When Kenyan ranger Edward Ndiritu recently received the first ever Tusk Wildlife Ranger Award we thought it was a good opportunity to highlight the work rangers do. Natasha Breed followed the story
Growing up in the small town of Naro Moru, to the west of Mount Kenya, Edward Ndiritu used to walk to school. One of seven children, he’d stick close to his older brothers, and remembers the thrill of coming across steaming piles of buffalo dung and elephant footprints crisscrossing the path. Sometimes the children would disturb a hyena, which would lope away, looking back furtively over its shoulder. But knowing that there were such potentially dangerous animals close by didn’t scare him. “Even as a small kid, I was always interested in wildlife,” he told me. “When I was old enough, I joined the Scouts.”
I met Edward at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy’s celebration of World Rangers Day (31 August). On that day, 300 employees of Lewa, the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) and Borana Conservancy gathered in recognition of the dedicated work and bravery of the rangers, security teams and anti-poaching units. As the uniformed men stood there, heads bowed and holding their caps to their hearts, prayers of thanks and blessing were offered.
What nobody knew, least of all Edward himself, was that he was about to be presented with an award. The anti-poaching and rapid response teams work ceaselessly to protect rhinos and elephants in the face of the poaching crisis that grips Africa today. And this man’s leadership had not passed unnoticed.
Tusk Trust, internationally respected for its conservation efforts over the past 25 years, is a significant supporter of these conservancies. This year, His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge, its patron, initiated the Tusk Wildlife Ranger Award, and a call went out for nominees across the continent. A shortlist of candidates from South Africa, Namibia, the DRC, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe was drawn up, but it was this quiet Kenyan who was selected by the panel of judges.
It took a while for the realisation to dawn on Edward, as Lewa’s CEO Mike Watson read out a letter from Prince William, which began: “Dear Edward… May I take the opportunity to personally congratulate you on this richly deserved award and to thank you for the extraordinary contribution you and your team at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy have made towards both the protection of wildlife and increased security for the rural communities of northern Kenya…” I watched as a mixture of embarrassment and pride suffused the dignified countenance of this humble man, while his men at arms stole sideways glances at him, trying hard to suppress their grins.
A week later, I spoke to Edward on the phone and he told me his story. After school, he attended a polytechnic college where he trained and qualified as a motor vehicle mechanic. Then a friend at the college told him that Lewa were looking for rhino monitors – wildlife scouts whose job it would be to follow, observe and report on the rhino population within the sanctuary. He applied and, to his delight, was selected. At the age of 23 he found himself clad in camouflage and sturdy boots, carrying a rucksack containing his rations, clothes and bedding and sleeping out under the stars.
In time he joined the mobile anti-poaching unit, where he was promoted to corporal and later third in command. In 2009 Lewa was rocked by its first poaching incident in twenty-five years: a rhino was shot on Christmas Eve and its horn taken. Other incidents followed, and by 2012 Lewa had lost ten rhinos. But the most shocking revelation came when the evidence began to point to some of the very men charged with protecting them. As a result, the Head of Anti-Poaching and his second in command were both removed and Edward was put in charge.
Lewa and the Northern Rangelands Trust entered a new phase in the development of their wildlife security, and funding was channeled into intensive training. The teams were given ‘Police Reservist’ status, and began to work in conjunction with the Kenya Police and Kenya Wildlife Service. A tracker dog unit was also brought in to augment security. These measures paid off and the number of poaching incidents slowly fell.
2014 was a landmark year. It began with the confession of an ex-Lewa employee who had abused his position to provide access to poachers, leading to the killing of two rhinos. A few months later came the tragic death of a member of one of the rapid response teams, which hit the men very hard. “It was terrible. We all felt it. We are a team and we suffered,” Edward explained. Even now, his voice carried the unmistakable raw emotion of human loss. Nevertheless, by the year’s end Lewa was able to report for the first time in five years that no rhinos had been poached on the conservancy.
I asked Edward how his wife copes when he’s away. “She never complains. She is totally supportive. Many days pass when we can’t speak to each other and she doesn’t know where I am. But she understands…” And his parents? “My dad is very proud. He read the letter and said to me, ‘This is an unusual thing to happen’. So tomorrow, we will have Mass at my home, with all our family, friends and neighbours, to give thanks.”
At the end of our conversation, I asked him whether he was looking forward to going to England in November to collect his award and whether he’d been abroad before. With a chuckle he said: “I’ve been to Zimbabwe, but nowhere else. I am looking forward to going to London, but I’m scared of the cold…”