Wesbank

Wildlife Director has blood on his hands

SHARE   |   Tuesday, 20 November 2018   |   By Thomas Dust Nyoni
Game rangers on patrol Game rangers on patrol

Ace on Natural Resources

The death of a Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) officer in a horrific leopard attack in Khutshe Game Reserve in the summer of 2018 is a stark reminder of the dangers that can be posed by wildlife. One of the legendary Problem Animal Control (PAC) officers has just lost his life due to an attack by a translocated leopard. If my memory serves me well, two PAC Officers have been killed by buffaloes and a leopard in the line of duty, and this is treated as normal. As nature continues to decline across the world, worsened by unrelenting levels of illegal logging and rampant poaching, wildlife rangers are one of the planet’s first and last line of defense. Game rangers work in parks, reserves, historical sites and monuments. Wildlife officers in our national parks and PAC officers work in deplorable conditions, and are exposed to these animal. Some of them are not capacitated to deal with these animals.

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On many occassions, they aact as law enforcement officers although their powers vary as they may be armed or unarmed. They are responsible for enforcing laws within their jurisdiction, protecting visitors, answering visitors’ questions and protecting the natural resources. Many areas in which rangers work are home to a variety of wildlife. There may be predators such as lions, elephants and bufalloes that the ranger encounters while making patrols or performing other job duties. Rangers must sometimes assist ill or injured animals, and even animals who are normally peaceful can pose a risk when they are in pain and a ranger tries to treat or rescue them. Within the ambit of human wildlife conflict there is a component of wildlife translocation. The job exposes them to various hazards. Wildlife officers sometimes work in remote areas (khwai, Xakanaka, Nossop, Matlhoaphuduhudu) , and in some cases they have no telecommunication access. Certain locations may even block radio communications. This can make it difficult to obtain backup assistance when it is needed in an emergency situation. Even if the ranger is able to call for assistance, it might take a substantial amount of time for help to arrive, because of the distances involved and possible difficulty in navigating to the terrain.

This isolation exposes rangers to additional risks. Should they be injured, such as suffering a debilitating fall, become ill or need help to subdue multiple suspects, they may be unable to summon help or the help might be so slow in arriving that their injuries could become even more severe. The problem faced by wildlife officers during patrol is that they don’t have adequate equipment to perform their work. And it’s not just equipment, almost four in ten rangers do not have good enough training when they start the job. When they come face to face with armed gangs of poachers or have to search for deadly snares, assess crime scenes, negotiate hostile situations and at times provide potentially life-saving aid to their colleague who’s suffered a serious injury in the middle of a jungle is part of the job description and regular and comprehensive training is vital. When they get injured in the jungle it is difficult to get medical treatment, especially for injuries that require a doctor or a hospital. There is no helicopter to airlift them out and take them to the nearest hospital for emergency treatment.

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It is a shame that the department that generates a lot of money and has been notorious for buying luxurious aircrafts, fail to purchase emergency helicopters to rescue the officers when they are in danger. What is even more disturbing is that they don’t have close linkages with Medical rescue teams such that when these accidents occur they can be rescued from these animals. Was it even sensible to translocate that leopard to Khutshe Game reserve without any mechanism for further monitoring? Something amazes me, we have long talked about the horrible working conditions of the wildlife officers who are subjected to these dangerous animals. Where is Mike Chase now, why don’t you send signals to BBC about the negative repercussions that these animals have on human beings and wildlife rangers?

Imagine transporting the poor injured officer on an open Land rover (without medical facility) from Khutshe Game reserve in that bad road to Letlhakeng. In an ideal situation the department of wildlife should ensure adequate training, including widely adopted first aid training for rangers, strong emergency medical treatment plans, as well as equipment and communications devices appropriate for field conditions should be among the matters urgently reviewed. Proper leadership would have saved the life of the game ranger if all necessary rescue measures were taken. Was it expensive to call AIRARM of the BDF to collect the officer? Do we value animal life more than human life? The department saw it fit to translocate a dangerous animal at the expense of an ill-equipped officer. No man, think twice.

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What is wrong with the leadership of the department wildlife? It is a sad reality for those who have spent most of their lives trying to protect these wild animals. The growing influence of organized criminal networks means governments must rapidly professionalize their ranger force, but many seem quick to promise action but slow to provide the necessary investment. Since 1998, the issue of health hazard associated with translocation has been discussed and the recommendations have been shelved in the Director’s office. Feline disease are those infections or diseases that infect cats. The veterinary aspects of reintroduction projects are of extreme importance. There are instances of inadequate disease risk assessment resulting in expensive failures and, worse still, the introduction of destructive pathogens into naïve resident wildlife populations. I am bringing this concept because I believe it was careless for the Director of Wildlife and National Parks to allow the officer to translocate the animal, because it is the function of the veterinary unit who can neutralise and immobilize dangerous animals using suitable chemicals before releasing them into the wild. Most of the diseases likely to be of importance in translocation projects are infectious and many of these are a threat to biodiversity and human health. Was there any disease risk surveillance done before the animal was translocated, and by who? The families of those gamer rangers who died in the line of duty should probe in to this and proper diagnostic compensation should be paid. I probe a national call on the working conditions of the wildlife officers, as they risk their lives to face armed poachers, dangerous animals despite that they are not paid any allowance for these hazards.

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May the souls of those wildlife officers and soldiers who were killed by wild animals rest in eternal peace!



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