According to a recent article written by photojournalist, Scott Ramsay, rhino poaching in South Africa is at record levels, with more than 1 215 having been killed in 2014. The game rangers are the soldiers on the front line in this war against the annihilation of a species, putting their lives and those of their families on the line.
Targeting poachers outside protected areas
Lawrence Munro, winner of the Best Conservation Practitioner Rhino Conservation Award in 2014, and previously the head ranger of the iMfolozi wilderness area in the southern section of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, now heads up the Rhino Operations Unit, the anti-poaching task force for the whole of KwaZulu-Natal.
Munro’s unit has been relatively successful and he attributes much of the success to targeting poachers and their syndicates outside of protected areas, rather than waiting for poachers to come into the reserves.
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A great advance in the war against poaching is the listing of rhino poaching as a priority national crime, indicating that government’s intelligence and security agencies now support conservation agencies such as Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife.
This essential yet dangerous line of work is unforgiving, unrelenting and dangerous. Thirty-nine year-old Munro, who has a young family, is constantly armed and on guard.
“I am thinking combatively all the time,” he explains. “My family and I have had very directed, pointed death threats. Letters addressed to me that say: 'We don’t want you around anymore.'”
One of the consequences of his line of work is that his family cannot travel after dark without Munro as escort. He works strenuously long hours – preparing during the day and hunting poachers at night. This places stress on his family and affects every facet of his life.
Ugly and confrontational
Munro is often forced to keep a lot of his work secret, unable to reveal anything to his family that will endanger their lives. Despite the danger, Munro loves his work. “It’s such a great feeling to catch a rhino poacher or middleman."
But the job does take its toll. "We deal with paradoxes all the time,” says Munro.
“We flit between what is beautiful and peaceful one day, to what is very ugly and confrontational the next.” On Christmas Day, Munro and his team were on patrol in the iMfolozi wilderness area.
At dusk they were treated to a spectacular sunset, but the beauty was shattered by numerous gunshots. All they could think about was if the rhinos and Munro’s team were safe.“ We sprinted to the contact point.
Read: Join the Rhino Wars
"There were bodies lying around, and I prayed it wasn’t one of our team. Fortunately it was the poachers who had been killed, and none of our team was hurt." Despite these battles, which Munro describes as “a typical day’s work”, he has lost only one man so far.
“People do die. Luckily, so far, the majority were poachers, but we’re under no illusions.”
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Image: White rhino with horns removed to save from poachers from Shutterstock