The killing of a ranger protecting rhinos raises fears for conservation efforts

Anton Mzimba, the ranger chief of a reserve in South Africa, had received multiple death threats. But he tried not to let the warnings of danger reach him, reminding himself that by protecting the rhinos he was working for the greater good, according to an interview released last year.

“What I’m doing, I’m not doing it for my own good,” Mr. Mzimba said in the 2021 interview. “I’m doing it for the world, for my children’s children, so someday when I hang up my boots – when I retire, when I die – will enjoy the wildlife. “

Africa’s close-knit conservation community has faltered since Mr. Mzimba was shot dead in front of his family at home on July 26. His wife was also killed, but she survived. The killing has fueled concerns that crime syndicates may become more brazen and violent in their efforts to protect illegal wildlife products.

Mr. Mzimba, 42, was the chief ranger of the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve, a 206 square mile protected area in the Greater Kruger landscape, home to elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards and cheetahs. In an environment plagued by poaching and corruption, Mr. Mzimba was known to be incorruptible, an advocate of conservation.

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

Reached by telephone, Brig. Selvy Mohlala, spokesman for the police unit leading the investigation into the murder of Mr. Mzimba, said that “we do not know if the attack had anything to do with his work or his private life” .

But given the number of serious work-related threats targeting Mr. Mzimba and his efforts to thwart criminal unions, Andrew Campbell, chief executive of the Game Rangers’ Association of Africa, said this would seem the most likely reason.

Mr. Mzimba’s dedication to wildlife conservation “surely” appears to have been a determining factor, said Edwin Pierce, director of Timbavati. “Anton was a man of integrity, a man who would not have wavered in the face of the protection of the rhinos,” he said.

“The fact that the unions actually went ahead with this meant that Anton was a significant threat to them,” added Pierce.

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 often clash with rangers.

Of the 565 African rangers known to have died in service since 2011, 52% of the deaths were homicides, according to Mr. Campbell. The death toll is also on the rise, he said, with a record of 92 rangers last year, half of which were attributed to murder.

Mr. Mzimba’s death stands out, however, as “an escalation from the norm,” said Mr. Campbell. “Now these unions feel at ease literally walking in and making Mafia-style hits.”

It is also likely, Campbell added, that Mr. Mzimba was targeted due to his high profile in the wildlife conservation and safety community. He was named Field Ranger of the Year and is starring in an upcoming documentary film, “Rhino Man”. He also worked as a technical consultant with the Global Conservation Corps, where he helped start a program that now connects 10,000 South African students a week to their natural heritage.

“Anton was one of the kindest, kindest and most loving humans, but he was also a warrior,” said John Jurko II, co-director of “Rhino Man”. “He was out there defending these rhinos from the grave threats of poachers.”

Born in Mozambique, Mr. Mzimba and his family moved to South Africa in search of better opportunities. His conservation career began by chance when invasive plant removal work led him to Timbavati. Mr. Mzimba was only 17, but his work ethic caught the attention of the reserve manager, who offered him a full-time job.

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

Mr. Mzimba often said that he considered the protection of wildlife as his duty as a Christian, and he was also famous for his loyalty.

When Mr. Mzimba started working in Timbavati in 1998, the poachers he caught were mostly poor men who sneaked into the reserve to hunt animals for food. In the 2010s, however, organized crime syndicates aggressively pursued rhino horns, which are in high demand in China, Vietnam and other Asian countries. “We have gone from subsistence poaching and killing animals for meat to killing animals for money,” Mr. Mzimba said last year.

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

“I’d say we’re keeping the line,” said Elise Serfontein, founding director of StopRhinoPoaching.com, a non-profit conservation organization based in South Africa. “But the effort to maintain that line has a huge financial cost and a huge physical and mental cost to the rangers and the management of the reserve.”

Rangers regularly receive death threats for their work, Pierce said, and Mr. Mzimba was no exception. “The poaching unions were trying to break him emotionally and psychologically, and he wasn’t going to break up,” said Mr. de Kock.

Last spring, Mr. Mzimba opened an intimidating dossier with local police to report multiple threats related to his wildlife protection work. “We were hoping that those who were threatening Anton’s life would be arrested and charged with conspiring to commit murder,” Pierce said.

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

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

No arrests have been made, said Brigadier Mohlala, “but it is safe to say that we have not stopped investigating.”

Mr. Mzimba is not the first high-profile environmentalist to be killed in what appears to be a targeted murder. In 2017, for example, Wayne Lotter, co-director of the PAMS Foundation, an anti-poaching group in Tanzania that had investigated ivory trafficking, was shot dead in a car on his way home from. Dar es Salaam airport. “When we lost Wayne, it was definitely a great time for us to open our eyes to how far people would go if we got in their way,” said Krissie Clark, founding director of PAMS.

In 2020, the lieutenant colonel. Leroy Bruwer, a South African police detective who specializes in investigating rhino poaching unions, was also shot dead while driving to work. Last year, Bajila Obed Kofa, a senior official from Kenya Wildlife Services, was shot dead on his way home after driving his daughter to school.

South Africa, in particular, already suffers from “enormously high levels of murder related to politics and organized crime,” said Julian Rademeyer, director of East and Southern Africa at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. The fear now is that such targeted killings may also become more of the norm for those working in conservation.

If Mr. Mzimba’s killers are not brought to justice, Mr. Rademeyer added, it will have a chilling effect on other rangers and “send a message that this kind of thing goes unpunished and the people involved are effectively untouchable.”

Only 19 percent of homicide cases in South Africa are solved, according to the Institute for Security Studies. Mr. Pierce said that, until now, he and his colleagues had been “frustrated” by what they see as a lack of urgency and “slowness” in the investigation. “Anton’s legacy must be honored and we must go through with it,” said Pierce. “We hope this is seen as a high priority case.”

“All murder cases are treated as high priority crimes,” said Brigadier Mohlala. “As soon as we have something, we’ll definitely make a quick stop.”

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