KASHOBA, Swaziland – When Thuli Makama set out to help struggling communities in Swaziland, she envisioned mediating agreements allowing people to collect firewood from wildlife parks. Instead, she ended up fighting to save lives.
Makama, head of the Swazi environment group Yonge Nawe, has been investigating allegations of private park rangers killing suspected poachers in sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarchy.
On Monday, she was named one of this year's winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize, the most prestigious international award for environmental activists.
The U.S.-based Goldman organization hailed her as among "a group of fearless emerging leaders taking on some of the world's most pressing environmental problems affecting not only local communities but the entire planet."
However, the man many Swazis credit with founding the kingdom's conservation movement, Ted Reilly, says his rangers act within laws aimed at stopping poaching, often at great personal risk.
"Very similar numbers of rangers have been killed in the line of duty by poachers as vice versa," he wrote The Associated Press in an e-mail.
Makama says families living just outside the parks where foreign tourists vacation depend on international food aid — and the occasional antelope or warthog hunted in protected land.
"These are just hunters and gatherers who need this to survive," Makama said. "People are being killed for hunting a small impala."
Before heading to the United States to accept her award, Makama visited some of those who are pressing civil cases in deaths at the hands of rangers. She piloted her four-wheel-drive along flooded dirt roads, skirting foot-deep ruts in a country where half the population of 1 million lives in poverty.
In Kashoba, a hamlet of mud-and-stick huts without electricity or running water, Makama sat under the trees on grass mats with the family of 32-year-old Sicelo Mamba, who was shot and killed in January after he bagged an impala on private land where game was raised for sale to parks.
Mamba's nephew, Mciniseli Bulunga, said his family would stick with a case that could take years, even if it meant being labeled opponents of the revered King Mswati III and his network of chiefs and advisers.
"We really thought the chiefs and all the traditional structure would step in, but it hasn't happened," Bulunga said. "Going to court is not just about us. It's about justice for the community. If we keep quiet, they'll just continue to butcher us."
Makama, citing local newspaper reports, counts some 50 deaths at the hands of rangers since 1997. That was the year the government issued a decree naming Reilly, his son, daughter and five aides as game rangers. Under Swazi law, the rangers can shoot and kill poachers caught in the act.
Reilly's private Big Game Parks runs three of the kingdom's best known tourist destinations — the Hlane, Mlilwane and Mkhaya reserves — and King Mswati III has placed wildlife management in Reilly's hands.
In addition to Mamba's death, Makama is also filing suit in several other cases including the 1992 shooting of Sibahabhane Ngcamphalala and Dumakudze Gamedze, alleged rhino poachers cornered at a hotel while trying to sell horn.
Reilly once declared of the 1992 shooting: "Dangerous men with dangerous weapons were robbing Swaziland of her heritage. They were stopped. And they were stopped by the law."
Tom Milliken, who directs operations in east and southern Africa for TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring group, said Reilly's efforts have helped ensure that "Swaziland has pretty much dropped off our radar."
Milliken said the risks taken by rangers also should be considered. Criminal syndicates use heavily armed men and helicopters to hunt rhino and elephant for their horn and ivory in other parts of Africa.
"There's enough good people killed defending wildlife that it is a concern," he said.
Reilly called his Big Game Parks company "a national law enforcement agency," and said it provides 360 jobs for Swazis.
He said his rangers are Swazis, "just like the poachers whom Yonge Nawe's Thuli Makama makes such a fuss about. Our rangers have mothers and fathers and children too, and they too are integral members of Swazi communities."
Mary Rayner, a researcher with the global human rights watchdog Amnesty International, said the killings of accused poachers are part of a broader problem in Swaziland, which has a fledgling pro-democracy movement. Amnesty has accused police and other security officials of using excessive force against criminal suspects and unarmed demonstrators.
Bheki Dlamini, the king's office spokesman, did not return repeated calls seeking comment.
Makama says it is time for the courts to review the facts and set limits on the rangers.
"Someone needs to check whether they're using reasonable force," she said.