing this strenuous and often dangerous work by day and night.

Rangers protect animals from poaching and man-made hazards; they educate their communities on the importance of conservation; they mitigate frequent human-wildlife conflicts; they assist with invaluable research and conservation fieldwork; they work alongside tourism operations; and together they ensure that the diversity of landscapes and wildlife remains for generations to come.

It is intense, hard work, in difficult conditions, for the benefit of us all. We are immensely grateful to their daily efforts and unfailing commitment to conservation and we’re taking this opportunity to introduce you to just a few of the remarkable ranger teams operating in sub-Saharan Africa.

Dugong Defenders

Image credits: Andrew Macdonald

The Bazaruto Archipelago National Park, off Mozambique’s southern coastline, is an Indian Ocean idyll. Protecting five picture-perfect tropical islands, each ringed with the purest white sand, and 1360km2 of sparkling turquoise seas and indigo deep-water trenches, the park is a marine paradise. Teeming with life – dolphins, whales, turtles, sharks, manta rays and myriad tropical fish – it is also home to 250 dugongs, the last viable population of these critically endangered mammals in the western Indian Ocean.

In a progressive move by the government to protect the area’s extraordinary marine biodiversity, Bazaruto became Mozambique’s first marine national park back in 1971. For the last four years, African Parks have spearheaded the drive to improve the local economy based around wildlife protection and sustainable tourism.

There are now 53 sea-faring rangers, including 16 women, recruited locally and trained to monitor and protect this stunning area.

Over the last year this largely waterborne team have made 30 arrests and confiscated hundreds of kilos of illegally harvested fish and thousands of items of fishing equipment, predominantly from large-scale fishing operations within the park. Their relentless efforts have resulted in a major decrease in illegal fishing activity within Bazaruto, and great relations with the 5,000 people who call this park home.

In June 2021, as part of the national park’s 50th anniversary celebrations, Bazaruto’s ranger team welcomed its first qualified scuba diving rangers. Sponsored by Benguerra Lodge, these four underwater rangers will be able to extend their reach and assist with the long-term monitoring of the health of the coral reefs in the park.

If you too fancy dipping into Mozambique’s azure waters – and we cannot recommend it highly enough – have a look at Expert Africa’s favourite, barefoot luxury beach retreats and get in touch with us.

K9 Conservation

Image credit: Mathieu Cordesses

As poaching syndicates have become increasingly sophisticated and armed over the last decade, ranger teams have stepped up their responses. To stay ahead, conservation workers have a new best friend: the highly trained, anti-poaching sniffer dog.

Across Africa, canine (dubbed K9) anti-poaching dog units are the rising stars in the fight against wildlife poaching and trafficking. The dogs, most commonly Belgian Malinois, Dutch and German Shepherds, bloodhounds and spaniels, are imprinted with specific scents, including ivory, pangolin scales, rhino horn, cat skins, firearms and ammunition, before being deployed to detect these items at border posts, in communities and out on patrol in the bush. Their efforts are having a huge impact on disrupting and reducing the trade in illegal wildlife.

As well as being an intimidating deterrent in themselves, K9 units are able to access the most rugged and inaccessible areas of a park and increase patrol coverage with tracking off the lead. By harnessing their almost miraculous power of scent, conservation and law-enforcement teams have been able to greatly expand and strengthen their efforts.

Wildlife protection aside, K9 units bring real benefits to their local communities. Safeguarding biodiversity in protected areas ensures that tourism can flourish, which brings valuable income and employment into rural economies. While the dogs can help mitigate human-wildlife conflicts they are also, on occasion, called in to assist village elders in tracking down the culprits of minor local thefts – thus showcasing their impressive detective skills to the community and acting as a deterrent to anyone considering poaching.

At Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya, no rhinos have been poached since 2013 thanks to the collaboration of the anti-poaching unit and canine team. In Zambia’s Lower Zambezi, the resident three-dog canine unit moves between trafficking hotspots around the fringes of the park, deterring poachers and curtailing the movement of illegal wildlife products.

Perhaps the most dramatic improvements in wildlife protection can be seen in Rwanda’s beautiful Akagera National Park. The presence of the K9 unit has been incredibly beneficial. Reversing the wildlife decline since their introduction a decade ago, they have transformed this pretty, undulating park from an area of rampant poaching and encroaching cattle herds into a leading Big 5 conservation destination with pretty lakeside camps, diverse landscapes and a promising future.

Since 2010, wildlife populations in Akagera have risen by almost 50% with both lions and black rhinos reintroduced to the park. Thanks to their deterrent effect and rapid-response times, the K9 unit’s efforts in combatting poaching and human-wildlife conflict have enabled Akagera to maintain a stellar track record of not a single loss of black rhino, elephant or lion to poaching since their reintroductions. These species are now flourishing here: six rhino calves and numerous litters of lion cubs have been born here, ensuring healthy future populations.

This K9 unit, like the others operating across Africa, are a critical element in conservation law enforcement teams, and a testament to the skills and abilities of talented animals and handlers.

