Cradling a pangolin bigger than a basketball, as it unfurls its scaly rudder of a tail, Amos Gwema is enjoying a special moment. Historically revered in Zimbabwe, the prehistoric mammal is too superior to be considered a totem animal, and finding one is a sign of prosperity. But today any good fortunes are in the pangolin’s favour as it prepares to embark on a second lease of life.
A month ago, Amos seized the shy, endangered creature from poachers, who were planning to profit from its highly prized scales or sell it for ‘blasting’ – a senseless ritual, where the animal is jetted with water in the belief its plates of armour will transform into dollar notes.
After a period of rehabilitation at the Tikki Hywood Foundation in Harare, a non-profit working closely with Amos and his intelligence team, the charismatic pangolin is finally heading back into the wilds of Hwange National Park along with three other females.
“We’ve already released 10 this year,” boasts the Principal Intelligence Ofﬁce proudly, as he watches the new releases forage on termite mounds. “So, the probability of seeing pangolins in the future is high.”
Although most of his surveillance work is done covertly behind the scenes, Amos is preparing to take centre stage with this year’s Tusk Wildlife Ranger Award.
Credited for his honesty, dedication and fearless apprehension of criminals, he’s helped restore populations of several species in Zimbabwe’s largest national park; elephant killings alone have dropped from 300 to 25 in six years.
“To be frank and honest, we’ve kept poaching down. For this year, not even one elephant has been shot in Hwange National Park,” he says.
Previously employed by the Criminal Investigation Department, Amos uncovered the murky world of the illegal wildlife trade while working with Interpol. Compelled to correct wrongs, he applied for his position at the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority in 2008, landing the role “without any traditional means of nepotism”.
Later, he realised he was probably the only candidate running. “No-one wanted to be in Hwange, because it’s too hot.”
When he initially arrived to “just an office with a telephone” everything was in disarray. Record keeping was poor, poaching was high and there were no convictions. A month later, he recovered 40kg of ivory from Congolese refugees. Without a car, he hailed a taxi to make his first arrest.
Although his remit covers the entire country, Amos concentrates efforts on Hwange and its community boundaries, where poaching incidents have been worse. But he admits the challenge is the size of the park; at 14,651 sq km, it’s equivalent to half the landmass of Belgium, with only 150 rangers available to patrol.
“What I started with were the four pillars of conservation: community, intelligence, law and justice,” says Amos, detailing his tactics.
At the core of his work is a valuable network of informants, all gathered from scratch. One of his first tasks was to obtain local police records naming poachers who had recently been arrested and convicted. “I followed these people to try and rehabilitate them with conservation science,” he says.
Now, he regularly receives information and rewards individuals with payments if a successful arrest is made. Even while refuelling his car one morning, a mechanic had whispered news of a rhino horn and a pangolin for sale, he recalls.
Once criminals are identified, Amos sends out his team of plain clothes investigator officers – men and women cherry picked from the Wildlife Authority’s team of rangers. Using WhatsApp, he directs sting operations remotely.
It’s a finely tuned operation but there have been close shaves. He tells stories of his unarmed team accosting poachers with spears and rifles.
“This work is not for the faint-hearted,” he warns. “It’s been a sacrifice to reach where we are.”
In 12 years, he’s intercepted poachers stashing ivory in a guest house, arrested a teacher selling tusks in exchange for cooking oil, and confiscated cyanide from gangs plotting mass poisonings. Since 2013, he’s orchestrated 135 arrests, each sentenced to a minimum term of nine years.
A store cupboard in his office is jammed with putrid animal parts and barbaric traps: elephant tusks, pangolin scales, coils of wire snares.
The haul of seized items is impressive – especially given the lack of resources Amos has at his disposal. Many of his team are still using battered SMS phones to communicate, and the only vehicle available for arrests is his own car.
Despite everything he’s seen, any anger towards offenders has been tempered over the years. In fact, he plans to use part of the £30,000 grant given by Tusk to establish a rehabilitation programme for poachers recently released for prison, hopefully preventing them from committing crimes again.
“We are helping pangolins to recover, but what about people?” he argues convincingly. “Rehabilitation should be both to the human beings and to the animals if we want to succeed.”
Amos Gwema is the winner of this year’s Tusk Wildlife Ranger Award, sponsored by the Nick Maughan Foundation.
Experience the wildlife of Hwange National Park with Somalisa Camp, who operate with a conservation focus. A six-night Essential Zimbabwe itinerary, including a stay, costs from £2,921pp. Flights extra. Visit africanbushcamps.com.