I don’t know why I survived

Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) Honey Badger Team - ivory recovered - Photo Credit David Shepherd
Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) Honey Badger Team - ivory recovered - Photo Credit David Shepherd

THE sound of the bugle reverberates across the Lusaka National Park as men in camouflage stand still around a monument, their guns held stiffly at a 90 degrees angle.
It is a solemn moment for the over 100 wildlife officials and game rangers gathered to commemorate Ranger Day on July 31. The day is used to remember those who have died in the line of duty trying to protect wildlife.
A plaque on the monument is engraved with 11 names of rangers killed since 2008.

One of the 11 being remembered today is Jonathan Mbao, who was mauled by a lion in the South Luangwa National Park on August 9, 2011.
But it is not the ferocious wild beasts that pose the greatest danger to rangers, it is the poachers.
And there are some horrific tales of rangers who have died at the hands of poachers.
Esnart Poundi was savagely hacked to death by poachers in Central Province, west of Kabwe on September 14, 2010.

And then there is Dexter Chilunda, who was on patrol on Quad-bike on May 22, 2014 in Kalabo when he responded to the sound of gunshot in the woods. When he got to the source of the gunshot, he was gunned down in cold blood.
Following the memorial procession today is Garry*, who was shot by a poacher in 2013.

Garry is an investigator for the Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA), usually working undercover pretending to be a buyer of ivory or rhino horns.

He says many times the rhino horns have turned out to be fake. Crooks usually make cow horns to resemble the highly-valued rhino horns, which they sell to unsuspecting foreigners, usually Chinese.
Garry has tracked down many poachers and illegal trophy buyers this way, and lured them into a dragnet.

The 34-year-old ranger also possesses a sixth sense to sniff out the game meat, and he denies using any juju in his work.
When Garry was a child, he dreamed of handling firearms. He says that dream was realized after he joined ZAWA nine years ago.
But he says he would rather face a lion in the bush than a poacher. He has unmasked dislike for the illegal game hunters.
“I don’t like the poacher,” says Garry with contempt in his voice. “A poacher is a dangerous person; if he just sees you, he will clear you. It’s better I face a lion than a poacher.”

On the day Garry was shot, he was on routine patrol with other rangers in Mazabuka, which has no game reserve but has a big population of antelopes around the sugar plantations.
Around 17:00 hours, the rangers heard a gunshot in the sugar cane fields. The other officers decided to investigate the sound, but Garry decided to remain in the vehicle. He later walked a few metres from the vehicle in order to take photographs of a kudu grazing nearby.
But he soon found himself facing a man with a shotgun pointed at him. The man pulled the trigger before Garry could react.

The ranger was hit in the abdomen. Seventeen pellets entered his body at different points, including his hip.
Garry has no recollection of what happened thereafter. When he came to, he was lying in a hospital bed.

“I didn’t know what had happened. I only found myself lying in hospital surrounded by many people dressed in white,” he says.
Remarkably, Garry made full recovery, although six pellets are still lodged in his body.
The man who shot him was arrested a year later and is currently serving a term in prison.

Apart from facing the risk of death in the wild, Garry has also witnessed first-hand the ruthlessness of poachers in their dirty work.
He narrates how his team responded to a gunshot in the Lower Zambezi one morning, but when they arrived at the crime scene minutes later, the poachers had already vanished with the ivory, leaving behind a dead elephant.
“It pained me, I felt like crying,” says the ranger.

According to Garry, the poachers pour petro around the skin where the tusks are joined to the animal, which causes the tusks to detach from the body and are then pulled out with ease.
Going after the poachers is increasingly becoming a risky business.
What more, the poachers have become more sophisticated and their dirty operations more syndicated. And usually, they have more fire power than the game rangers.

ZAWA acting director general Kampamba Kombe says game reserves have become battle grounds for game rangers trying to protect animals from ruthless poachers armed with automatic weapons.
“Poaching nowadays involves international syndicates and they have advanced weapons; even more advanced than what our officers have. And so

I want to urge the Government to ensure that they invest in the weapons that we need to fight poaching,” he says.
Mr Kombe also wants a new law to allow game rangers to shoot poachers. About two weeks ago, the ZAWA chief lobbied Parliamentarians to change the law in order to grant rangers authority to shoot armed poachers.
Under the current law, ZAWA rangers could face criminal charges if they shot poachers.

Mr Kombe has a lot of praise for the fallen rangers, describing them as “compatriots who risked their lives to save national heritage”.
And despite his close brush with death, Garry has continued risking his life, going after the poachers.
His passion to protect wildlife is driven by his desire to preserve endangered species such as rhinos for future generations.
“I want my grandchildren to have a chance to see an elephant or rhino,” he says.

Garry loves animals, although his favourite among the wild creatures is not your usual suspect – impala.
“When I see impala, it’s like I’ve seen part of my family. It’s a smart animal,” he says. “I can’t kill an impala.”
The soft-spoken and reticent game ranger also has unreserved respect for the crocodile and always stays clear of the grumpy reptile.

“I can face a lion, but not a crocodile,” he says.
When the small ceremony is over, Garry walks over to the monument, now decorated with several wreaths, and runs down his finger on the list of names engraved on the plaque, making a brief commentary about how some of the rangers he knew personally died.
Yes, Garry survived the poacher’s bullet, but he knows his name would well have been number 12 on the plaque.
“I don’t know why I survived,” says Garry, shrugging his shoulders.
*Because of the nature of his job, Garry’s full identity has been withheld.