By James Draven
Dozens of park rangers are killed by poachers each year. One of Kenya's most experienced reveals his battle scars and talks about the increasingly tough task of protecting Africa's wildlife
At least 56 park rangers globally were killed in the line of duty over the past 12 months, according to the latest figures released by the International Ranger Federation (IRF) to mark World Ranger Day last week.
While it’s certainly a dangerous job, scroll down the IRF’s annual Ranger Roll of Honour and, alongside causes of death such as 'animal,’ 'accident,’ and 'drowning,’ a shocking and much more frequent word leaps out from the page: 'homicide.’
Twenty-nine of this year’s reported deaths were at the hands of those involved in the illegal wildlife trade; the year before, poachers and militia were responsible for 69 killings, prompting calls for tougher laws against wildlife crime.
India, Thailand, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Kenya have seen the sharpest increase in ranger deaths caused by poachers in recent years. Areas rich in elephants, rhinoceros, prized timbers and valuable minerals were most affected, with more than 20,000 elephants illegally killed in Africa in the past year alone.
According to 69-year-old John Mutiso Kyeli, Chief Game Warden at Kenya’s Mbulia Conservancy, overlooking the Tsavo West region, violence towards game park wardens is not a new problem.
The scale of the poaching epidemic
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Before moving here in 2011, Mutiso spent 35 years as a Kenya Wildlife Services ranger – the country’s 'thin green line’ on the war against poaching –and he has the scars to prove it. As we briefly pause during a walking patrol to shelter from the scorching midday heat, Mutiso props his vintage shotgun up against a cliff face and rolls up a trouser leg to show me the wounds he’s received from poachers’ bullets on his calf and then on to an angry-looking fissure on his thigh from the very horns of the wildlife he’s out here to protect. At his hip hangs a well-worn semi-automatic pistol.
I offer him some water, but John refuses: “I never drink water on patrol,” he confides, “Once we were tracking some poachers and they poisoned a water hole with insecticide because they knew we had to pass that way. Four men died because of the poison and I was two months in hospital. The poachers returned armed to find four dead and those that did not drink the water were still burying their bodies. They killed another eight.”
Mutiso’s employer, Richard Corcoran, 47-year-old manager of Kipalo Hills, the only safari lodge on the 28,000-acre (11,400 hectares) conservancy, said the problem is these criminals are well funded and better equipped. “When we raid these guys’ camps we find all this new Chinese equipment: GPS, guns, nets…” he said, indicating that this is where he believes recruitment, funding and demand for the illegal wildlife trade is coming from. “The last big haul that was found by the Kenya government was in the Taiwanese diplomatic mail. It was 47 rhino horns.”
John Mutiso has put poachers behind bars, Corcoran added, and seen them sentenced to 15 years in prison but six months later – due to what he calls 'dodgy dealings’ – the same men are back on their conservancy hunting elephants.
Indeed, Mutiso’s move from the KWS to a private sector role has been anything but a retirement for him. In this past year, he and his platoon of a dozen young rangers (half as many as he says he needs) have put six serious poachers behind bars and found and removed over 800 animal snares. John’s children now subvert their materials, making wildlife sculptures from them.
As John plucks a wire giraffe from their workbench and examines it in the sunlight he says, “Sometimes I do still work for the KWS though. I cannot hear any report concerning wildlife and say 'I’m not working,’ I must go to help.”
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