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Information provided by: Currin’t Events and the GRAA

In a speech given at the Rhino Conservation Awards last year, Debbie English shared an emotional account of the price of the war against rhino poaching. While the rhino is the ultimate victim, those that fight on its behalf are exposed to endless danger – often at the expense of their families.

The ultimate victims in the rhino war

Debbie shared her own personal accounts, as well as those of her mother, Sharon, and her sister, Lee-Anne, detailing their lives as a wife and daughters of a ranger.

Debbie English, the daughter of a ranger, shares her side of the story.

“Hello Dad!” The family call out to be greeted with the reply: “Quickly girls, make Dad a sandwich, grab my torch, get my rifle, someone get the gate, ok, thanks, love you, bye.”

Such an exchange is a common occurrence in the English home, as things happen so fast that no one ever knows what is going to happen next. “Life has become predictably unpredictable. There is no guarantee that Dad will be at home for a braai, a dinner, a birthday, Christmas, a church service, or other special occasions,” explains Debbie.

The impact that this rhino war has on the families of rangers is enormous. “Our lives have changed dramatically over the years. From the peace and tranquillity of living in the bush, having Dad near us all the time, and accompanying him on patrols, to the contrasting violent nature of the rhino war. We feel more like the children of Special Forces soldiers. This is in essence guerrilla warfare, and our fathers are up against armed insurgents who are illegally crossing international borders to sabotage national assets.”

Debbie shows her love for rhinos

The rhino war makes for a stressful and disruptive life. Contact with armed poachers often results in fatalities. “Every time Dad is out we pray for his safe return, but this is never guaranteed. Fatalities on the other side are not only a relief to us, but shrugged off as ‘tough luck’ for the poacher. This goes against all our moral upbringing,” laments Debbie. “No one can adequately describe the pent-up bitterness we have at seeing what our fathers are going through, and the impact that these cruel and ruthless poachers have on our families.”

In reality, the death of a poacher often results in murder charges being brought against the rangers, whereas the unfair rules of engagement do not seem to apply to the poachers. “It kills us to see Dad sitting quietly, caught up in his own thoughts of the pending murder charges, trying not to burden us with his fears.”

In addition to the threat of violence, the intelligence gathering aspect of the rhino war has an enormous impact on the privacy of rangers’ families. “Informers do not know the meaning of time of day, night or holidays, but this is necessary as an informer’s role is critical in this war.”  The informers’ safety is also of utmost importance. “Meetings often take place at night, under cover of darkness and in dingy secluded spots surrounded by extremely hostile communities”.

A ranger comes face to face with a rhino

This commitment, dedication and passion comes at an enormous and traumatic price. “People do not realise what the knock-on effects of this war are. From telephonic death threats while celebrating my sister’s birthday, to false allegations by poaching syndicates almost resulting in Dad’s arrest, and lying awake at night wondering if he will return safely or if the seat at the dinner table will be forever empty. What if he never gets the chance to walk me down the aisle?”

Poaching is well publicised, updates are sent and the media covers these unfortunate events. While this coverage is important, more focus must be placed on those that are fighting the war, rather than lamenting about a war being lost. “Rangers take these attacks personally and it is demoralising to them,” advises Debbie. “It is heart wrenching to see what it does to the men and women trying their utmost to fight this war. Be aware of the challenges that rangers face every day.”

Rhino Security Patrol, Hlane Royal National Park, Swaziland
Rhino security patrol in Hlane Royal National Park, Swaziland

Debbie concludes that, “the beauty of nature as seen by the public comes at a price, often unknown to most. We salute all our rhino soldiers, and especially our Dad”.

A Rhino Conservation Award from 2015

Nominations are open for the annual Rhino Conservation Awards that celebrate our rhino conservation heroes. Nominations have been extended and will close on 8 June 2016. The Awards Ceremony will be held on 11 July 2016 in Johannesburg.

Founders Dr Larry Hansen and Miss Xiaoyang Yu, with the sponsor, ZEISS, in collaboration with the South African Department of Environmental Affairs and the Game Rangers Association of Africa, will present the Rhino Conservation Awards in 2016. His Serene Highness Prince Albert II of Monaco serves as the patron of the awards.

To learn more about the heroes who are fighting to protect South Africa’s wildlife, read: Rangers for Rhinos

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