The Brave Ones

Image credit (above and header): Adrian Steirn

In Zimbabwe’s Shona language, Akashinga means ‘brave ones’. There could not be a more perfect name for the formidable, all-female anti-poaching arm of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF). Founded in 2017 by Damien Mander, an Australian Special Forces sniper turned conservationist, Akashinga recruits local women who have suffered immense personal challenges – single mothers, abandoned wives, AIDS orphans, victims of abuse and violence – and puts them through intense military-style training to produce a disciplined, professional anti-poaching team.

At its inception, 29 villages surrounding the Lower Zambezi concession of Phundundu were notified of a women-only, ranger recruitment drive. With men outnumbering women in front-line conservation roles by as much as 100:1, this was a radical initiative. Word spread quickly.

Ninety women, aged 18 to 35 and all in need of a life-changing opportunity, turned up for pre-selection interviews. Thirty-seven progressed to the gruelling three-day endurance test, during which they were exposed to ‘the four pillars of misery: hunger, tiredness, cold and wet’. Challenged with strength, stamina and team building trials – think: packing up a 200-pound (90kg) tent, dragging it up a mountain with your legs tied together and then reassembling it – only three women dropped out. The remaining women began rigorous training as Akashinga’s first, fearless wildlife warriors.

Created in the belief that women are naturally fierce protectors, this determined unit has already shown significant results, including reducing elephant poaching by 80% and educating and empowering their recruits to better provide for their children and realise their aspirations. Local respect for these rangers has been hard won, but so inspiring and successful have they been that at the end of 2020 a new concession called Songo, bordering Lake Kariba, was acquired to expand their wildlife protection area. Now a new group of determined women are beginning the tough journey to become Akashinga rangers, training hard daily to protect wildlife and to build a better life for themselves and their families. Their strength and courage is humbling and their success inspiring. With such grit and determination, we wish IAPF every success with their ambitious plan to have 1000 staff protecting 20 reserves by 2025.

To see why Africa’s wildlife is so worth protecting and appreciate just how wonderful Zimbabwe and its people are, have a look at Expert Africa’s favourite spots in the country here.

For a striking insight into these brave women, take 13 minutes to stream National Geographic’s 2020 documentary ‘Akashinga: The Brave Ones’, which premiered at last year’s EarthXFilm Festival.

Want to support the work of rangers? Visit Africa.

Just as we were finalising this newsletter, one of our travellers contacted us from Lusaka. She was relishing the final moments of her Zambian holiday and just wanted to share that. Specifically, she wanted to spread the word of just how incredible her trip had been, and how vital the return of tourism is to the people dependent on safari and conservation work.

As a team at Expert Africa, we pride ourselves on the close relationships we have with people in Africa: guides, camp staff, wildlife researchers, philanthropists and rangers. They are our friends, our colleagues, our mentors and our inspiration. It’s no secret that the impact of COVID restrictions has been devastating for them personally and for their businesses and aspirations.

We know many of you have questions about what it’s like to travel at the moment, and while we’ll always give you frank, honest information, sometimes it’s good to hear it from a fellow traveller. Someone who has just come back from exactly the kind of trip you’re thinking of.

The comments of our most recent travellers highlight a few common themes: the sheer joy of being on holiday in Africa, the overwhelming hospitality of the local people and the relaxation that comes from the organisational skills of our team.

In the last few months, Expert Africa’s travellers have had some amazing trips. They’ve repeatedly praised the serenity of the bush and the wonder of being alone in usually busier parts of national parks: ‘Ngorongoro and Serengeti are two fantastic places, and we had the rare privilege of visiting with very little tourism, really feeling and breathing the place.’

They’ve seen outstanding game from lion cubs to grazing rhino and spotted phenomenal birdlife, including shoebills. They’ve enjoyed great hospitality and delicious food, and received thanks themselves: ‘the Botswana people were very happy to welcome us and thanked us multiple times for taking the effort to come to their country in these complicated times.’

Barbara and Charles, who had sought us out on recommendation, had to defer their original 2020 safari to 2021 but recently wrote to tell us that ‘the changes and details which made this trip happen could not have been handled better…We are so grateful. And it was worth all the planning. Zambia was wonderful.’ In fact, they loved it so much, they are already planning their next safari with us.

Dan and Annie felt the same. Their Okavango Delta experience was ‘just fantastic and we would recommend it unreservedly to anyone. The mobile safari was beyond amazing.’

And in fact, ‘beyond amazing’ was exactly the phrase used by our lovely American traveller, Judy, whose email prompted this newsletter addendum. She wrote:

‘I think the thing that made our trip so special was that we had the most experienced guides to ourselves (Kiki at Nkwali, Willy at Nsefu, and Patrick at Mwamba). They were the best guides we ever had anywhere, but also awesome people. I was a bit worried about being the only guests in camp, but we had great dinner conversations. Zambians are so funny!

It breaks my heart that such accomplished men had to resort to subsistence farming last year to feed their families. If we could manage the travel/time off, we’d go again soon just to support them.

I’d say fully-vaccinated Americans are perfectly safe while on safari in Zambia, and facilities we encountered en route, for example, in Lusaka, were mandating masks and following strict safety protocols. Everything including the testing was very easy and operators here are doing everything possible to keep guests and staff safe.’ (Read Judy’s comments in full here.)

We couldn’t agree more. And we cannot wait to help more of you get back to the wonders of Africa.

If you’ve been inspired and want to find out more, give us a call or enquire now to speak to an expert.

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