Duty
Author: Hanno Meier
Pictures: Mike Ball

Guardian the “Big Five”

Where Africa’s famed animals roam free, poachers are never far away

Elephants, rhinoceri, lions, leopards and buffalo range over the Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve. “We’re the home of Africa’s Big Five,” says Mike Ball. The security chief’s 90 rangers see it as a “privilege” to be custodians and protectors of the reserve’s incredibly diverse flora and fauna. This privilege, however, demands fierce dedication every single day. Ultimately, wherever wild animals roam in the Zimbabwean landscape, unscrupulous poachers are never far away.

Malilangwe is still home to white rhinos and even black rhinos. As head ranger, Mike Ball is particularly proud that the latter animal still remains. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN for short, has classified black rhinos as “critically endangered” on its Red List of Threatened Species. The population, Mike explains, “has fallen by an unbelievable 97.6% since 1960 according to the NGO’s latest wildlife counts”. The threat of poaching is ever-present in Africa. Rhinos are particularly at risk because of their horns, which are prized for their use in Chinese medicine and can therefore fetch tremendous sums. Many areas in southern Africa are losing – or have already lost – a significant proportion of their rhino populations. However, that’s not the case at the Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve.

World’s highest population density

The former cattle ranch, which was repurposed as a wildlife refuge in the 1980s, is now home to one of the world’s densest rhinocerous populations. That is thanks in no small part to the work of the Malilangwe Trust’s patrol team, which casts an ever-watching eye over the wildlife reserve. “Our brave men risk their lives every day to protect these incredible animals for future generations,” says Mike Ball. It’s crucial that the team is well supplied and has the finest equipment to carry out their difficult duties.

Every year, their patrols see them travel some 290,000 kilometers – equivalent to around 180,000 miles or four trips around the equator – on foot, through dust and detritus, mud and scrub. The team mark rhinos with ear tags that make it possible to identify each individual animal in future. This helps Zimbabwe’s ecologists and biologists in their research – though rangers always accompany them for safety and security reasons.

Sustainable activities

The Malilangwe Trust is a charitable organization on the front line of the fight to protect wild animals and support communities in southern Africa. Their activities aim to make a lasting contribution to the region’s development while also raising awareness of the importance of Zimbabwean wildlife in the context of local communities’ development and sustainable eco-tourism.

An African jewel

The trust employs over 200 local people and supports surrounding communities, including by ensuring that over 19,000 children get a meal every school day, offering scholarships for children of all ages (having awarded more than 2,900 to date) and improving the infrastructure of schools, hospitals and community gardens. An eco-tourism lodge provides a basic source of income for the trust, creates jobs for local people and generates a market for their products. The trust is building on its strong, sustainability-focused philosophy to develop a dedicated program for recycling, reducing carbon emissions, and water management. However, this unique jewel in the African wild would scarcely be possible without the daily dedication of its rangers – as the park’s security chief is well aware. “They risk their lives to protect all our futures.”

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