• Jean-Paul Vanquaethem

The Heroes Who Risk Their Lives To Protect Endangered African Wildlife From Poachers

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Many jobs come with occupational hazards, but, while these are sometimes frustrating, usually they're at most inconvenient rather than actually life-threatening.

That is, unless you're a game ranger - where day-to-day working woes don't stem from stubbing your toe on a box someone's left out, or laptop-induced headaches, but tackling armed illegal poachers in some of the most hostile landscapes in the world. No biggie.

However, while we might be able to understand that it's a brave career choice, few of us know what working as a ranger actually entails.

"Field rangers work at the 'coal face' of conservation," the website for the Game Rangers Assocation of Africa explains.

"They are the foot soldiers of all conservation efforts. They work in protected areas across Africa and are tasked with, amongst other things, ensuring the territorial integrity of these wild places.

"They are the 'boots on the ground' in Africa's protected areas."

Rangers - who are sometimes referred to as game wardens or conservation officers - have a breadth of responsibilities, which can depend on where they're based and might include everything from monitoring the local wildlife to confronting armed suspected poachers.

"We need to be aware that rangers operate across many different contexts," GRAA's CEO, Andrew Campbell, told LADbible.

"They operate across a multitude of terrains and habitats, including, but not limited to, mountains, forests, savannah, desert, rivers and wetland areas, and even marine environments.

"Risk and threat levels also vary greatly from country to country. In some areas rangers need to be trained to work alongside dangerous game.

"In countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, many rangers face a high risk of engaging with militia forces who occupy their national parks and as such they need para-military type training. In other areas rangers may operate without firearms due to a low likelihood of engaging in hostilities."

Ranger Ghislain Somba Alhadji works at the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Garamba National Park, which is one of the most volatile parks in Africa.

Having been an avid animal lover since he was a youngster, Ghislain channels his passion for nature into his dangerous line of work - which not only involves protecting the health and well-being of the animals, but also working with the local people to keep them on side as well.

"Conservation was my passion since I was born, according to my parents," Ghislain told us.

"Most of my time was spent in nearby forest, watching wildlife."

He continued: "My main role is to protect the ecosystems in general by applying all possible means - by, among others, environmental education, the fight against poaching in the field, and involving the bordering communities so they can also find their share of responsibilities."

In the past, Ghislain has also worked in Virunga National Park and the Okapi Wildlife Reserve - the latter of which saw him lucky to escape a 2012 rebel attack, which he referred to as the 'scariest' moment of his entire career.

Rebel leader Morgan Sadala had entered with his troops to attack the reserve, and ambushed Ghislain at his home to try and capture and kill him.

While two rangers, a government immigration official, two villagers and the wife of another ranger were brutally murdered in the onslaught, thankfully Ghislain managed to lead some of his men to safety, also making it out alive himself.

"By God's grace I escaped and saved myself using my AK-47, and the combat tactics that I learned," he said in an account of the incident on the GRAA website.

"Working in conservation on the ground in DRC is very frightening for yourself and your family, and almost worse than going to war because of the militia and armed groups waiting to attack."

Muterian Ntanin is another ranger risking his life daily, who works in Kenya as the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust (MWCT) Ranger Operation Commander.

Like Ghislain, he also decided to embark on the high-risk career after realising he had a love for animals, telling us: "I was once collecting data as elephant monitor, and after it was found that I have passion, knowledge of the area and experience in monitoring, I was interviewed and given the job."

For Muterian, an average day often entails routine tasks like foot patrol, data collection, radio communication, observation post management and fire management.

But Muterian also deals with much tougher issues, such as having to manage human and wildlife conflict (with an average of 4.5 incidents per day), while also laying ambushes, de-snaring, recording case statements, gathering information related to wildlife crimes, being witness in court and arresting and prosecuting offenders.

Oh, and in between all that, he also found time to run the New York marathon last year to raise money for the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust.

Along with being exposed to highly organised crime, facing attacks from wildlife and working in harsh conditions, Muterian said some of the downsides hit much closer to home, as he has 'limited time with family and social life'.

He also explained that due to his job, he also risks 'being isolated within your own people', due to being known as someone who arrests poachers.

Of course, poachers are just one of many threats to rangers working in Africa - a message that Campbell is keen to remind us of.

"In the field they are exposed to extreme weather, disease, dangerous animals, rough terrain and hostile engagements with poachers, militia groups and criminals," explained Campbell, whose family has been involved in conservation since the early 1920s.

"In some areas of the DRC, rangers have to face up to armed militia groups that can be up to 500 in number. In other areas, they face the dangers of diseases such as malaria, which is one of the biggest killers in Africa."

But Campbell believes the biggest danger they face is that they are often 'not supported adequately' by their employers in terms of training, equipment and facilities.

"We cannot expect them to dedicate their lives to conservation when in many reserves they don't even have access to decent bathroom, clean water and washing facilities," he said.

"The world would be shocked to see how many of these men and women are treated."

Campbell said salaries vary widely across the continent, but in some areas the lower end of the scale for a field ranger would be in the region of $50 (£40) per month.

In some places, non-governmental organisations help to supplement this to a liveable wage; in others, areas rangers can go months without being paid at all.

He continued: "I don't think rangers get the credit they deserve.

"The general public doesn't appreciate that conservation efforts need people on the ground. I get frustrated when I see the huge amount of resources that is allocated to pursuing high-tech solutions to conservation problems.

"These always rely on well-equipped, well-supported, well-trained and well-led rangers being on the ground. Many donors are prepared to buy a new thermal camera or fancy drone, but won't pay for a ranger to live in decent accommodation and have a decent pair of boots on his feet.

"We need to support the well-being of these men and women first and foremost."

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