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New Al Jazeera series follows trainee rangers as they fight rhino poaching

Published: 23 September 2013

New Al Jazeera series Wildlife Warzone is to explore the only thing standing between heavily-armed poachers and the decimation of a species: rangers. Poaching is worth $17-billion a year and is being fueled by demand in Asia, where rhino horn in particular is believed to have, unproven, medicinal properties, including the ability to cure cancer.

New Al Jazeera series follows trainee rangers as they fight rhino poaching
Poaching is big business in South Africa - rhino horn is now worth more than gold.

The six-part series follows a new batch of trainee rangers as they are put through their paces over 38 days, during which time they have no access to the outside world. They are pushed to breaking point, both physically and mentally. Some will crack under the pressure. Those that don't will emerge as highly-trained operatives capable of battling the poachers they are up against, many of whom are former soldiers.

Being a wildlife ranger is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Each night a battle rages between South Africa’s wildlife rangers and criminal gangs. As trainee ranger Chrisjan Visser says, "Being shot at is hard to describe. You see the weapon coming up and, a fraction of a second later, you hit the deck. And you close your eyes and pray."

"There have been many programmes about the wildlife crisis in Africa," says Al Jazeera English director of programmes, Paul Eedle. "However this series takes a unique look at the issue through the eyes of trainee anti-poaching rangers. The series of 25-minute films follows the new recruits as some leave home for the first time, enter a brutal world of military training and finally head to the frontline of Africa’s Wildlife Warzone."

Many of the trainees want to become rangers to protect their habitat. As trainee Nabiel Leon says, “There is no doubt in my mind I will love what I will be doing. It is to protect the rhinos … protecting what I love."

For others, the course is a way out of poverty. As trainee Lunga Nyawe says, “I hope this is going to change my life. I don’t want to be stuck here and have no opportunities to go further in life.”

Vincent Barkas, the head of the training company Protrack, describes the challenges to the trainees. “You’re going to be given a semi-automatic weapon when you finish training. You are going to have 1/100th of second to decide whether you can pull the trigger or not.”

It may be a dangerous job but it’s a privilege for the trainees. As trainee Gerald Mhalanga says, "My friends from back at school, none of them have seen wildlife like I have, ever before. I love being with the wildlife."

And there’s nothing like the gratification of finally getting your man and potentially helping save a species from extinction. "We can wait for hours and hours," says Visser. "But then you hear those footsteps coming. Suddenly you forget everything. It's 'go' time. Everything happens in seconds. And then it's over. But it's a great feeling. You catch this guy red-handed after hours and hours of waiting."

Wildlife Warzone is partly shot at Shamwari in the Eastern Cape, named the World's Leading Conservation Company and Leading Safari Lodge at the 2012 World Travel Awards.

The series airs from Monday, 7 October at 22:30 on Al Jazeera, channel 406 on DStv. There will be additional screenings on Tuesdays at 09:30, Wednesdays at 03:30, and Thursdays at 16:30.
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