Rory Young obituary: The ‘Mad Max’ of wildlife rangers

Rory captured many hearts with his fast Irish wit and sense of what’s right

Zambian-Irish wildlife conservationist Rory Young with his wife, Marjet, and their children Astrid and Aidan in 2010 when the couple took over the running of the Livingstone Royal Golf & Country Club at Victoria Falls in Zambia.

Zambian-Irish wildlife conservationist Rory Young with his wife, Marjet, and their children Astrid and Aidan in 2010 when the couple took over the running of the Livingstone Royal Golf & Country Club at Victoria Falls in Zambia.

 

Rory Young
Born: May 21st, 1972
Died: April 26th, 2021

Rory Young, who has died aged 49, was a wildlife protector and conservationist who believed passionately that the future of the Earth, and of mankind, was dependant on protecting the planet’s bio-diversity.

His devotion to this cause led to him being murdered in Burkina Faso, a fate he met when a wildlife ranger patrol he was guiding was attacked by gunmen with Nusrat al-Islam, a Saharan affiliate of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The attackers took him captive, along with two Spanish journalists, David Beriain and Roberto Fraile. A member of the Burkinabe armed forces was also missing after the melee.

Young, who was a Zambian-born Irish citizen descended from a Monaghan family, dedicated himself to preserving wildlife.

Quite often, he would say the reason he was doing what he was doing was because no one else was doing it

“My passion is wildlife and, as well as wild areas, the people who live in those areas,” he said in an interview recorded shortly before his death.

He had a strong ethic that always propelled him to try to do what was right, says a friend, Nigel Kuhn, who shared with him a military background.

“Rory was influenced by a variety of things,” says Kuhn. “One was doing what he saw was correct. Quite often, he would say the reason he was doing what he was doing was because no one else was doing it.”

One such task was saving from extinction the Saharel elephants that roam parts of Mali and neighbouring Burkina Faso, a mission that, ultimately, cost him his life.

Rory James Andrew Young was born in 1972 in Lusaka, Zambia. His parents were Anthony Michael James Young and Lynette Margaret (née Hodges).

The Youngs hailed originally from Killyconnigan in Co Monaghan and were associated strongly with the medical profession. Anthony Young’s father, Andrew Young, was expected to follow family tradition and enter the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin. However, he opted instead for engineering in Trinity College, a career choice that saw him explore parts of what was then the British Empire, working on projects in Australia and southern Africa.

There, he became associated with the colonial adventurer Cecil Rhodes, building roads and towns in South Zambezia, which became Southern Rhodesia, later simply Rhodesia, the forerunner of today’s post-colonial Zimbabwe.

While in southern Africa, Andrew Young married for the second time (his first marriage ended in divorce), a union that produced 10 children – one of them Rory Young’s father, Anthony. Rory’s mother’s British and Irish antecedents included the Harris family of Fermoy, Co Cork.

Rory was the youngest of five siblings. All were raised in the Catholic faith and, according to Gemma Young, a sister, had values of truth and charity instilled in them as being of the utmost importance.

The young Rory spent his early years on a 6,000-acre farm in Chisamba in central Zambia before, at the age of five following his parents’ divorce, his mother moved the family to Zimbabwe, then in the throes of war between the majority black population and the ruling white minority government of Ian Smith.

Young attended Lilfordia preparatory school in Harare before being sent to a Catholic secondary school near Carcasonne in southwest France, spending the final two years of his schooling back in Zimbabwe.

In France, he befriended a captain in the French military, while back in heavily militarised Rhodesia, his new step-father was in charge of military transport. Perhaps these examples encouraged a youthful dalliance with an army career but, in any event, after secondary education, Young enlisted in the 2nd Foreign Paratrooper Regiment of the French Foreign Legion. However, he stayed for just a year.

“It did not work for me,” he explained later. “I hated being told what to do.”

The bush proved to be a stronger draw on his skills and his emotions. In Zimbabwe, he trained for four years to be a professional wildlife guide and honed his bush-tracking skills.

