IREEN NGANGA, Lusaka
PERHAPS, no one put it better than Martin Fletcher, when he wrote about the heroes saving Africa’s wildlife.
“As a junior ranger in Zambia in 1999, Solomon Chidunuka dressed in old clothes, took a bus to a notorious poachers’ lair, and won their confidence by pretending to be an ivory buyer. He then summoned colleagues who arrested 25 suspects and put many in prison – and he never looked back,” Fletcher wrote in British The Telegraph.
“During a career that has seen him become senior wildlife warden in charge of three national parks, he has participated in numerous undercover missions. He has built up intelligence networks that often alert him before poachers have entered a protected area.
“Chidunuka, 50, reckons he has made 200 arrests. He slashed elephant poaching in the Lower Zambezi National Park, where he worked for 13 years; and he has lost none of Zambia’s only population of black rhinos in North Luangwa National Park, which he oversees. One of the first Zambian rangers to receive paramilitary training, he believes in leading by example – and not even the recent amputation of his left leg due to diabetes will stop him.”
For his work, Chidunuka was awarded the 2017 Tusk Conservation Award at a ceremony held in Cape Town, South Africa last month. The awards were organised by the British-based charity Tusk, a dynamic and pioneering organisation with over 25 years of experience initiating and funding conservation, community development and environmental education programmes across Africa.
Tusk, whose patron is Prince William of Britain, who is the Duke of Cambridge, supports more than 60 field projects in 19 African countries that not only work to protect wildlife, but also help to alleviate poverty through sustainable development and education amongst rural communities who live alongside the wildlife.
As an extension, the Tusk Conservation Awards, gives the organisation the chance to celebrate extraordinary people, whose work and lives might otherwise go unnoticed outside their fields.
In the words of Prince William: “These awards which mean a great deal to me personally, play a huge part in our mission to preserve Africa’s precious wildlife for its people. It is vital that we recognise the dedication of these unsung heroes and the bravery of rangers risking their lives, day and night, on conservation’s frontline. We all owe them a huge debt of gratitude.”
Prince William was unable to be present at the awards ceremony, but through video link, he said poaching should have no place in a modern civilised society.
“Ivory, rhino horn, pangolin and lion parts are the fuel of extinction – these products today represent the cruel death of truly majestic creatures that are fast disappearing from our world,” he said.
The awards ceremony were attended former archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was plucked out from retirement by Prince William; Graca Machel, double widow of two former Presidents, Samora Machel and Nelson Mandela; and former South African President FW de Klerk.
It is de Klerk who presented Chidunuka with the Tusk Wildlife Ranger Award, which he won jointly with Lucky Ndlovu for their anti-poaching work.
If Chidunuka’s work shows a man who is persistent, then his co-recipient is equally the same.
“In July 2016, Sergeant Lucky Ndlovu, head of a canine unit in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, suspected an insider was poaching rhinos. He spread misinformation about his unit’s movements, mounted an ambush and caught a regional ranger – his boss’s boss – and a vet. He and his team then retrieved a gun and a rhino horn that the suspects had allegedly jettisoned after realising they were trapped. The pair are now awaiting trial,” that is how Fletcher put it in The Telegraph.
“That was just one success in Ndlovu’s six years in charge of a canine unit in Kruger’s Intensive Protection Zone, home to 5,000 rhinos. Since 2014, his six-man team and two tracker dogs – a Belgian Malinois named Ngwenya and a foxhound named Chico – have caught around 70 poachers and retrieved around 40 firearms. Now 55, Ndlovu has been shot at, gored by a buffalo, chased by rhinos and confronted by lions. But he is determined that there should be rhinos left for his children to protect.”
Chidunuka is a senior wildlife warden under the Department of National Parks and Wildlife in the Ministry of Tourism and Arts.
“Being nominated for this award is a huge surprise. I had not realized my contribution had made such a big impact,” he says.
Well, it did not end with just a nomination, he went on to win the award albeit jointly.
He believes that he was able to win the award because of his courage and commitment in executing his duties.
“As a game ranger, you don’t just sit in the office, you have to follow the poachers even just trailing their footprints,” Chidunuka says.
“My wife would often jokingly ask me, ‘my husband, do you like your work more than your family? You are away in the field more than you are at home’. And my reply has always been that I would like our children and Zambia’s future generation to enjoy the benefits of wildlife.
“The award brings recognition to my country Zambia. I hope that the future generations will see that we have people who have great passion for protecting wildlife. It is crucial that our wildlife continues to add value to the economy but also that it remains for everyone to enjoy.”
Chidunuka is a man for the wild.
He joined the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Services in 1987 as a wildlife police officer. He has been with the department until it later changed to Zambia Wildlife Authority in 2000 (ZAWA) and in 2016 to Department of National Parks.
He has held various positions including those of assistant wildlife ranger, unit leader, senior wildlife ranger, area warden and now senior wildlife warden.
In 1993, he was named as the best unit leader.
“I would not have achieved this without the partnership of my fellow rangers in this field. I hope that it encourages them to achieve the same,” Chidunuka says of the Tusk Award.
“I would like to acknowledge the Frankfurt Zoological Society and the North Luangwa Conservation Project as well as Conservation Lower Zambezi based in the Lower Zambezi National Park. These projects supported me and enabled me to achieve best results in the conservation of wildlife in Zambia.”
Director of National Parks and Wildlife Paul Zyambo says he had confidence that Chidunuka would scoop the Tusk Award.
“It was obvious that Chidunuka would get the award because of his passion and commitment towards his job,” he says.
His words of his advice are simple: other warden officers should emulate him.
Now, where are the poachers!