Killing of ranger protecting rhinos raises fears for conservation efforts

Anton Mzimba, the lead ranger on a reserve in South Africa, had received multiple death threats. But he tried not to let the danger warnings get to him, reminding himself that by protecting the rhinos he was working for the greater good, according to an interview he gave last year.

“What I am doing, I am not doing for my own good,” Mzimba said in the 2021 interview. “I am doing this for the world, for my children’s children, so that one day when I hang up my boots, when I jubilee, when I die, they are going to enjoy the wildlife.”

Africa’s tight-knit conservation community has been reeling since Mr. Mzimba was shot in front of his family at his home on July 26. His wife was also shot, but she survived. The killing has fueled concerns that criminal syndicates are becoming more brazen and violent in their efforts to secure illegal wildlife products.

Mr. Mzimba, 42, was the chief ranger at Timbavati Private Nature Reserve, a 206-square-mile protected area in the Greater Kruger landscape, home to elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards and cheetahs. In an environment plagued by poaching and corruption, Mr. Mzimba was known to be incorruptible, a conservation stalwart.

“If you want to talk frontline, talk Anton Mzimba,” said Ruben de Kock, operations manager for LEAD Ranger, a professional training group. “He was the best ranger.”

Contacted by phone, Brig. Selvy Mohlala, a spokesman for the police unit leading the investigation into Mzimba’s murder, said “we don’t know if the attack had anything to do with his work or his private life.”

But given the number of serious work-related threats directed at Mr. Mzimba and his efforts to thwart crime syndicates, Andrew Campbell, executive director of the African Rangers Association, said that appears to be the most likely motive.

Mr. Mzimba’s dedication to defending wildlife “definitely” appears to have been a factor, said Edwin Pierce, director of Timbavati. “Anton was a man of integrity, a man who would not hesitate to protect rhinos,” he said.

“That the unions went ahead with this means that Anton was a major threat to them,” Pierce added.

Rangers around the world risk their lives every day, but those in Africa face especially high levels of danger. Elephant and rhino poachers are always armed, and in politically unstable places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, militia groups frequently clash with rangers.

Of the 565 African rangers known to have died in the line of duty since 2011, 52 percent of the deaths were homicides, according to Campbell. The number of deaths has also been on the rise, he said, with a record 92 rangers last year, half of them attributed to homicide.

However, Mzimba’s death stands out as “an escalation of the norm,” Campbell said. “Now these unions are comfortable literally coming in and doing mob-style heists.”

It is also likely, Mr Campbell added, that Mr Mzimba was targeted because of his high profile in the wildlife conservation and security community. He was named Field Ranger of the Year and appears as the lead in an upcoming documentary, “Rhino Man.” He also served as a technical advisor to the Global Conservation Corps, where he helped start a program that now connects 10,000 South African students a week with their natural heritage.

“Anton was one of the kindest, most gentle and loving humans, but he was also a warrior,” said John Jurko II, co-director of “Rhino Man.” “He was out there defending these rhinos from serious threats from poachers.”

Born in Mozambique, Mr. Mzimba and his family moved to South Africa in search of better opportunities. His career in conservation began by chance, when an invasive plant removal job took him to Timbavati. Mr. Mzimba was only 17 years old, but his work ethic caught the attention of the reserve manager, who offered him a full-time position.

Within a decade, Mr. Mzimba became the head of the Timbavati Ranger Corps. “This was a person who really made it from the bottom up,” Mr. de Kock said.

Mr. Mzimba used to say that he considered the protection of wildlife as his duty as a Christian, and he was also known for his loyalty.

When Mr. Mzimba started working in Timbavati in 1998, the poachers he stopped were mostly poor men who sneaked into the reserve to hunt animals for food. However, in the 2010s, organized crime syndicates were aggressively going after rhino horns, which were in high demand in China, Vietnam and other Asian countries. “We went from subsistence poaching and killing animals for meat to killing animals for money,” Mzimba said last year.

As of 2017, South Africa was home to 75 percent of the world’s remaining 23,562 black and white rhinos, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. At least 9,353 of South Africa’s rhinos have been killed for their horns in the last 13 years. Although poaching has declined since a high of 1,215 rhinos lost in 2014, it remains a significant problem: last year, 451 rhinos were killed.

“I would say we are holding our ground,” said Elise Serfontein, founding director of StopRhinoPoaching.com, a South Africa-based nonprofit conservation organization. “But the effort to maintain that line comes at a massive financial cost and an enormous physical and mental cost to the rangers and reserve management.”

Rangers regularly receive death threats for their work, Pierce said, and Mzimba was no exception. “The poaching syndicates were trying to break him down emotionally and psychologically, and he didn’t break down,” Mr. de Kock said.

Last spring, Mr. Mzimba opened an intimidation file with the local police to report multiple threats related to his wildlife protection work. “We expected that those who threatened Anton’s life would be arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit murder,” Pierce said.

According to Mr. Pierce and Mr. de Kock, Mr. Mzimba learned in May that his name was then on a more serious blacklist. Mr. de Kock and his wife offered to let Mr. Mzimba and his family stay temporarily at their home in another part of the country, but Mr. Mzimba refused, telling Mr. de Kock that he needed to be close to his fellow rangers.

According to Brigadier Mohlala, the police spokesman, two people came to Mr. Mzimba’s house on July 26 claiming that his car had broken down and asking for water. Mr. Mzimba was outside working on his car, and when his son went to fetch water, Mr. Mzimba was shot. His wife, who is still in hospital, was also shot.

No arrests have been made, Brigadier Mohlala said, “but it’s safe to say we haven’t stopped investigating.”

Mr. Mzimba is not the first high-profile conservationist to be killed in what appears to be a targeted assassination. In 2017, for example, Wayne Lotter, co-director of the PAMS Foundation, an anti-poaching group in Tanzania that had been investigating ivory trafficking, was shot dead in a car on his way home from Dar es Salaam airport. Salaam. “When we lost Wayne, it was definitely a big eye-opener for us as to how far people would go if he got in their way,” said Krissie Clark, founding director of PAMS.

In 2020, Lt. Col. Leroy Bruwer, a South African police detective who specialized in investigating rhino poaching syndicates, was also fatally shot while driving to work. Last year, Bajila Obed Kofa, a senior official with the Kenya Wildlife Services, was shot while driving home from him after dropping his daughter off at school.

South Africa, in particular, already suffers from “enormously high levels of killings related to politics and organized crime,” said Julian Rademeyer, Eastern and Southern Africa director for the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. The fear now is that such targeted killings will also become the norm for those working in conservation.

If Mzimba’s killers are not brought to justice, Rademeyer added, it will have a chilling effect on other rangers and “send the message that these kinds of things go unpunished and that the people involved are untouchable in practice.”

Only 19 percent of murder cases in South Africa are solved, according to the Institute for Security Studies. Pierce said that so far he and his colleagues have been “frustrated” by what they see as a lack of urgency and “slowness” in the investigation. “Anton’s legacy must be honored and we must get to the bottom of this,” Mr. Pierce said. “We hope this will be seen as a high priority case.”

“All murder cases are treated as high priority crimes,” Brigadier Mohlala said. “As soon as we get something, we will definitely make a quick arrest.”

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