Updated: Mar 27, 2018
By Cheyenne Johnson, Managing Editor
When the rangers on the Stanley & Livingstone Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve begin their morning, they’re not on their way to the waterfall. Out on the plains of Zimbabwe, a crack in the earth plunges the waters of Victoria Falls 354 feet into the chasm below, and while it’s neither the tallest nor widest waterfall, hundreds of tourists flock to it every year. The rangers, however, head the other way, towards the bush and trees where the endangered species under their protection roam free.
For Picket Chabwedzeka, life on the reservation is more the norm than the exception. As the senior warden and anti-poaching manager for the reservation, he’s charged with coordinating all anti-poaching Ranger duties, overseeing their daily operations, and assisting in the development of the skills they need to be successful. With almost a decade of experience on a game reserve and a masters in ecology, Chabwedzeka is uniquely positioned to lead his team.
“I’ve seen and weighed all the different anti-poaching efforts that are being put in the different [reserves],” said Picket, “and I’ve also had the opportunity to visit different private and national parks inside Zimbabwe and outside Zimbabwe...That’s made me to grow and learn and chose the best management models to use.”
The safety of all the animals on the reservation is the main priority of the rangers, but it’s not their only duty. Tourism is a big part of directing the discussion towards one of international involvement and cooperation. Walking tours are common sights on game reservations and Chabwedzeka’s lead several throughout his time.
While their mission is consistent, their day to day routines are anything but.
“We don’t really have a day structure. It’s a 24-hour thing,” said Picket. “Things are so varied.”
Each day is unique and challenging in its own way. Where one day may involve chasing after a poacher, the next may have nothing more exciting than an occasional snake sighting. It’s vital that the rangers be ready for anything, and their training is there to guarantee they are.
As these animals populations have decreased, poachers have evolved, refining their tactics to be more ruthless and efficient. Unfortunately for them, the rangers at the Victoria Falls Reserve have perfected their own tactics.
“We need to use an aggressive but very interactive approach to defend these species,” said Picket. “Because of the nature of the job, someone needs to be properly fit, physically fit, and mentally trained as well so we have to use the paramilitary approach so that people understand and see the danger and also learn how to go around that danger in order to protect our animals effectively.”
Before becoming full rangers, all candidates go through a rigorous, paramilitary test focused on building their endurance, stamina, and cardio capabilities to better handle the stress of the positions. Mental strength is perfected so they can manage the pressure and potential trauma of their positions. It’s not uncommon for those on duty to face active violence from the poachers and the weapons they use to hunt.
“Being a game ranger is a very serious profession,” said Picket, “ and can be life-threatening.”
Luckily for the rangers who make it through training, they’re not expected to face these feats alone. Ensuring the safety of the reservations requires that rangers live for extended periods on the reserve, spending long spans of time away from their friends and family. To fill this gap, a reservation family takes its place with the men and women of the field bonding through the shared goal of animal protection.
“We encourage each other. We become a family...We have seen some guys developing. Other guys who weren’t married are now married so it’s like this big family.”
The International Anti-Poaching Foundation joined forces in 2010 to help manage the security of the Stanley & Livingstone Reserve and constructed and supervises a Ranger Training Facility. According to Picket, the IAPF, through these measures and by providing volunteers to assist the rangers on the ground, has had a lasting effect on the effectiveness of the reserve.
“Among the rangers, morale is high because they see support,” said Picket. “It’s very difficult to do this job without equipment, without proper uniforms, and good morale, and that we get a lot of from volunteers that come through IAPF, and when the guys walk side by side with the rangers, sharing different stories, rangers tend to see it’s not only them who care about conservation.”
With Chabwedzeka’s experience and direction and the support of outside organizations, the Stanley & Livingstone Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve can continue their work to protect and defend these animals.