The Other Side of the Rhino War

A heart wrenching account of life as a Game Ranger’s daughter. This article details the fear and trials that the families of those who fight in the war against rhino poaching must face – and the devastating results of failure.

By Raynique Ducie.

Rhino-Wars-Debbie-EnglishIn 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.

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. “Hello Dad!” “Quickly girls, make Dad a sandwich, grab my torch, get my rifle, someone get the gate, ok, thanks, love you, bye.”

A common occurrence in the English home; things happen so fast – 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,” confirms 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, 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, where our fathers are up against armed insurgents, illegally crossing international borders to sabotage national assets”.

The Rhino War makes for a stressful, disruptive life. Armed poaching contacts often result in fatalities. “Every time Dad is out we pray for his safe return; 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 savage, 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. This despite the need for protection, and the fact that the unfair rules of engagement do not 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 the privacy of Rangers’ families. “Informers do not know the meaning of time of day, night or holidays; but this is necessary – 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”.

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; it is demoralising to them,” advises Debbie. “It is heart wrenching to see what it does to the men and women trying their utmost best to fight this war. Be aware of the challenges that Rangers face every day”.

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”.

The table below attests to the plight of rhino mortality due to poaching in South Africa. Note that stats for 2015 and 2016 are estimates since the Department of Environment & Tourism stopped updating monthly rhino poaching stats – Editor.


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