Poachers turn rangers in African reserves

Poachers turn rangers in African reserves

Last year, more than 1170 rhinos were poached for their horns in South Africa alone.

That's one rhino killed every nine hours -- a rate that will see the species disappear within a decade.

In Kenya's Masai Mara game reserve, rangers are working to counter the surge in poaching.

While their approach is 'shoot to kill', elsewhere there are initiatives which take poachers closer to their prey than ever before -- and it's a Kiwi woman leading the charge in support of them.

In the Ol Chorro Conservancy, on the outskirts of the Masai Mara reserve, two white rhino graze, seemingly at peace.

But never far away are the rangers charged with protecting them, at any cost.

Rangers Michael Wambi, Philip Naboala and Labani Kisharu carry firearms not to protect themselves from the animals, but to protect the animals from poachers.

It's a problem not just in the Masai Mara, but everywhere, and the problem has escalated in recent years with poaching up 9000 percent since 2007.

At its peak in 2014, 1300 animals were butchered for their horns.

It's made from keratin, the same protein in hair and fingernails, but it's sought after in China and Vietnam, fetching up to $75,000 a kilogram.

Poachers turn rangers in African reserves

These two rhinos were flown in from South Africa.

The seven-year-old male is named Kofi Annan, after the former UN Secretary General. His friend and future mate is Queen Elizabeth.

She's seven months pregnant but gestation can take up to 18 months, which is why every animal is so precious.

Mr Wambi has a message for the poachers:

"The message that I want to tell them is to stop poaching. Let us stop poaching and let us protect our heritage."

And their way of delivering that message is often fatal. In the Masai Mara, it's legal to shoot poachers if they're carrying a gun.

Poachers turn rangers in African reserves

But in another part of Africa, there's an initiative to turn poachers into rangers.

Zimbabwean-born New Zealander Jamie Joseph has spent the last nine months in Africa working with conservation groups.

She says her mission is to help beat extinction.

"I would like to see rhinos and elephants saved from extinction and do whatever I can to contribute to that cause," Ms Joseph says.

She's collecting stories about solutions for her website savingthewild.com. Wanting to better understand the mindset of poachers, in Kenya she found Justus Nzioki.

At just 14 years old, Mr Nzioki killed his first rhino. He had no idea that the great creatures were becoming extinct.

To communities, poachers can be seen as friends, Mr Nzioki says.

"[Poachers are] good because they bring money and meat to the community," he says. "They only hunt for food, for something just to survive."

But a dying rhino Mr Nzioki shot with a poisoned arrow made him question what he was doing.

"It was screaming as if it was a human being, so I felt pity," he says.

With the help of conservation group the Big Life Foundation, he turned from poacher to protector -- now he's a tracker and ranger.

"I feel great. I'm proud of my job, I'm good at it," Mr Nzioki says. "I hate poaching and poachers a lot."

It's a remarkable transformation and Ms Joseph says it's about giving people a chance to become someone.

The famous chimpanzee lady, Dame Jane Goodall told Newshub rangers need to be given better recognition and better pay.

Poachers turn rangers in African reserves

"I have been so impressed by the bravery of the rangers. They're in a terrible situation and not enough people realise that we need to support them.

"They need much better equipment, they need much better pay, [and] they need a much better profile so that the young people want to become rangers, because this is something really noble."

It's a solution which could prevent more people like Mr Nzioki from turning to poaching in the first place, and go some way to achieving Ms Joseph's goal of staving off extinction.