Killing rangers protecting rhinos sparks fear for conservation efforts

Anton Mzimba, the chief ranger at a reserve in South Africa, has received numerous death threats. But he tries not to let the danger warnings get to him, reminding himself that by protecting the rhinos, he is working for the greater good, according to an interview he gave. out last year.

“What I am doing, I am not doing for my own benefit,” Mr. Mzimba said in Interview in 2021. “I’m doing this for the world, for my children, so that one day, when I hang up my shoes – when I retire, when I die – they will enjoy life in the wild.”

Africa’s close conservation community has been reeling since Mr. Mzimba was shot down in front of his family at home on July 26. His wife was also shot, but survived. The killing has raised concerns that criminal organizations may become increasingly brazen and violent in their efforts to secure illegal wildlife products.

Mr. Mzimba, 42, is chief ranger at Timbavati Private Nature Reserve, a 206-square-mile reserve in the Greater Kruger landscape that is home to elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards and cheetahs . In an environment rife with poaching and corruption, Mr. Mzimba is known as a man of integrity – a man of conservation interest.

“If you want to speak on the front lines, say Anton Mzimba,” said Ruben de Kock, chief executive officer of LEAD Ranger, a professional training group. “He’s the ultimate ranger.”

Reach out by phone, Brig. Selvy Mohlala, a spokesman for the police unit leading the investigation into Mr Mzimba’s murder, said “we don’t know if the attack has anything to do with his work or his private life. “.

But given the number of serious work-related threats directed at Mr Mzimba and his efforts to stop organized crime, said Andrew Campbell, chief executive officer of Africa’s Game Rangers Association. that seems to be the most likely engine.

Edwin Pierce, Timbavati’s manager, said Mr Mzimba’s dedication to wildlife protection “certainly” seems to be a factor. “Anton is a man of integrity, someone who does not waver in defense of rhinos,” he said.

Mr Pierce added: “For the cooperative organizations that have really come before this, it means that Anton is a significant threat to them.

Rangers around the world risk their lives every day, but those in Africa face particularly high levels of danger. Elephant and rhino poachers are always armed, and in politically unstable places like the Democratic Republic of 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% of the deaths were homicides, Campbell said. The death toll is also rising, he said, with a record high of 92 rangers last year, half of which were attributed to homicide.

However, Mr. Mzimba’s death stood out as “an escalation from normal”, Mr Campbell said. “Now, these organizations feel literally comfortable getting in and doing crowd-style hits.”

Mr Campbell added it was also possible Mr Mzimba was targeted because of his high track record in the wildlife security and conservation community. He is named Ranger of the Year and being introduced as the protagonist of an upcoming documentary, “Rhino Man. He also served as a technical advisor to Global Conservation, where he helped initiate a program that now connects 10,000 South African students a week to their natural heritage.

“Anton is one of the most kind, gentle and loving people, but he’s also a fighter,” said John Jurko II, co-director of “Rhino Man.” “He was out there protecting these rhinos from serious threats from poachers.”

Born in Mozambique, Mr. Mzimba and his family moved to South Africa in search of better opportunities. His conservation career began by accident, when an invasive plant removal job brought him to Timbavati. Mr. Mzimba was only 17 years old, but his work ethic caught the eye of the reserve’s supervisor, who offered him a full-time position.

Within a decade, Mr. Mzimba had become the head of the ranger corps in Timbavati. “This is someone who really does it from the bottom up,” said Mr. de Kock.

Mr. Mzimba has often said that he considers wildlife protection his duty as a Christian, and that he is also known for his loyalty.

When Mr. Mzimba started working in Timbavati in 1998, the poachers he captured were mostly poor men who sneaked into the reserve to hunt animals for food. However, by the 2010s, organized crime syndicates were aggressively hunting for rhino horn, which was in high demand in China, Vietnam and other Asian countries. “We went from poaching and killing animals for meat to be self-sufficient to killing animals for money,” Mr. Mzimba said last year.

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

“I can say we are keeping the profits,” said Elise Serfontein, founding director of, a non-profit conservation organization based in South Africa. “But the effort to get hold of that line comes with a huge financial cost, and a huge physical and emotional cost to rangers and reserve managers.”

Mr. Pierce said rangers regularly receive death threats for their work, and Mr. Mzimba is no exception. Mr. de Kock said: “Poaching organizations are trying to hurt him emotionally and psychologically, and he is not going to break.

Last spring, Mr. Mzimba held a press conference with the local police to report multiple threats related to his wildlife protection work. Mr Pierce said: “We had hoped that those who threatened Anton’s life would be arrested and charged with attempted murder.

According to Mr. Pierce and Mr. de Kock, Mr. Mzimba learned in May that his name was on the list of more serious attacks. Mr. de Kock and his wife offered to leave Mr. Mzimba and his family temporarily at their home in another part of the country, but Mr. Mzimba refused and told Mr. de Kock that he needed to be near his ranger colleagues. .

According to Brigadier General Mohlala, a police spokesman, the two men went to Mr. Mzimba’s house on July 26 to report that their car had broken down and asked for water. Mr. Mzimba was outside working in his car, and when his son went to get water, they shot Mr. Mzimba. They also shot his wife, who is still in the hospital.

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

Mr. Mzimba is not the first senior conservationist to be killed in a targeted assassination attempt. For example, in 2017, Wayne Lotter, co-director of the PAMS Foundation, an anti-poaching group in Tanzania investigating the ivory trade, was shot dead in his car on his way home from the airport to Dar es Salaam. “When we lost Wayne, it was definitely something that opened our eyes to the extent to which people would go if you got in their way,” said Krissie Clark, director of PAMS. PAMS’s founding director said.

In 2020, Lieutenant Colonel. Leroy Bruwer, a South African police detective who specializes in investigating rhino poaching syndicates, was also shot dead while driving to work. Last year, Bajila Obed Kofa, a senior officer with the Kenya Wildlife Service, was fatally shot while driving home after dropping his daughter off at school.

“South Africa in particular has suffered” extremely high levels of assassinations, said Julian Rademeyer, regional director for East and South Africa at the Global Initiative to Combat Transnational Organized Crime. politics and organized crime”. Now, the fear is that such targeted killings may also become more of the norm for conservationists.

Mr Rademeyer added that if Mr Mzimba’s killers are not brought to justice, it will have a chilling effect on other rangers and “will send a message that these will go unpunished and The people involved can’t be reached.”

Only 19 percent of South Africa The murder case is solved, according to the Institute for Security Studies. Mr Pierce said that so far he and his colleagues have been “disappointed” by what they see as a lack of urgency and “slowness” in the investigation. Mr. Pierce said: “Anton’s legacy needs to be celebrated, and we need to delve into this. “We expect this to be treated as a high-priority case.”

Brigadier General Mohlala said: “All murder cases are considered high priority crimes. “As soon as we get something, we make sure to make a quick arrest.”

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