The invisible men and women who dedicate—and sacrifice—their lives to protecting wildlife
Hearts break every time a photograph circulates of an elephant slaughtered for its ivory tusks, but what about the human who died trying to prevent that tragedy?
Wildlife rangers are a breed of local hero that doesn’t get the attention that charismatic megafauna—the elephants, lions, tigers and giraffes— attract from fans around the world. But they are every bit as endangered.
According to the Thin Green Line Foundation, two rangers are killed every week in the line of duty. In Africa, Australia, Thailand and wherever else animals fall victim to human predators and natural disasters, over 100 rangers a year also die.
Last month, one of the victims was a ranger at Tsavo National Park, one of Kenya’s most popular game reserves visited by over 100,000 tourists a year. The young ranger, a recent graduate of a training program, was on de-snaring patrol when he was ambushed by a well-known gang of poachers.
Underpaid, underequipped, and underappreciated, wildlife rangers work the frontlines where poachers and armed militias traffic illegally in wildlife with the skill and sophisticated equipment of organized crime cartels, who in fact are increasingly involved. Wildlife crime is the fifth most lucrative illegal activity in the world, generating over 10 billion dollars a year. By contrast, rangers are among the poorest paid. In Kenya, the average worker makes $1700 a year; rangers earn about $146 a year.
The sorry treatment of rangers persists even as governments and conservationists realize that the best path forward for human communities to exist in harmony with wildlife and the natural world is for local people to become major stakeholders and participants not only in protecting wildlife from poachers but also managing the land and planning restoration projects.
Rangers generally lack even the most basic support for undertaking these tasks. They need tools and equipment but also the training to use them: helicopters, night-vision goggles and GPS locators but even boots are in short supply. In addition to better pay, there needs to be support for the families of those that have served and sacrificed their lives. Currently, rangers do not always make enough even to send their children to school. As sole breadwinners if they are hurt or killed on the job, their entire families are left destitute.
Amid sporadic efforts by governments to recruit and properly train more rangers, several non-profit organizations have stepped into the gap. The Thin Green Line Foundation, founded in 2007 by documentary filmmaker and park ranger Sean Willmore, provides equipment and training for rangers in low-income conflict-prone countries including Tanzania, Zambia, Guatemala and indigenous zones in Australia. There is also a dedicated fund for the widows and orphans of rangers.
In 2013, the Berlin-based International Foundation for Nature (NABU) launched a program to provide financial aid to the chronically needy families of dead and injured rangers. The first beneficiary of the Ranger Family Support Fund was the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority receiving 50,000 Euros.
In 2010, photographer Nick Brandt and conservationist Richard Bonham established Big Life Foundation to protect wildlife and conserve ecosytems through partnering with local communities in the Amboseli-Tsavo-Kilimanjaro parks system. Training programs with the Maasai communities and their historically troubled relationship with elephants have been particularly successful. The Ranger Club is one of the foundation’s fundraising programs that funnel donations specifically to support rangers on the job.
The issues involved in supporting and training rangers, however, can be complicated. Basically, park wardens working in the wild need a wide assortment of sophisticated firearms. Loggers in Thailand, for instance, rely on a full arsenal of AK-47s to do their jobs. In December 2016, the British Support Team, East Africa made a donation to the Kenya Wildlife Service of laptops for tracking but also a portable armory for securing firearms.
Training non-military state employees to paramilitary standards is just one complicating factor. Corruption is another. It is not unusual for poachers to seek jobs as rangers just to make their illegal activities easier. In 2014, two rare white rhinos were killed right outside the office of an assistant director at the Kenya Wildlife Service. The poachers themselves told reporters in an interview that they had been given safe passage by staff members. In some cases, it has become necessary to remove entire groups of rangers to parks without elephants or rhinos in order to break up inside cartels.
The critical job of protecting wildlife only becomes more important as the populations of keystone species supporting entire ecosystems are decimated by both natural and unnatural causes. Rangers that are well paid, well equipped, well trained and fully rewarded with the respect of the community and the world are urgently needed to guarantee the safety and well being of all, wherever wild animals and humans cross paths.
Julie V Iovine