6 July 2011
Swazis question rangers' special powers in poaching battle
A teenage rhino calf died of stress and hunger last week in Swaziland after poachers slaughtered its mother, the first rhino killed in the tiny kingdom in two decades.
At the same time, a 16-year-old boy lay in hospital, a tube draining the fluid from his lung, lacerated by a bullet from a ranger's gun.
An elite team of rangers have protected Swaziland's game for decades, under a law that allows them to shoot poachers in life-threatening situations and grants immunity from prosecution if acting in the line of duty.
The tough measures have saved Swaziland's rhinos from the brink of extinction and largely kept at bay the surge in poaching that has sit neighbouring South Africa.
But the shooting of the teenager and an elderly man who allegedly bled to death near a game park has raised fresh concerns.
The teenager, who as a minor cannot be named, said he and two friends were walking outside the perimeter of the southern Mkhaya Reserve when rangers gave chase.
He said they shot him in the back.
"I am angry. If only they could have warned us first maybe I would have understood," he told AFP.
Big Game Parks, which either owns or operates Swaziland's major reserves, said the shooting occurred after dark inside the park. Rangers couldn't be certain if the boys were armed, spokesman Mike Richardson told AFP.
"The game rangers were obviously on high alert assuming everybody is there to poach rhino," he said.
Environmental lawyer Thuli Makama said both the boys suspected of poaching as well as the shooter should have been arrested.
"This shooting happened too close to the rhino story. The rangers could be on a rampage out of rage and despair," she said.
However, in the five years that she has followed cases like this one, no game ranger has ever been prosecuted.
"They have their own law," she said.
Big Game Parks says that despite their rangers' special legal status, they are not above the law.
"No ranger who abuses his powers is above the law and it does not require the police to arrest him, because the rangers of Big Game Parks do so themselves and hand the wrong-doer to the police," declares the company website.
Richardson said the company applied a "strict code of conduct" and had dealt with heavy-handed behaviour severely in the past.
The power to use deadly force against poachers rests with one family in Swaziland: the O'Reillys.
They own Big Game Parks, and have close a relationship to royalty that goes back to the 1960s. The parks provide the royal clan with a steady supply of animal pelts for the many traditional ceremonies that mark the Swazi calendar.
King Mswati III has entrusted the company to enforce Swaziland's anti-poaching law to protect "royal game".
An amended Game Act came into force in 1991 following a long and bloody war against rhino poachers in the 1980s, and is one of the "strictest anti-poaching laws in the world", according to Richardson.
The law frequently leads to conflict with local communities.
Only eight people, the O'Reilly family and five employees, have the legal right to use deadly force.
But Makama said "Big Game Parks also delegates these special enforcement powers to their friends -- farmers in the Lowveld."
A day before the teenager was shot, an elderly man allegedly bled to death after being shot by employees of a private game farm near the Mkhaya reserve.
The man's family told the Swazi Observer newspaper he left home to fetch some stray cattle and never returned.
"The whole community is being held to ransom and they are living in fear," said Makama.
Richardson said Big Game Parks is in no way linked to the incident which he said was more likely to have been a trespassing issue.
Last year Swaziland's parliament set up a committee to hold hearings into alleged human rights abuses resulting from the Game Act.
The committee has yet to release its findings.
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