31 Jul 2018 Story Ecosystems

Dangerous job for South African wildlife rangers despite new technology

Photo by Stewart Nolan/GRAA

Just a few days ago, a wildlife ranger was killed in Kruger National Park in South Africa while tracking suspected rhino poachers, highlighting the rangers’ difficult and dangerous work.

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Ranger Respect Mathebula was killed chasing poachers in Kruger National Park recently. Photo by UN Environment/GEF Rhino Project

World Ranger Day, an initiative of the International Ranger Federation, is marked on 31 July to celebrate the work rangers do to protect the planet’s natural treasures and commemorate those killed in the line of duty.

A 2014-2018 project funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) titled Strengthening Law Enforcement Capabilities to Combat Wildlife Crime for Conservation and Sustainable Use of Species in South Africa (target rhinoceros) is stepping up the fight against wildlife crime. The project is executed by the South African Department of Environmental Affairs and implemented by UN Environment.

GEF, with additional funding from the US Department of State, provided mobile crime unit 4x4 off-road trailers. These are used by “Environmental Management Inspectors”, supported by rangers. One of the rangers’ key tasks is to protect crime scenes and preserve evidence before the crime unit arrives. At the same time, they need to protect themselves against poachers, as well as lions.

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Colonel Karen Botha of the South African Police Service taking human DNA samples from a poached rhino at Loskop Nature Reserve, Mpumalanga Province, with the aim of linking suspected poachers to the dead rhino. Photo by Michael Strang/UN Environment-GEF rhino project, Aug 2016

“The mobile crime units have everything needed to collect crime scene samples, including a full necropsy of the dead rhino,” says Michael Strang, Project Manager of the GEF rhino project.  

“Floodlights and an electric fence, both run off a mobile generator, add a measure of safety against hungry lions. Two weeks ago, one of our inspectors was hastily called to investigate a poached rhino and did not have time to pick up the mobile crime trailer. A full pride of lions was already eating the rhino when he arrived. Fortunately, he made it out alive,” says Strang.

Crime scene DNA samples of rhinos are analysed at a UN Environment/GEF-funded laboratory at the University of Pretoria Veterinary Genetics Laboratory. Since the inception of the project in 2014, over 700 samples have been requested in court cases related to poaching.

The project has also paid for sample collection kits for routine and stockpile rhino DNA samples. These samples add to the most comprehensive rhino DNA database in South Africa. This impressive collection enables investigators to compare DNA from seized rhino horns and determine linkages that allow for tracking illegal trade routes and investigating organized crime syndicates.

Training needed to keep ahead of the game

The UN Environment-GEF funded project also supports the training of rangers, investigators, prosecutors and magistrates. Over 1,250 Grade 5 field rangers completed training in critical skills in October 2017.

New technology has been identified to keep ahead of poachers and to make up for manpower shortages. A Patrol Optimization Programme, with additional US funding, was developed using new technology to more efficiently manage scarce human resources.
 

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Environmental Management Inspector Catherine Dreyer giving instructions to rangers in Great Fish Nature Reserve, Eastern Cape, on the use of new communications technology. Photo by Michael Strang/ UN Environment-GEF rhino project, Jan 2017

Other new technology, partially funded by GEF, includes health monitoring sensors in rhinos that transmit data through a series of Wi-Fi antennae known as LoRa. Such technology not only saves rhinos, but also provides rangers with technical knowledge that increases South Africa’s overall capabilities.

Also as part of the project, a pilot programme started with the Black Mamba all-woman anti-poaching unit at the Balule private nature reserve. This assisted the unit in deploying teams to strategic areas and forcing poachers away from rhinos.

The International Ranger Federation works with partners to ensure that the world’s terrestrial and marine parks, and the flora and fauna that live in them, are protected from vandalism, poaching, theft, exploitation and destruction. Founded in 1992, it brings together 90 ranger associations from over 50 countries.

The Federation defines a ranger as a “person involved in the practical protection and preservation of all aspects of wild areas, historical and cultural sites”.

For further information: Jane Nimpamya: Jane.Nimpamya[at]un.org or Frances Craigie: Craigie[at]environment.gov.za or Michael Strang: MStrang[at]environment.gov.za