His first job was at Matusadona National Park where he was responsible for relocating cheetah into the park and thereby protecting them from hunters. He spent a number of years as a reserve police officer and with several parks and wildlife organisations.

Along the way, at the Pamuzinda Safari Lodge run by his sister, he met his future wife, Marjet, whose parents were Dutch diplomats. They settled initially in the Netherlands where Young learned golf course management, leading them to return to Zambia where, for a time, they restored and ran the Livingstone Golf Club.

A near-death experience in 2012 (he was struck by lightning) prompted a period of reflection and a return to his enduring vocation: protecting wildlife. He founded Chengeta Wildlife, an anti-poaching charity that offers an holistic approach to tackling the problem – mentoring and offering muscular support to wildlife rangers; teaching bush crafts, especially advanced tracking; showing how to investigate and interdict poachers and animal traffickers’ methods; and supporting people living in affected areas.

In an interview last month with David Grant of the This Wildlife podcast, Young described his work as “standing in the front line” with wildlife rangers, conservationists and NGOs in some of the most challenging environments for them and local law enforcement officers.

He epitomised the struggles of someone who is trying to do the right thing in areas where many people are trying to take advantage of you

Based out of the Netherlands and with a support network in the United States and southern Africa, he worked in some of Africa’s most dangerous areas, including Mali, Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Congo Brazzaville, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Cameroon.

He believed a toxic mixture of greed, poverty, desperation, displacement and war lay behind most poaching.

“It’s not because [people] are bad or greedy,” he told Grant. “Very often, they are just hungry, desperate and have very few alternatives... corruption is an enormous problem [and] beyond corruption, the most important thing is governance – the rule of law, peace and security. That’s what’s missing.”

Nigel Kuhn remembers Young as the most headstrong, determined person he has ever known. “He epitomised the struggles of someone who is trying to do the right thing in areas where many people are trying to take advantage of you.”

Young himself likened his wildlife ranger-supporting patrols as looking more “Mad Max than game rangers” – an image apparently apt, as events transpired. Militants speeding in pick-up trucks and on motorcycles attacked as Young led a wildlife protection patrol in Arli National Park, Burkina Faso, accompanied by the two Spanish reporters and Burkina Faso troops.

David Beriain was from Pamplona in Spain’s north, while Roberto Fraile was from the northern Basque country. Beriain was a war reporter who worked for a now-defunct Spanish branch of CNN and had founded his own production house specialising in documentaries on illegal activities. Fraile used to work for Spain’s CyLTV. According to Spanish media reports, he was wounded in Syria at the end of 2012 while covering the Free Syrian Army.

He was a walking fountain of interest and knowledge. Passionate about everything, self-limiting beliefs were completely foreign to him

Despite the presence of Burkina Faso troops, the wildlife patrol was overwhelmed by the militants. Young, Beriain and Fraile were captured and, according to Young’s family, as soldiers tried to rescue them, he was shot in the back of his head. Beriain and Fraile were also murdered.

Rory Young was fascinated by history and was an avid reader and linguist, proficient in Afrikaans, Shona, ChiKabanga, Dutch and French. He co-authored (with Yakov Alekseyev) A Field Manual for Anti-Poaching Activities and wrote for quora.com.

“He had an incredibly sharp mind,” recalls his sister, Gemma Young. “He was a walking fountain of interest and knowledge. Passionate about everything, self-limiting beliefs were completely foreign to him. He felt he could do anything, talk to anybody and befriend anybody, no matter how prestigious. He did that all his life.

“He captured the hearts of so many people. There was a sense of intriguing mystery about him, of how this human being got to be the way he was? It was also coupled with his think-on-your-feet fast Irish wit that creatively cracked one’s expectations in the most hilarious of ways.”

Rory Young is survived by his wife and their two children, Astrid and Aidan, and by his siblings, Katherine, Eugenie, Brendan and Gemma.