Rhino poaching in South Africa is at record levels. More than 1 215 were killed in 2014, up from 1004 in 2013, 668 in 2012 and 448 in 2011.
It’s easy to forget that behind these shocking statistics are rangers on the frontlines, doing their job every day, often putting themselves and their families in danger.
Lawrence Munro was once the head ranger of the iMfolozi wilderness area in the southern section of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, one of the oldest protected areas in Africa. He and his rangers regularly encountered and exchanged fire with rhino poachers.
Today Munro heads up the Rhino Operations Unit, the anti-poaching task force for the whole of KwaZulu-Natal. He and his unit work with police and intelligence agencies both in and outside of private and public reserves.
The 39 year-old, who has a young family, is constantly on guard. When he’s working he always carries a weapon and wears a bulletproof vest. At home he’s usually armed.
“I am thinking combatively all the time,” he explains. “My family and I have had very directed, pointed death threats. Letters addressed to me that say: we don’t want you around anymore.”
“I don’t think people realise the implications of that. For instance, I won’t allow my family to drive after dark unless I’m with them. My wife is never going to go meet a friend for coffee after dark. It’s just not going to happen.”
Munro often works through the night, because that’s when poachers are usually moving around. And during the day he is preparing for nocturnal operations. The long hours and stressful conditions are not easy.
“If my family never hear the word ‘rhino’ again, they’d be very happy. My work puts a massive strain on them.”
“Everything changes when you work in this field. Everything. The car you drive, the clothes you wear, the company you keep, your social habits. Absolutely everything is affected by rhino poaching.”
Munro keeps a lot of his work secret, and won’t reveal to his family anything that can endanger their lives.
“It creates lots of stress at home. I don’t want to make my family paranoid or worried. It’s not easy. I feel like I’m constantly in a war.”
Despite the danger, Munro is not about to walk away from his job. On the contrary, when his team apprehends poachers he loves his work.
“The buzz that comes from a successful operation is usually enough to last a month or two,” Munro says. “It’s such a great feeling to actually catch a rhino poacher or middleman. But the job does take its toll.”
Munro’s unit has been relatively successful. The percentage increase in poaching in KwaZulu-Natal over recent years is lower than other provinces and significantly lower than Kruger National Park.
He attributes much of the success to targeting poachers and their syndicates outside of protected areas. Historically rangers would wait for poachers to come into the reserves, and then react accordingly. These days Munro and his team are predominantly proactive.
“We’re essentially taking the fight to the poachers. We’re not waiting for them to come to us. We endeavor to apprehend poachers before they even get into a protected area, before they even get near a rhino.”
Munro emphasizes that the listing of rhino poaching as a priority national crime is a big positive.
“This means that the government’s intelligence and security agencies now support the conservation agencies like Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife,” Munro says.
He still conducts anti-poaching operations in the beautiful parks of Zululand.
“We deal with paradoxes all the time. We flit between what is beautiful and peaceful one day, to what is very ugly and confrontational the next.”
On Christmas Day, Munro and his team were on patrol in the iMfolozi wilderness area. At dusk they were treated to a spectacular sunset.
“It had been raining earlier so everything was fresh and sparkling. We could see animals coming to drink from the river below us, and we heard a symphony of birds in the bushveld. It’s a special time of year in a very beautiful place.”
“Then we heard shots. All of a sudden, everything changed. Our teams in the area deployed into ambushes. There’s plenty of adrenaline, you’re sweating like crazy, hoping like hell you can apprehend the poachers. But I’m also hoping one of us is not going to get shot or killed.”
“We heard more gun shots nearby. It sounded like popcorn going off in a pot, just tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat, and then we heard shouting on the radio. It’s chaos. People were screaming.”
“We sprinted to the contact point. There were bodies lying around, and I prayed it wasn’t one of our team. Fortunately the poachers had been killed, and none of our team was hurt.”
Despite these battles, which Munro describes as “a typical day’s work”, he has lost only one man so far. “People do die and a couple of times we’ve had to carry bodies out. Luckily so far the majority are poachers, but we’re under no illusions.”
The jarring contrast between “innocent beauty and evil orchestration” is something that he is prepared to deal with, as long as everyone pulls their weight to help stop rhino poaching.
“Everyone must do their job: the rangers, the police, the investigators, the forensic teams, the prosecutors, the magistrates and the politicians. We have the laws. We really do. A lot of people think we need to change the laws. We don’t. We all just have to do our jobs properly.”
Ultimately Munro accepts the risks, because for him the protection of Africa’s rhinos is symbolic of the fight for the rest of the continent’s wildlife and wilderness.
“I hate it when people say we need to save rhinos for our grandchildren,” he explains. “If my grandchildren don’t ever see a rhino, how’s it going to affect them, honestly? It’s not going to. They’ll still be able to buy a loaf of bread if there are no rhinos.”
“So it’s the principle of the matter. If we can’t justify the protection of Africa’s rhinos, hell knows how we’re going to explain to the rest of the country that we need to conserve a watershed or a frog species?”
“If we don’t stop rhino poaching, we’re not going to get anything else right. This is what motivates me to do my work.”