Are extraordinary people born or forged by a series of life events? I have often asked myself this question and more so when I spoke to one extraordinary Zambian, Benson Kanyembo. You may have never heard his name, but you will likely have seen his work, for it is all around us, however it is most visible in the Luangwa valley, in the abundant wildlife and more so in the men and women that fight daily to protect it.
Benson Kanyembo has been a Zambian crime fighter for over three decades. His criminal of choice? Poachers in and around his community, who he believes brazenly strip our land of something invaluable, its beautiful fauna. Benson grew up in Mpika, a town in Northern Zambia, close to North Luangwa National Park. He grew up in the bush, surrounded by thousands of black rhinos, but by the early 1990s, every one of them was extinct, lost to the illegal wildlife trade. Frustrated by the apathy towards poaching he saw in his community, Benson chose to act. And so, his crime fighting ways started young. As a teenager in 1989, while still in school, Benson joined the North Luangwa Conservation Project’s (NLCP) informer network, reporting on criminal activities in his town. The son of a former policeman and a former prison warden, the rule of law and its value, is something he understood well.
Immediately after he graduated from school, he formally joined the NLCP as a porter. Far from glamorous, his first job was to prepare meals for National Parks and Wildlife Service scouts on patrol in the park. Following them on long patrols in the dense forest, carrying all his equipment on his back like a “camel”.
Scouts on patrol work long hours, tracking poachers often on foot and working their way through some of Zambia’s most remote areas. Benson’s job was to keep these men nourished and this meant working just as hard, if not harder, than them. By his own admission it was arduous, a baptism by fire for a young man who grew up in a relatively well-to-do home, something the scouts did not appreciate when he first joined them. However, he soon became an invaluable asset. Benson was well educated and this proved to be useful when tracking their missions.
When out on patrols with scouts, Benson often found himself writing operational reports on behalf of the scouts. Benson impressed as a porter and part-time report-writer. He was an energetic jack of all trades and most importantly, he was honest. It was not long before he was promoted to storeman and 24-hour radio operator and then later to auxiliary scout. Benson attributes his quick ascent to his integrity and willingness to expose corruption even when it put his life at risk; if anything he thinks he was considered “too honest.”
In 1997 Benson joined the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), as a community scout and ascended the ranks to senior wildlife police officer. Benson remembers North Luangwa National Park being riddled with poachers but over the years, his labour has not gone unrewarded. Things turned around, poaching has steadily decreased until in 2019 it was reported that not a single elephant was poached in the park that year. Benson had long since left the area but his indelible mark remains.
After almost two decades in North Luangwa, in 2008 Benson moved to Mfuwe and the South Luangwa National Park. An instructor with vast experience at that point, he was posted at Nyamaluma Training School. Here he trained new recruits. To date he has trained over a thousand men and women who are now on the frontlines of the battle to save our national parks. Benson wasn’t popular with everyone though; he was adamant rules be followed and would not back down for anyone. When asked what his idea of a good scout is Benson responded, “many are called but few are chosen”. His own trainees will admit that being trained by Benson is not an easy thing. Few appreciate the experience until it’s over. In 2009 Benson yet again changed gears and joined Conservation South Luangwa (CSL) as operations manager. CSL is an Mfuwe-based non-profit organisation that supports community-based scouts to help the Department of National Parks and Wildlife protect the flora and fauna of the Luangwa Valley. Over the years through his work with CSL Benson has continued to bolster his law enforcement knowledge and in 2018 was promoted to Law Enforcement Advisor.
On 21 November 2019 Benson’s lifetime of service was recognised. He was awarded the prestigious Tusk Wildlife Ranger Award by His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge, Prince William at a glittering red-carpet award ceremony in London. Nicknamed the “Conservation Oscar” this award gives international recognition to the men and women who face danger every day to protect Africa’s wildlife. Benson is only the third person in history to receive this award. When announcing the winner of the Tusk Wildlife Ranger Award, Tusk CEO Charlie Mayhew said, “Thanks to his extraordinary bravery and passion for the natural world, Zambia’s Benson Kanyembo provides much needed hope for the future of Zambia’s threatened wildlife. With his inspirational leadership the war against poaching and the illegal wildlife trade is winnable.”
Scouts and rangers are the first line of defence for our wildlife and ecosystems. Though their work is seldom recognised and applauded these men and women are not only in battle with floods, fires, illnesses or dangerous animals, increasingly they are targeted by poachers. According to the IUCN in 2019 alone 149 rangers lost their lives in the field. Men like Benson are a rarity, risking his life daily for this land he calls home. Benson still has the heart of a scout, a love for the bush and a love for Africa. He’s a true patriot. What keeps him going is a strong desire to conserve Zambia’s natural heritage for future generations.