A Forgotten Step in Saving African Wildlife: Protecting the Rangers


Rachel Nuwer, New York Times

Date Published

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Anna Phiri was 15 when her mother, a park ranger in Zambia, was murdered by poachers.

On Sept. 2, 2010, Esnart Paundi was standing guard with a colleague over two men they had caught with illegal bushmeat. What happened next is uncertain, but Ms. Phiri has heard that a third poacher, unknown to her mother, was hiding in the bush. He jumped out and slashed her colleague’s head with a machete.

Ms. Paundi, who was unarmed, ran. But the poachers gave chase, and when they caught her, they killed her.

Ms. Paundi, 38, was the breadwinner for her five siblings, and she left behind five children, now orphans. Though she died serving her country and protecting its wildlife, she had no life insurance, and officials offered no assistance to her family. “They didn’t even say anything to us,” Ms. Phiri said.

The world depends on individuals like Ms. Paundi to protect increasingly imperiled wildlife. But many rangers do not receive the support they need. A recent World Wildlife Fund study of 570 rangers in 12 African countries found that 59 percent did not have basic supplies like boots, tents and GPS devices, and that 42 percent had not received adequate training.

Despite the critical role rangers play in the poaching crisis, conservation organizations tend to overlook the need for everyday resources, said Peter Newland, the director of training at 51 Degrees, a private security company in Kenya.

“Donors outside of Africa want to see sexy, high-tech solutions like drones and ground sensors, not to hear about the need for warm clothing, boots and better food for rangers,” he said. “Large nongovernmental groups spend huge amounts, yet there are rangers calling me for socks.”

The wildlife fund study also found that 82 percent of rangers had faced life-threatening situations, including attacks by poachers and animals. Ms. Paundi was one of more than 1,000 rangers killed on the job over the past 10 years, according to the Thin Green Line Foundation, which supports park rangers and their families. Many receive little or nothing from the government.

Another World Wildlife Fund study, in 10 African countries, found that just 60 percent of rangers had health insurance, 50 percent had life insurance and 40 percent had long-term disability insurance.

“Imagine how demotivating it would be to see a mate killed and then to witness his family removed from their house and his kids taken out of school because they receive no wage as a thank you for his sacrifice after he’s gone,” said Sean Willmore, who founded the Thin Green Line Foundation. “Morale plays a massive role in reducing poaching.”

Governmental corruption makes a ranger’s job even more difficult in many parts of Africa. Poachers have been supported by officials in a number of countries. But rangers would be in trouble even if there were no corruption, Mr. Willmore said.

In the last two years, the foundation has spent $1.2 million on equipment and training for rangers and has supported more than 150 families of those killed in the line of duty, including Ms. Paundi’s. The organization is putting her children through school.

Similarly, For Rangers, a charity co-founded by Mr. Newland that raises money through extreme racing events, has donated $200,000 worth of gear, vehicles, medical supplies and family aid to rangers at 10 parks throughout Africa since April 2014.

“There’s a huge amount of recognition for the illegal wildlife trade crisis, but not a huge amount for the people really doing the day-to-day work to stop it,” said Sam Taylor, a co-founder of For Rangers and the head of conservation projects at 51 Degrees.

But small nonprofit groups can support only a fraction of the estimated 20,000 to 25,000 rangers working in Africa.

“Performance is definitely affected by the lack of insurance, combined with the high risk factor and the lack of training and equipment,” said Rohit Singh, the lead author of the World Wildlife Fund studies. “How can we expect rangers to deliver if they do not have these basic things?”

When rangers are well taken care of and receive appropriate training, poaching rates tend to drop, Mr. Singh and Mr. Willmore said.

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, a wildlife sanctuary in Kenya, for example, was losing unprecedented numbers of rhinoceroses when it overhauled its operations in 2014. To turn things around, the conservancy invested in specialized training, brought in a helicopter, installed a new communications system and strengthened relationships with local communities.

Since then, Lewa has not lost a single rhino.

“There was a time when rhinos were poached here so often that we were becoming scared, but we’ve tried our best and we’ve stopped it,” said Francis Kobia Chokera, 44, a ranger at Lewa. “We had security before, but not like it is now. It’s very, very tight.”

Mr. Chokera’s job is still demanding: He patrols on foot for 12 hours a day, and like 47 percent of the rangers interviewed by the wildlife fund, he sees his family fewer than five days per month. But he has insurance, earns around $3,600 a year — more than two times the average income in Kenya — and receives overtime, free housing and a pension.

“By good luck, I was given the chance to work here,” he said. “I’ve always loved animals.”

Timothy Tear, executive director for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Africa program, said that success stories like Lewa’s are “where hope is found.” He noted that the conservancy’s considerable investment in security and ranger training — $1 million a year — has been integral to its success.

“If you do the simple math of dollars spent to acres protected, you will find Lewa at the top of the investment-per-acre gradient,” Dr. Tear said.

Other protected areas that have received large investments in ranger training and support — like the Sabi Sand Game Reserve in South Africa — have seen similar gains against poachers. In 2013, the reserve lost 51 rhinos, but only two have been killed this year.

“Our rangers were herders, but now they’re effectively soldiers,” said David Powrie, Sabi Sand’s warden. “They’re at the center of all our operations.”

For now, such cases are the exception, but Mr. Willmore said better and broader training could be a first step toward improving working conditions for rangers across Africa. The Thin Green Line Foundation plans to teach 30 to 50 exceptional rangers the skills needed to be trainers themselves, and then host six events a year at which they would instruct their colleagues.

“At the moment, most training rangers get, if any, is expensive and done by expats, and there’s no follow-up,” Mr. Willmore said. “By training the trainers, we will potentially reach over 15,000 rangers in the next five years and help change the game on the ground.”

Though training would not solve problems like a lack of insurance and equipment, it could save the lives of both animals and rangers. Recently, a ranger who had been taught self-defense was attacked by a poacher with a machete and was able to use a stick to knock down the suspect and arrest him, said Craig Millar, the head of security for Kenya’s Big Life Foundation, a community conservation group.

Ms. Paundi, the ranger in Zambia, had no such training. “Protecting wildlife is good, but my mom didn’t have enough protection herself,” said Ms. Phiri, her daughter. “I believe if my mother had the proper training, equipment and security, she would still be alive today.”