The words of “CONTACT, Contact with armed poachers” rings out in a loud shaky voice over the hand held radio’s and the smell of expended cordite burns the nostrils as smoke from the recently fired weapons still hangs in the air. As the bushveld begins to settle again after a brief but violent encounter, the screams of a wounded poacher penetrate the deepest recesses of the minds of the conservation ranger patrol.
A careful follow-up search by the rangers after the shoot-out reveals a poacher in old tattered clothing writhing in agony from a bullet that ripped a large gapping wound through his thigh and which now spills his life-blood into the dusty ground. The vile smell of the poacher’s fear and emptied bowels adds to the horror of the scene. Next to him lies the high-caliber hunting rifle that he had raised and fired at the rangers, forcing them to respond with force. Five meters further away lies another poacher, with an evil looking AK47 half tucked underneath him. He however is motionless having been killed instantly as his skull was blown wide open by another of the ranger’s bullets.
While waiting for the police to arrive and after having assisted the wounded poacher as best as possible, each ranger is left to his own thoughts. He is relieved that not only has he again saved a rhino from the poachers bullet but has also “beaten-the-clock” against the pieces of fast flying lead that had been let loose by the poachers. He wonders, with a shaking head, how many more of these dangerous encounters he will have to face and fears the nightmares that will again come to haunt him as his re-lives each minute detail of the shoot-out. Then he begins to worry about the inevitable inquest that may take a few years to determine if the shooting will be considered legitimate or if it will see him sentenced to years behind prison bars and being labeled as a murderer. He also worries if his family will understand what he has been through and if they will support him through the unavoidable mood swings as he battles to deal with all that has happened.
Far distant from the battlefield-like encounters and worries of the rangers, sit government bureaucrats, safe and comfortable in their offices where they argue with rich businessmen and rogue hunters about whether or not to open up a trade in rhino horn. Cash is at the center of these arguments and which takes no account of the sacrifices taking place in the field. Facebook users call for the killing of all poachers and effortlessly hit the “like” button every time that there is a media announcement telling of a poacher’s fatality. Little do all of these people understand of the full implications of their calls or what it is like to actually pull the trigger against another human being!
As the blood of the rhinos and the poachers drains away into the African soils to become yet another meaningless statistic, few actually realise and perhaps many do not even care, what it takes to keep Africa’s icons alive and what sacrifices the rangers have to make on a daily basis! These conservation heroes need our support and the killing of both poachers and rhinos needs to stop!
This project is carried out in partnership with the Game Rangers Association of Africa (GRAA) that provides support, networks and representation for game rangers across Africa. This conservation photography project will use rangers as the “lead characters” to highlight the issues faced by conservationists and showcase opportunities for improved support of rangers in the future. Positive and targeted messages will be communicated that emphasise the critical role that rangers play in African conservation in ensuring that the continent’s natural heritage is preserved for the benefit of future generations. Support Africa’s Rangers by supporting the GRAA.
Peter Chadwick is a Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) whose mission is to further environmental and cultural conservation through photography. The iLCP’s goal is to use the art of high-quality photography to encourage people to take action in support of tangible and meaningful conservation measures.
Visit African Conservation Photography for a full gallery of Ranger images.