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31 July, 2023

On the front lines of the fight against poachers

Royal Malewane

A day to remember

The theme for this year’s World Ranger Day (Monday, 31 July) is ‘Honour our Fallen Ranger Heroes’. It’s a theme that highlights the important distinction between Guides and Trackers, and Rangers. The two roles have overlapping skill sets, but the jobs involve quite different work.

Guides and Trackers work in ecotourism. Their main responsibilities include sharing the secrets of the bushveld with safari guests, and inspiring future conservationists. Guides and Trackers use their skills and bush knowledge to find the wildlife that guests want to see, interpret animal and bird behaviour, and ensure that all the guests have a safe, enjoyable safari. It’s a rewarding and challenging career, but fortunately, the work is rarely dangerous.

Stopping poachers in their tracks

Rangers have a different focus. Like Guides and Trackers, they have excellent bush skills, and put these to good use every day. However, their role is essentially law enforcement. Far away from the nearest police station, Rangers ensure that the bushveld is safe for the wildlife species that live there.

Illegal activities (everything from firewood collection, dumping rubbish and allowing livestock to graze in protected areas) threaten the integrity of ecosystems, and can result in wild animals catching diseases that they have no immunity against. When livestock and wildlife come into contact, predators may be unable to resist the allure of an easy meal in the shape of a cow or a goat. This impacts on the livelihoods of herders, and can lead to human/wildlife contact, with predators being shot or indiscriminately poisoned.

Rangers need to have diplomatic skills and a high level of cultural empathy to manage these situations. That’s why the best Rangers tend to come from the local communities – communities which are also essential conservation stakeholders.


The threat to wildlife

Perhaps the most serious threat to Africa’s wildlife, however, is poaching. Elephant ivory and rhino horns in particular are in high demand, and can be sold on the underground market for sums that greatly exceed what a poacher might otherwise earn in a year.

Poaching has decimated elephant and especially rhino populations, and is a real issue in areas that – like the Greater Kruger – adjoin international borders (as these give poachers an easy escape route). Because poachers tend to be heavily armed, the Rangers tasked with deterring and apprehending them need to be armed, too – and of course this dramatically raises the stakes for everyone involved.

A high price to pay

Every year, across Africa, Rangers are injured and even killed in the line of duty. These brave men and women have paid the ultimate price for their commitment to defending the wildlife that belongs to all African people. Not only do these animals belong here, but their presence supports tens of thousands of jobs in conservation and ecotourism.

The risks that Rangers run every day explain the theme of this year’s World Ranger Day. While being a Ranger is undoubtedly dangerous, they do have two secret weapons that help them make a difference. One of these is the support of local communities, who rightly resent the poachers who are robbing them of their natural heritage, and of their livelihoods.

The Tango K9 Unit

The second ace that Rangers hold – especially those in the Greater Kruger – is the assistance of the ultimate crime-fighters: the highly trained tracking and pursuit dogs with whom they work hand-in-paw.
These brave canines have abilities that even the most advanced human technology cannot match, especially when it comes to identifying and following tracks and scents. Once these dogs – like those of the Tango K9 Unit – get on a scent, the poachers or other trespassers are in very real danger of being found and arrested.

As we honour Africa’s fallen ranger heroes this World Ranger Day, why not take a few moments to learn more about the Tango K9 Rangers of Greater Kruger and their canine colleagues in our blog.

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