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Last week, two families lost breadwinners; two spouses lost their husbands; and children of two families lost their fathers after callous murders by poachers. The two were protecting Zimbabwe’s rich wildlife, the envy of many, as evidenced by foreign tourists making a beeline to this country to marvel at its breathtaking flora and fauna.
According to the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, two rangers arrested four Zambian nationals on December 31, 2019 for poaching and were transporting them by boat to Kariba Town for a court appearance.
But somewhere during the course of transporting them across the lake, the rangers must have been overpowered by the poachers, brutally assaulted — judging by the severity of wounds on their bodies — then killed and dumped in Lake Kariba.
Since the poachers have sophisticated equipment, which includes guns and communications systems, it is possible they called for back-up while on the lake, were rescued and made good their escape across the waters into Zambia.
The bodies of the rangers were discovered after a week-long search. They had multiple wounds, suspected to have been inflicted by a sharp spear-like weapon.
Why advance a theory about interception on the waters? Clearly if there had been a struggle between the rangers and the poachers while crossing the lake, there is a probability that the boat would have capsized and all six would have drowned.
But the fact that it is only the rangers’ bodies that were recovered and their boat was found near Siavonga, in Zambia, without its engine would appear to suggest interception by poachers’ reinforcements.
While the rangers’ base is at Changa Island, their bodies were found between Spurwing and Long islands.
While the hunt for the poachers is ongoing, the bodies of the two rangers were taken to Parirenyatwa Hospital in Harare for post-mortem before burial.The expectation is that the examinations will shed light into how the rangers met their fate.
The lake is next to Matusadona National Park, home to elephants, hyenas, leopards and lions. Poachers would normally negotiate their way across the water mass before entering the national park to conduct their dastardly acts either under cover of darkness or brazenly in broad daylight.
As a result of the lake’s proximity to Matusadona, cases of armed clashes between poachers and rangers in the Kariba area, where Zimbabwe borders Zambia, have reportedly been on an upward trajectory.
The frequency of the clashes indicates that this area has become a hub for elephant poaching and sadly, if this continues, elephants in this landscape will be lost in a relatively short period.
So this is a race against time.
However, elephants aren’t the only species being targeted. The majority of the rhino population was lost to poaching. Those remaining are in protected sanctuaries.
There is no need to wait until the elephant population is decimated. Lessons from the fight against rhino poachers should be instructive on the kind of fight on our hands and combat readiness against this threat to wildlife.
While effective communication is one of the simplest and key deterrents to poaching, because of the speed with which reinforcements can be marshalled, many national parks suffer from a funding deficit, which results in rangers using outdated equipment and radios that poachers can hack, accessing sensitive communication among anti-poaching units.
The poachers are well-equipped and use heavy weapons, GPS and means of transportation. Rangers, on the other hand, have limited fire-power and resources, which are usually no match for the poachers.
In the fight to protect and preserve the country’s rich wildlife, there is need for a frank conversation on an effective response to the threat to wildlife. This could be in the form of increased funding to equip those involved in protecting national parks, the use of drones to identify and track the poachers before they enter the national parks, and then calling rapid reaction teams.
And since the poachers seem well resourced, rangers, who put their lives at risk, need regular up-skilling and better remuneration.
Could not a portion of the proceeds from paying tourists be reserved for beefing up anti-poaching efforts?
Shouldn’t there be more and effective patrols of the borders — including use of infrared equipment for nocturnal patrols — through which the poachers are finding their way into the national parks.