Last Word: Otch Otto

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How many rounds can a field ranger go in protected areas with wildlife such as rhino before burning out? How long will he last against formidable opposition and the potential traitors in the camp?

The ‘Champion of the Ring’ in the fight against wildlife crime is the honest, timeless, unselfish field ranger. His only real corner man is the ‘cut-man’ (first aid). When a brow is cracked, a ranger friend will offer support, and even fill the role of post-traumatic stress syndrome psychologist, to plug invisible leaks.

Dedicated rangers have become world-class professionals, and are not generically replaceable with soldiers, marines, policemen, mercenaries or volunteers, though many of these individuals play a vital part in conservation, too.

They say rangers are born, raised and die as rangers. They know the land, the bush, the tracks, the trees, the mammals, the reptiles, the insects, the seasons and the variables of bush-craft. But these days, rangers are also drafted into counter-insurgency combat – a challenge they take in their stride as they witness the new wave of carnage. Parks focusing on the conservation of species that experience one or more armed conflicts per week offer an opportunity for rangers to gain experience.

Family can become strangers, and at night, dreams are filled with carcasses and vultures

It also offers the opportunity to make the extreme sacrifice. So we train, develop, capacitate, support and pray to improve the survival chances and longevity of the field ranger. One of the worst to have in the ranger corner is a traitor – the colleague who collaborates with the poachers, the despicable double-agent who neutralises many of the champion’s effective punches. On numerous occasions in the last few years rangers have been arrested for their role in poaching, and this will probably continue unless things change drastically.

Over-extended, underpaid; long days extending into even longer nights, followed by early morning incursions into the park. Weekends are few, and leave imposed by management, as rangers associate absence for rest with guilt due to under-staffing. Family can become strangers, and at night dreams are filled with bloody carcasses and vultures.

The requirement for operational air support, firepower, night action capabilities and detection technology increases as poachers become smarter. Sustainable environmental asset protection, law enforcement, safety and security are like tracking spoor every day for a lifetime.

With one successful title defence after another we accelerate the exposure, collect the wins and trophies. We congratulate the champion and commit to the next fight before total recovery, re-cooperation, rest and some form of normal life.

It is silly to chase the same poacher every weekend. To arrest a poacher today that you arrested two years ago and again three years later, after you followed through, plus an agonising 18 months in court facing the discomfort of cross-questioning, is like a headbutt after the bell went! With postponed court cases and dragging investigations, the books are as overflowing as the confiscated weapons vault and the queue for forensic, pathological and ballistic lab support. But the champion fights the fight in front of him, and attends the next weigh-in session in court to record a postponement or a successful bail application in his diary.

These dedicated men are great individuals, fighters who are few, and who are at high risk of burnout. It
is impossible to sustain the current field deployment and intervention success rates of the rangers in highly pressurised parks. We are throwing the champion into the ring to fight twice as many title fights as can
be physically and psychologically absorbed. With successful contributions towards more funding of technology, equipment, clothing, mobility, facilities, and dogs, the fight against the illicit wildlife trade has been astounding, but the day has arrived to substantially fund and reconstruct ranger services.

Ranger support includes aggressive blows at deception and betrayal, acknowledgement of the depth of the crisis with a sniff of merit ruled by competency and justice. When the real ranger goes extinct, everything else will follow.

More from Otch Otto: CLICK HERE, to read more about life in a counter-poaching unit.

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