Suspected Poachers Arrested for Murder of Zambian Wildlife Ranger

Dexter Chilunda was the latest of 1,000 anti-poaching officials to be killed worldwide over the past decade.

Mourners at the funeral of Dexter Chilunda, head of law enforcement at Liuwa Plain National Park in Zambia, last week. (Photo: Courtesy African Parks) 

John R. Platt covers the environment, technology, philanthropy, and more for Scientific American, Conservation, Lion, and other publications.

Two suspected poachers have been arrested for the May 23 murder of Dexter Chilunda, the head of law enforcement for Liuwa Plain National Park in Zambia. According to a press release from the African Parks Network, an international organization that manages parks in six countries, the men were apprehended on June 1 in the town of Lukulu, about 35 kilometers from the park. A $10,000 reward had been offered for information leading to an arrest and conviction for the murder.

Chilunda, a 20-year veteran, was on temporary assignment at the park from the Zambian Wildlife Authority. He had been stationed outside Liuwa and entered the park that morning after hearing gunshots. He reportedly encountered two poachers and was shot at close range with a shotgun. Park staff evacuated him from the scene for medical treatment, but Chilunda was pronounced dead back at camp. He leaves behind a wife and seven children, all of whom will be cared for by a life-insurance policy established by African Parks.

“Ranger Chilunda's murder exemplifies the sad story of wildlife law enforcement officers literally laying their lives on the line across Africa to protect endangered animals,” said Adam M. Roberts, chief executive of Born Free USA. “The effects are broad and lasting, as families must survive the loss of the sole breadwinner.”

At least 1,000 rangers have been murdered around the world over the past 10 years, according to the Thin Green Line Foundation, which offers conservation officers training, equipment, and other support. Many murdered rangers leave behind families that depend on public donations for survival. Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo has over the years issued several pleas for donations to support the widows of fallen rangers.

In a statement to the media, African Parks CEO Peter Fearnhead credited the combined efforts of the Zambian police, ZAWA, and the Liuwa Plain law enforcement unit for the arrest. “In addition, we are appreciative of the overwhelming support from local communities who assisted the investigating team,” he added. “The arrests also send a strong warning message to poachers about the consequences of their activities.”

An African Parks spokesperson was not able to verify what animals the suspected poachers had been hunting, but Liuwa has a long history of wildlife poaching. Nearly all of the park's lions were killed in the 1990s, leaving just a single lioness, Lady Liuwa, to wander alone for nine years. African Parks began reintroducing lions in 2009. In 2011, a lioness died in a poacher's snare, and in 2012, villagers killed a lion after it wandered out of the park.

Dexter Chilunda left behind a wife and seven children.

(Photo: Courtesy African Parks)

Poaching in Liuwa remains a constant threat, not just for the lions but for all of its wildlife. Liuwa is in Zambia's Western Province, the poorest region in the country and its second least educated. Last year, authorities arrested 29 poachers, resulting in the confiscation of three AK-47s, nine shotguns, and 271 kilograms of bush meat, according to documents supplied by African Parks. This February, seven poachers were arrested carrying 222 kilograms of wildebeest meat, according to a report from the Lion Voice news website.

Despite the risks, African Parks has made great strides in increasing Liuwa's wildlife populations over the past decade. Liuwa is home to more than 330 bird species, a small herd of reintroduced buffalo, two species of antelope that had disappeared from the park during its worst poaching days, and the second-largest wildebeest migration in Africa. Meanwhile Lady Liuwa, made famous by the documentary The Last Lioness, finally has a pack to call her own. An introduced male and female produced three offspring in 2013, the first cubs to wander Liuwa in more than 20 years.

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