As the battle between poachers and park rangers escalates, what's needed to protect the people who put their lives on the line for nature?
Two AK-47 rifles and 30 rounds of ammunition; one ranger shot in the shoulder; three suspected poachers and five elephants killed: just another day for the Kenya Wildlife Service, in a nation where more rangers have been killed since the beginning of 2011 than in the same period of any other year. Further west, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), at least 12 rangers are murdered each year protecting gorillas, reflecting a worrying increasing global trend in ranger deaths.
These figures beg the question: why be a ranger? In most parts of the world where poaching is rife, it is clearly a highly dangerous occupation.
In the opinion of Sean Willmore, Director of The Thin Green Line Foundation that keeps track of rangers killed throughout the world and supports the families left behind, rangers undertake their often perilous jobs because they are passionate about their work and their colleagues, and also develop a strong sense of ownership for their park. “Another reason that is undervalued is integrity,” he stresses. “In many of the poorer countries, being a ranger is a well-respected job that communities look up to and individuals aspire to.”
Yet since many rangers get low, if any, wages, the temptation to lose some of that integrity may be strong. According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, ivory can be sold in China for around US$ 1,700/kg, whilst one endangered hyacinth macaw can fetch around US$ 10,000. Assuming a ranger earns US$ 50 a month, an average ten-kilo tusk comes in at US$ 17,000, or 340 times that monthly salary.
A poacher’s world
However, nowadays most of the poaching happens on a totally different playing field. The bulk of the problem is no longer ‘subsistence poaching’ of the kind where bushmeat is occasionally consumed by local families or an illegal wildlife product smuggled out of the park. It has shifted into the realms of international crime where highly-organised networks use helicopters, night-vision equipment, veterinary tranquilizers and silencers.
With such a shift, it is no wonder that poaching is escalating at an alarming rate, despite the bravery of rangers and the measures in place to support their work. IUCN reports that organized crime syndicates have killed more than 800 African rhinos in the past three years, just for their horns, with the most serious poaching upsurge in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya, the last places where rhino conservation has maintained or increased rhino population sizes.
It is estimated that smuggling of wild animals has grown into a US$ 9.78 billion a year criminal industry, exceeded only by the drugs and arms trades. “Environmental crime is big business,” says INTERPOL. “It is currently one of the most profitable forms of criminal activity taking place throughout the world, with billions of dollars being made every year.”
With such levels of illicit profit coming from parks, how does the investment into protecting such areas, their wildlife and their rangers, compare?
From a monetary point of view, funds put towards combating wildlife crime pale in comparison with the revenue made by criminals. For instance, INTERPOL's annual budget for wildlife protection is US$ 300,000—the equivalent of about nine elephants if you count only their tusks.
Yet modest investments can yield huge returns. Even with limited funds, INTERPOL achieves significant success. In November 2010, a worldwide reptiles and amphibians operation resulted in arrests and the seizure of animals and products worth more than US$ 35 million.
For John Scanlon, Secretary General of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), significant international financing and efforts are targeted towards planning for the future, without enough attention being paid to dealing with what is happening right now. “Some of the funds that are earmarked for future scenarios should be channelled into acting today, otherwise there might not be that much biodiversity left to shield from climate induced changes for instance,” he stresses.
Beyond cash, the international community has been investing in better structures to counter crime. INTERPOL established the Environmental Crime Committee in 1992, whilst the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC), which brings together CITES, INTERPOL, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the World Bank and the World Customs Organization, was launched in November 2010. On the ground, rangers are also coordinating their efforts through the International Ranger Federation (IRF) which operates across the globe. Through the IRF rangers can share their successes and failures, and promote information and technology transfer from countries in which protected areas enjoy broad public and government support to countries in which they have little backing.
International efforts are being backed by national action, and some nations are doing better than others. Countries such as Tanzania, Mexico, Colombia and Peru are doing well at preserving their wildlife. Costa Rica, which has built an entire economy on its natural assets, works hard to preserve them, providing exceptional support on the ground and speedy enforcement procedures for those breaking the law.
However, nations such as the DRC, Indonesia, Cambodia, Malaysia and Russia are yet to realise the true value of their parks and are faring far worse. On a positive note, in countries like Uganda, where tourists are willing to pay US$ 500 to spend one hour with gorillas in the wild, the message that wildlife is worth protecting is slowly gaining traction.
A ranger's wish-list
The IRF underscores that as well as outside help, such as that offered by the ICCWC, numerous items feature on the ranger’s wish-list to make their jobs more effective. These range from basic measures such as decent salaries, uniforms, phones and GPS equipment to training; government recognition and support; ensuring rangers have the legal power to stop poachers; higher fines and prison sentences for criminals; public awareness campaigns (both within the countries that house the parks and in nations where the demand for illegal goods comes from); and collaboration.
On the issue of collaboration, TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, explains how teamwork at different levels resulted in the illegal trade in souvenirs made from critically endangered Hawksbill Turtles falling by 99%.
Back at the grassroots, Sean Willmore stresses the need to remember those at the forefront of conservation. “Rangers are the canaries in the coal mine,” he says. “We are fighting a losing battle at the moment, but I have hope that rangers will be recognised as the missing piece of the conservation jigsaw puzzle and get the support they desperately need before their numbers dwindle further.”
Raising the bar
Whilst it’s clear there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problems facing rangers, there is an obvious need for continued efforts on all fronts to ensure our national parks and reserves are no longer plundered. With so many people willing to literally put their lives on the line for conservation, it’s time the international community and national governments raised the stakes in ‘protecting the protectors’.
Rankings for international crime markets, according to Global Financial Integrity (February 2011).
1. Drugs US$ 320 billion
Thank you to all those who have posted comments on this article. We've had a great response on how you think we can best protect the people on the frontline of conservation. We'll prepare a summary of the many comments and post it here shortly.