Protecting Africa’s endangered wildlife comes with a huge amount of stress. Georgina Lockwood chats to rangers in Africa about the trials and tribulations of working on conservation’s frontline…
Lured by adventure, an enjoyment of the outdoors, a love of wildlife, and the desire to be on the frontline of conservation, rangers play an extremely important role in the preservation of Africa’s animals and environment. Their task is relentless, and the work has changed significantly over the years, becoming more and more dangerous. Ruthless poachers enter protected areas to slaughter wildlife such as elephant and rhino, and they will stop at nothing. Ranger morale fluctuates constantly, and the positive moment of saving a rhino can quickly be undone by the sound of a gunshot.
According to the Game Rangers Association of Africa, 63 rangers were killed in the line of duty in 2017. The figures for 2018 will be released on World Ranger Day on July 31, a day set aside to celebrate conservation heroes worldwide.
The field ranger is a unique brand of eco-warrior who incorporates military-style discipline with a love for nature conservation.
“Being a field ranger allows me to spend time in the bush while preserving wildlife,” says a field ranger from a protected area in Mpumalanga who wishes to remain anonymous.
The job is not without its challenges. When Safari News reached out to rangers and security professionals involved in counter-poaching strategies across Africa, most of them agreed to speak on condition of anonymity.
“Criminalised community members threaten rangers’ lives, and even the lives of their families,” says Elise Serfontein, founding director of StopRhinoPoaching.com, a non-profit organisation set up in 2010 to aid rangers and security initiatives on the frontline of poaching. In addition to feeling overworked, corruption and lack of support from the legal system were the rangers’ biggest concerns.
The difficulty of switching off
South Africa is home to the largest rhino population in the world. According to Save the Rhino International, a conservation charity raising funds for rhino conservation projects, rhino poaching increased by 9 000% from 2007 to 2014. Statistics released by the Department of Environmental Affairs indicate that 769 rhino were poached in 2018. This was the first time this figure has dropped below 1 000 since 2012.
The expression ‘overworked and underpaid’ rings true when it comes to the majority of rangers.
“Certain reserves are significantly understaffed and under-resourced for the mammoth job at hand,” Serfontein explains. An operations manager from West Africa confirms this, saying he works hard to protect our natural heritage. “It’s very difficult to let things go when you take responsibility,” he says.
Rangers often feel guilty when they take time off or go on holiday. “I know some rangers who have not taken leave in 25 years,” says a security and counter-poaching expert in Africa. “Most rangers go the extra mile and are driven by a deep sense of duty.” In the little time they do have off, many rangers find it hard to forget about work completely.
Failures in the support system
“After a ranger has apprehended a poacher, the situation is met with corruption, laziness and incompetence,” states another counter-poaching expert. Corruption is a ranger’s biggest headache. “One of the biggest frustrations is catching the same poacher you caught two years ago, because the legal system has failed to lock the culprit up,” says Otch Otto, an environmental law enforcement and security expert working in Africa. Otto has 54 years of career combat experience and also spent five years as counter-poaching manager in the Kruger National Park.
“Rangers are often charged with assault by a poacher for just doing their job,” adds a South African helicopter pilot and ranger. “They also have to deal with numerous court postponements, which adds to the frustration,” Serfontein says. “Furthermore, evidence given in the courts reveals investigative methodology and the rangers’ counter-poaching strategies – this helps other poachers avoid being caught.”
Betrayal from within
One of the hardest things rangers endure is betrayal by their colleagues. In May 2019, a former SANParks ranger was arrested for poaching. In a separate incident in early 2019, three SANParks rangers were arrested for poaching in Kruger National Park.
The vetting of rangers and reserve staff may help reduce corruption from within. “Integrity testing has been successfully implemented in a number of the big private concessions and has significantly reduced the number of poaching incidents in these reserves,” Serfontein explains.
Mitigation and deterrents
The amount of pressure a ranger is exposed to depends on the reserve, the chosen counter-poaching strategies, and whether it is privately managed or government-run.
According to Save the Elephants, 100 000 elephants were killed for their ivory between 2010 and 2012. The forest elephants from Central Africa have been the worst hit. “Poachers in Central Africa are well armed and operate in much larger groups, and as a result the number of casualties is higher,” Otto explains. Rangers who have been killed in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo are often in the news.
“In South Africa, rangers are better resourced than the poachers, but the poachers often hold the advantage as the initiator of the event,” explains the helicopter pilot and ranger. The upgrade in armaments and competency contributes to lower casualties.
“Private reserves focus on mitigation measures and deterrents like horn removal, Just in Time tracking, and shadowing guardians, which reduce the number of poaching incidents,” says a counter-poaching professional from Limpopo. “Protected areas with a high number of attempted poaching occurrences require high-risk strategies and expensive assets, like helicopters and K9 units, allowing rangers to respond quickly.” In situations like this, the likeliness of armed conflict is higher.
Burnout takes its toll
Field rangers are tough and not afraid of the proverbial blood, sweat and tears. Personality, background and training have an impact on how they cope with the stress of being
a foot soldier for conservation.
“The amount of pressure rangers are under and the workload they have to endure is not sustainable in the long term,” says Serfontein. The Mpumalanga field ranger confirms this: “I think I am reaching a point of burnout. I feel I have made sacrifices in my life for my job and I have not been rewarded for it,” he says.
“Physical burnout, as opposed to mental burnout, is a bigger issue in private parks,” explains the counter-poaching professional from Limpopo. “To prevent physical burnout, our rangers work cycles of nine days on, six days off.”
“Your social life and family life deteriorate,” adds the South African helicopter pilot and ranger. “This job is only possible if you are single, or have an incredibly supportive partner,” confirms the West African operations manager.
Rangers relax in different ways – some prefer a beer and a book, while others like to braai, play soccer or go on game drives in their spare time. Tactical first aid training, trauma packs and access to counselling provide field rangers with peace of mind.
“It’s important to protect yourself emotionally by catching up on sleep, getting off the property and giving yourself time to disconnect from the stresses of the job,” says the Mpumalanga field ranger.
Make a difference!
You can assist Africa’s rangers by making a donation. Funds raised can assist with much-needed equipment, counter-poaching needs, special projects and much more. Visit www.safarinews.org or
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Written by: Georgina Lockwood
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