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EDITOR IN CHIEF- ABDULLAH BIN SALIM AL SHUEILI

Killing of ranger protecting rhinos raises fears for conservation efforts

Africa’s close-knit conservation community has been reeling since Mzimba was gunned down in front of his family at home on July 26. The slaying has stoked concerns that criminal syndicates may be growing more brazen and violent in their efforts to secure illegal wildlife products
Anton Mzimba, head ranger at the Timbavati nature reserve in South Africa.
Anton Mzimba, head ranger at the Timbavati nature reserve in South Africa.
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Anton Mzimba, the lead ranger at a reserve in South Africa, had received multiple death threats. But he tried not to let the warnings of danger get to him, reminding himself that by protecting rhinos, he was working for the greater good, according to an interview he gave last year.


“What I’m doing, I’m not doing for my own sake,” Mzimba said in the 2021 interview. “I’m doing this for the world, for my children’s children, so that one day, when I hang my boots — when I retire, when I die — they are going to enjoy the wildlife.”


Africa’s close-knit conservation community has been reeling since Mzimba was gunned down in front of his family at home on July 26. His wife was also shot but survived. The slaying has stoked concerns that criminal syndicates may be growing more brazen and violent in their efforts to secure illegal wildlife products.


Mzimba, 42, was the head ranger at Timbavati Private Nature Reserve, a 206-square-mile protected area in the Greater Kruger landscape, home to elephants, rhinoceroses, lions, leopards and cheetahs. In an environment plagued by poaching and corruption, Mzimba was known for being incorruptible — a stalwart of conservation.


“If you want to talk front line, you talk Anton Mzimba,” said Ruben de Kock, operations manager for LEAD Ranger, a professional training group. “He was the ultimate ranger.”


Reached by phone, Brig Selvy Mohlala, a spokesperson for the police unit leading the investigation into Mzimba’s killing, said that “we don’t know if the attack had something to do with his work or private life.”


But given the number of serious job-related threats aimed at Mzimba and his efforts to thwart crime syndicates, Andrew Campbell, CEO of the Game Rangers’ Association of Africa, said that would appear to be the most likely motive.


Mzimba’s dedication to defending wildlife “definitely” seems to have been a factor, said Edwin Pierce, Timbavati’s warden.


“Anton was a man of integrity, a man that wouldn’t waver from protection of rhinos,” he said. “For syndicates to have actually gone ahead with this, it means Anton was a significant threat to them.”


Rangers around the world risk their lives every day, but those in Africa face especially high levels of danger. Elephant and rhino poachers are always armed, and in politically unstable places like the Congo, militia groups frequently clash with rangers.


Of the 565 African rangers known to have died in the line of duty since 2011, 52 per cent of the deaths were homicides, according to Campbell. The number of deaths has also been increasing, he said, with a record high of 92 rangers last year, half of them attributed to homicide.


Mzimba’s death stands out, however, as “an escalation from the norm,” Campbell said. “Now these syndicates feel comfortable literally coming in and doing mob-style hits.”


It is also probable, Campbell added, that Mzimba was targeted because of his high profile in the conservation and wildlife security community. He was named Field Ranger of the Year and is featured as the protagonist of an upcoming documentary film, “Rhino Man.”


Born in Mozambique, Mzimba and his family moved to South Africa in search of better opportunities. His career in conservation began by chance, when a job removing invasive plants brought him to Timbavati. Mzimba was just 17, but his work ethic caught the eye of the reserve’s warden, who offered him a full-time position.


Within a decade, Mzimba had become head of the ranger corps at Timbavati.


“This was a person who truly made it from the bottom to the top,” de Kock said.


Mzimba often said he viewed wildlife protection as his duty as a Christian, and he was also renowned for his loyalty.


When Mzimba started working at Timbavati in 1998, the poachers he apprehended were mostly poor men who sneaked into the reserve to hunt animals for food. By the 2010s, however, organised criminal syndicates were aggressively pursuing rhino horns, which were in high demand in China, Vietnam and other Asian countries.


“We went from subsistence poaching and killing animals for meat to killing animals for money,” Mzimba said last year.


As of 2017, South Africa was home to 75 per cent of the world’s remaining 23,562 white and black rhinos, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. At least 9,353 of South Africa’s rhinos have been killed for their horns over the past 13 years. Although poaching has decreased from a high of 1,215 rhinos lost in 2014, it remains a major problem: Last year, 451 rhinos were killed.


“I would say we’re holding the line,” said Elise Serfontein, founding director of StopRhinoPoaching.com, a South Africa-based non-profit conservation organisation. “But the effort to hold that line comes at a massive cost financially, and a massive cost physically and mentally for rangers and reserve management.”


Rangers regularly receive death threats for their work, Pierce said, and Mzimba was no exception.


“The poaching syndicates were trying to emotionally and psychologically break him, and he wouldn’t break,” de Kock said.


Last spring, Mzimba opened an intimidation docket with the local police to report multiple threats tied to his work protecting wildlife.


“We were hoping that those who were threatening Anton’s life would be arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit murder,” Pierce said.


According to Pierce and de Kock, Mzimba learned in May that his name was then on a more serious hit list. De Kock and his wife offered to let Mzimba and his family temporarily stay at their home in another part of the country, but Mzimba declined, telling de Kock he needed to stay close to his fellow rangers.


According to Mohlala, the police spokesperson, two people arrived at Mzimba’s home on July 26 claiming that their vehicle had broken down and asking for water. Mzimba was outside working on his car, and when his son went to fetch the water, they shot Mzimba. They also shot his wife, who is still in the hospital.


No arrests have been made, Mohlala said, “but it’s safe to say that we haven’t stopped investigating.”


- The New York Times


The writer is a freelance journalist for the New York Times


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