Esnart Paundi rarely smiled for the camera. One old photo shows her wearing her ranger’s camouflage fatigues and a pensive expression as she crouches beside a mound of bushmeat and three despondent poachers, one handcuffed. In another she is in a black leather jacket at her sister’s home, leaning against the TV with a baby under her arm and sad eyes.
Death stalked Esnart. When her mother died young, she stepped in to help raise her siblings and become the family breadwinner. One of her five brothers and two of her three sisters are dead. Twice married and twice widowed, she was a single mother of five children.
When death came to Esnart herself at the age of 38, it was sudden, brutal and senseless. She had caught two more poachers trying to smuggle butchered wildlife to Zambia’s copper belt. One was hiding a machete and, though she tried to flee, he hunted her down and smashed her skull with it. Her orphaned children are now scattered among different homes. The state has done nothing to help them.
Esnart was one of the foot soldiers in what has been called the thin green line: park rangers faced with an unprecedented onslaught from vicious, well-armed criminal gangs in Africa and around the world. In the past decade, at least 1,000 have paid with their lives for defending wild animals, according to the Thin Green Line Foundation, a charitable organisation which supports rangers in their work, and their families in the case of bereavement.
“Once you are deployed on patrol, you know for certain: I am going to war,” says Liywali Akakulubelwa, 47, a senior intelligence and investigations officer at the Zambia Wildlife Authority. “You accept that is the nature of the job.”
Respite is unlikely. Rangers are braced for an escalation in the “wildlife wars” – the increasing militarisation of the planet’s most precious and fragile game reserves. The struggle is as ferocious as any in nature, but unlikely to be seen in a David Attenborough documentary.
In India, the foundation says, rangers have been buried alive in sawing pits by illegal timber poachers. In Colombia, they are killed when dealing with drug cartels, land mines and militias. But Africa is probably the bloodiest battleground. Elephants and rhino are under siege as the black-market prices of ivory and horn rocket. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, tormented by rebel militias, 183 rangers have been killed in just one national park over the past decade. Last year alone Kenya lost six rangers, including a pregnant woman who was ambushed and shot in the face, while in Chad’s Zakouma national park five rangers were mown down by automatic weapons during their morning prayers.
And this is no even contest. Some poachers are former army soldiers who do not hesitate to kill animals or humans, and they come with powerful backers. Rangers are often older and underpaid and lack the equipment, resources and training to defend themselves in firefights. When they make the ultimate sacrifice, there is often no government assistance for their families, who face a life of poverty and destitution.
Zambia, a landlocked country generally seen as democratic, inoffensive and rich in wildlife, has suffered much down the years. Its rhino population was annihilated and most of its elephants wiped out in 1970s and 80s. Efforts to reintroduce and conserve the animals now mean the “big five” – buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhino – as they are a tourist draw-card.
In the early 1990s Esnart decided to become a park ranger to defend these crown jewels. Liywali, who trained with her for two years, recalls: “She wanted our animals to be protected so young ones could come and see elephants and buffalos. She wanted young people to see our natural resources in this country. She wanted to stop the trade in wildlife game meat. This is where death found her.”
Esnart became a ranger in 1995, bringing a crucial income to an otherwise impoverished family. With her mother dead, Esnart helped her father with parenting. Her brother Mawto Paundi, 33, a taxi driver, recalls: “I remember she insisted that I go to school, but I refused. I now regret passing up the opportunity. She was ready to sponsor me.”
Many former colleagues of Esnart claim she was aware of the risks of the job, but never dwelled on them. Mawto, however, says that she confided in him: “There was a time when she wanted to change career, get some money and do something else. She wanted to do something with computers so she could be in the civil service. It was because of the danger of going on patrol in the bush. She was concerned about the risks involved. It was around that time she died. Of course I was concerned as a brother, knowing the dangers of the job and what had happened to others who did it. A lot of other rangers have died. But I appreciated what she did for wildlife conservation.”
By 2009 Esnart was working under William Soko, a senior ranger in Rufunsa district, about 80km from the capital, Lusaka, and earning about 1,350 kwacha (£160) per month. “She was very cheerful and obedient,” Soko recalls from behind his desk in a modest office. “She was a fine lady, ever-smiling, everybody’s darling.”