He killed 50 ellies. Now he's a hero ranger
Fifty rangers from 17 countries across Africa were honoured with the African Ranger Award
What does a wildlife poacher’s eureka moment look like?
In the case of Kapona Lapale, who had become one of northern Kenya’s most notorious criminals out in the wild, it was the moment when he killed two elephant calves.
They had refused to leave their mothers’ sides while Lapale, known in poaching circles as Nanyuki, was trying to kill the mothers for their tusks.
In that visceral moment, as he snuffed the life out of the two calves, it hit him: in a period of around five years, he had killed up to 50 elephants and several other large mammals like zebra and giraffe.
Something had to give.
As the guilt began to eat at him, he turned his life around with help from elders in the community and dedicated himself to conservation instead.
Nine years later, he walked up to the podium at a hotel in Cape Town this week to claim his African Ranger Award.
The event, at which 50 rangers from 17 countries across the continent were honoured, is set to be the first of 10 held every year.Behind this enterprise is Jack Ma, chair of the Alibaba Group, one of the world’s most profitable online retail businesses. His Alibaba Foundation, and the non-profit Paradise Foundation in which he is also heavily involved, are responsible for the awards.
“Rangers are the heroes because they protect the natural world for us, and by doing that they protect jobs. I’m very honoured to be able to do this very meaningful thing and recognise their work,” he said.
“When our grandchildren ask us what did we do that is meaningful in the world, we will be able to say that without [rangers] you would only see lions or elephants on BBC documentaries, but because of rangers you can still go and see them in the wild.”Since turning his life around, Lapale has worked at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy as an anti-poaching ranger. He joined the team as a lion tracker, then became a rhino monitor, and has risen through the ranks of the anti-poaching team.
Haunted by his past, he has committed to spending “the rest of his life” championing conservation, reforming poachers and raising awareness in communities.
Another award winner, Rodrigue Magaruka Takembo from the Democratic Republic of Congo, was captured and tortured during his work on anti-poaching initiatives. But his commitment remains.
“There is danger, and there is corruption and there is disappointment, but there is also hope,” he said. “Today, I find more hope as I see more people than ever before are standing with us rangers.”
From Mozambique came an award winner whom South Africans can thank for his role in protecting the rhinos of the Kruger National Park.Fernando Sebastene Junuario Macamero is the head ranger at Niassa National Reserve and spent five years protecting the cross-border region between South Africa and Mozambique.
But his most legendary work involved stopping no fewer than 2,277 illegal gold miners who were providing shelter and supplies to elephant poachers and other illegal traders in the bushmeat market.
The miners were also digging up the reserve’s river catchments and contaminating the environment with mercury.
Late last year, while evacuating a prosecutor and police during a riot outside the prosecutor’s office, he was involved in a car accident that cost him the vision in his left eye for several months.
Peter Fearnhead, CEO of African Parks, said of Macamero and his award: “His personal dedication to his job is exemplary. He has shown tremendous courage and determination, often in extreme adversity and open hostility, in overcoming some of the challenges to this area of the Niassa Reserve.”
Many of the selected rangers have been injured or faced serious danger in the confrontations with wildlife criminals, and five of those honoured this week received their awards posthumously.
According to the Paradise Foundation, the rangers work in “dangerous conditions, often far from their families, and without the necessary resources”.
A 2016 survey found that 82% of rangers had faced mortal danger at work, and 60% had been directly attacked by poachers.
More than 1,000 African rangers lost their lives protecting wildlife and wild habitats between 2000 and 2016.