November 14, 2014 will forever be engraved on Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) ranger Caroline Mutesi’s memory.
On the fateful day, armed men attacked Kapkwai forest exploration centre in Kapchorwa and killed two of her colleagues, compounding the dangers of her job of taking care of Uganda’s wildlife.
Her colleagues, Private Moses Nandira and Private Ismail Kapere, were the victims that day and even though it has been three years since the gruesome incident, images of their lifeless bodies are still fresh in Mutesi’s mind.
“They attacked us at 7pm. We hadn’t arrested anyone or done anything wrong, but I think [the attackers] just wanted us out of that area. Kapere was one of their own and he came from the nearby community, but they didn’t spare his life,” reminisced the 27-year-old ranger. “I will never forget that day.”
And because of the dangers of the job people such as Mutesi do, on April 8, 2017 four friends hopped onto their bicycles to start their long journey from Johannesburg to Nairobi with the aim of helping game rangers.
Theo Bromfield, Will Johnson, Charlie Rose and Will Addison were certain their expedition would help raise £100,000 and drum up support for rangers.
Bromfield, Johnston and Rose are college students, while Addison is a student at Edinburgh University, Scotland.
For five months, Bromfield, Johnston, Rose and Addison, all aged 23, pedaled through cities, thick forests and deserts enjoying the African countryside, but also getting battered by the elements.
At night, the quartet would set up tents in a school or a good Samaritan’s compound before going to interact with community members.
According to Addison, they were pushed to raise funds for rangers after doing research documenting the extreme conditions animal protectors work in. He observed that when tourists from other continents visit Africa, they enjoy seeing the animals and ignore the men and women who risk their lives every day to protect wildlife.
For example in places such as Kibale forest national park and Bwindi Impenetrable forest national park where chimpanzees and gorillas thrive, respectively, it is rangers that comfort the wild primates for months and habituate them enough for tourism activities.
Not a simple or danger-free job. Rangers also protect the animals from trophy-hungry poachers and surrounding hungry communities.
“We noticed that there are a lot lives that have been lost in trying to protect animals. When we come here, we enjoy seeing the animals and feel happy, but the cost of protecting wildlife is humbling,” Addison told The Observer recently when the foursome rode through Uganda.
“The rangers are committed and are embodiment of that passion to protect wildlife. We want to tell their stories because every day, they are in the bush sacrificing their time, and leaving their families and friends to protect wildlife.”
UWA estimates that in the recent past, heavily armed poachers and illegal loggers have killed 22 rangers. And, according to the Game Rangers Association of Africa (GRAA), of the 111 rangers killed worldwide, 32 of them were from Africa.
Poachers are to blame for 80 per cent of ranger deaths. Illegal trade in wildlife products is now estimated to be worth more that $17bn a year.
The rhino horn is the most valued product, with a kilo costing about $75,000 (Shs 262.5m). Elephants’ ivory comes in second place with a kilo costing about $1,200 (Shs 4.2m) and an estimated 100 elephants are killed every day worldwide.
Having served in Murchison Falls national park before, Mutesi said rangers are surrounded by enemies; both animals and poachers hunt them down.
“Even our bosses – the animals – don’t know that we are guarding them. They tend to turn against us,” she said.
BICYCLES TO THE RESCUE
Through the Cycling for Rangers website and other sources, the four Londoners have been able to so far raise £25,000.
They have pedaled through eight countries, covering 8,000km and visiting 10 national parks where they have interacted with rangers. All proceeds will go to For Rangers, an organisation dedicated to supporting and improving ranger welfare across Africa.
“We are going to keep this cause alive even when off the bikes,” vowed Johnston.
Spending ten days on the road has been no easy task for the four friends, because of the huge challenges that come with the African jungle.
For example, after spending some time at Balule Nature Reserve with the Black Mamba anti-poaching unit in South Africa, the team headed into Botswana where they faced their first wild encounter.
About 300km into Botswana, a fully grown elephant charged at them and for a moment quenched their thirst for adventure. The frightened bikers dropped their bicycles and scampered for dear life, but later managed to find the courage to ride on.
Luckily, the elephant did not trample their only means of transport. Then, after a thrilling visit and filming in Zambia’s Lower Zambezi national park, Liuwa Plain national park, South Luangwa national park and Kasanka national park, Bromfield and Rose fell sick as the team approached Malawi which forced the team to suspend their journey for a while.
Finding medical help for their sick colleagues was not easy, as they had to switch on their helmet flashlights to find their way to the nearest clinic under the cover of darkness.
The Britons rode into a village clinic in Malawi at night looking for any doctor who could treat them.
“It was really devastating watching our friends sick,” said Johnston, the only member of the group who rode through the journey without any major setback.
After Bromfield and Rose healing, it was Addison’s turn to suffer the next setback as he twisted his left knee. For a week, he had to ride behind the pack and swallow close to eight painkillers daily.
“As we reached the northern part of Malawi and into Tanzania, my knee started hurting every time I cycled and that was the biggest challenge for me during the entire journey. Getting through that journey was a challenge,” he said.
As they reached Dodoma, Addison’s knee eased up enough for a thrilling adventure into Rwanda, the land of 1,000 hills, and on into the Pearl of Africa.
Of all the national parks and forests they rode through, Bwindi Impenetrable and forest awed them the most. Riding through it cooled off their weariness and the sight of the mountain gorillas the park is famed for, gave them satisfaction that they were indeed riding for a cause.
Bromfield described Bwindi as “a very important place in the global heritage conservation”.
After dodging Kampala traffic, the four Britons arrived at UWA offices in Kamwokya, where they shared their experiences.
Their overgrown beards told a story of their own. After a brief stopover at the British High Commission in Kampala, the four Londoners embarked on a 218km journey to Busia, which took them three days.
Currently, the team is in Kenya where they will visit a number of parks and interact with rangers. Clearly, there is no one way to tour Africa; this quartet has shown.