Redeployment of ‘Earth’s most critical rhino ranger’ is ...

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Redeployment of ‘Earth’s most critical rhino ranger’ is ‘questionable’

Anti-poaching body and DA want to know why ‘irreplaceable’ Don English has been moved from key Kruger zone

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Saving The Wild's Jamie Joseph says from October to December 2019, when Don English and Victor Magakwe were suspended on 'trumped up charges', poaching more than doubled.
GOOD LUCK, GUYS Saving The Wild's Jamie Joseph says from October to December 2019, when Don English and Victor Magakwe were suspended on 'trumped up charges', poaching more than doubled.
Image: Henk Kruger

Don English has been described as the “most critical rhino ranger on Earth”, but he will not be plying his trade in the country’s rhino poaching hotspot because of a much-questioned staff rotation policy.

The ranger rotation policy at the Kruger National Park, where 245 rhino and 16 elephant were poached in 2020, according to government, has come under scrutiny after English was moved from the reserve’s intensive protection zone (IPZ) for rhinos to another region, where there are fewer numbers of the species.

It is a move, says Jamie Joseph, founder and director of anti-poaching organisation Saving The Wild, that will see poaching syndicates infiltrate the IPZ and increasing numbers of rhino slaughtered.

“To put this into perspective, when Don was suspended for two months, October to December 2019, on trumped up charges by rangers caught poaching ... during those two months poaching more than doubled,” Joseph said in a post on Saving The Wild.

English and another ranger, Victor Magakwe, were suspended in October 2019 for the alleged assault and mistreatment of rangers, who turned out to be suspected poachers. They returned to work in December that year.

Joseph said during the two months the pair were suspended poaching increased from single figures per month to more than 50 dead rhino.

She added that English was the “most critical rhino ranger on Earth” because he was at the helm of protecting the globe’s largest rhino population. English, she said, was Kruger’s master of intelligence.

“He handles the informers — information — and warns his ranger teams of incoming incursions so they can set up ambushes.”

Simply stating that the rotation policy will help to ‘share the workload’ is not an adequate reason for moving experienced rangers away from key hotspots.
Dave Bryant, DA shadow minister of environment, forestry and fisheries

She added that Kruger was the size of a small country and most often poachers were caught because of intelligence.

The DA has also questioned English’s move and the rotation policy, as the rhino population in the park has decreased by 70% over the past 10 years, based on figures in SANParks annual reports between 2010 and 2020.

According to the most recent report: “The 2019 rhino estimates for Kruger National Park stand at 268 black and 3,549 white rhinos, with births equalling combined natural and poaching deaths for the first time in five years.”

Comparatively, SANParks said in its 2009/10 annual report that there were between 590 and 670 black rhino, and between 9,460 and 12,120 white rhino in the park.

This is a decrease of anywhere between 8,571 and 5,911 white rhino and between 322 and 402 black rhino in just a decade.

“The DA ... remains concerned over the proposed move to ‘rotate’ certain rangers within the park. This includes renowned ranger Don English, who has played a hugely significant role in combating poaching in the park,” said Dave Bryant, DA shadow minister of environment, forestry and fisheries.

He said SANParks hadn’t cleared up “the many outstanding questions regarding the rationale behind the rotation of rangers”.

“Simply stating that the rotation policy will help to ‘share the workload’ is not an adequate reason for moving experienced rangers away from key hotspots. It is vitally important that the public are made aware of the results of the current consultations with rangers on the proposed rotation policy as soon as possible.

“SANParks will need to explain how constantly moving rangers around will assist anti-poaching efforts. 

“More must be done to properly address the rampant ongoing poaching of rhino and the illegal trade in horn, which is connected to international and local organised crime syndicates,” said Bryant.

Amid questions about the policy, SANParks said last week that included in the conditions of service for rangers was a requirement that they move periodically.

“This is for many reasons,” SANParks said. “Some [reasons] are related to security, but the condition is also to ensure that the workload is shared so that rangers working in demanding areas which experience regular contacts with poachers are rotated.”

It said additional operational reasons for transfers would include, among other things, learning opportunities, skills development, capitalising on individual strengths and mentoring.

“This is a requirement at all levels of the organisation within the ranger corps,” it said.

It was recently decided to rotate two regional rangers and six section rangers for operational reasons, said SANParks. English was one of them.

“Additional rotations will be being made in the forthcoming 12 months and into the future.”

SANParks said it did not wish to comment further on the matter because staff movements are of a sensitive nature security-wise.

But Joseph, an often fierce critic of SANParks, was not happy with the response. She said if SANParks sincerely wanted to save more rhino one of the quick fixes would be to make annual polygraph testing mandatory for everyone in Kruger working with the animals.

She said this would root out the rot, including criminals masquerading as rangers, gate staff and other personnel with access to the park.

Joseph said English led the charge in exposing internal corruption in Kruger and if it were not for him, the park would have lost a lot more rhino.

“This is one reason why moving him up north makes absolutely no sense. He is irreplaceable,” Joseph said.