Nature - to die for?

01 April 2011 | Article
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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.”

Balancing investments

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.

National differences

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
2. Counterfeiting US$ 250 billion
3. Human trafficking US$ 31.6 billion
4. Oil US$ 10.8 billion
5. Wildlife US$ 7.8 to US$ 10 billion
6. Timber US$ 7 billion
7. Fish US$ 4.2 to US$ 9.5 billion

Thanks for having your say...

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.   



I have been in one famous game reserve in Tanzania in my field practical. Game scouts are working in bad environment.They are paid low salaries compared with what is paid in national parks and it passes up to three months to receive their allowances payment.Will they sacrifices their life from poachers who uses modern equipment for our resources?
December 4, 2011 - 05:08
2 Riham
its time of hard work
Disaster, the biggest is not the only wildlife that are of critical importance and may contribute to improve the economy of the UN, but also in agricultural land, the threat of destruction greater lack of awareness is the main reason and perhaps also the lack of material income which contributed to the deterioration of the economic situation of some nations such as Egypt, but I agree that the government has a greater responsibility for its ability to strict laws and deterrent for those who can not understand the situation that we are experiencing in Egypt and I also agree with all of the value
October 31, 2011 - 14:13
3 Drajat Dwi Hartono GMU Forestry College Student
Ranger welfare
I think ranger and their families welfare should come first point, however they have been protecting the valuable natural wealth. Their income are very low, so there is a chance they will move to another job....
June 15, 2011 - 13:24
4 Ila Vazquez
True Angels
My heart goes out to these heroic park rangers, & their families. They possess such dedication to the land & animals for which they are fighting to protect against ruthless criminals, that many people cannot conceive of. I understand, as my career is veterinary tech, & techs in the US are often overworked & underpaid. But compared to what these brave rangers endure, life is a picnic to us. I think that word should be spread more to help support these rangers. Signing petitions by different organizations to get governments to stop allowing ruthless acts against animals is of great help also.
June 15, 2011 - 08:09
5 Eurry Mabonga
A close look reveals that taking care of the environment is not an event but an exercise.

This must be cultivated in the early years of the child so that they befriend the environment. We all grow up knowing that any extras we carry belongs to the environment and that is one of the reasons we litter without any care.

Both Rangers and the game are at risk of environmental crime. It is time the responsible stakeholders took measures to invest heavily in sustaining the two for a better tomorrow.
June 14, 2011 - 22:11
6 AMAHOWE O. Isidore WAP Project Benin
Low encouragement toward park guard in west africa
Unfortunable the wonderful work of park rangers and the high level of the daily risk in struggling against poachers and illegal pastors within parks, they are not generaly well paid apart from the advanced and improved situation of one categories called: ecoguard in Pendjari and W park of Benin. The others local parteners, former poachers currently involved in park protection are very low paid whereas there are driving a high risk with there villages neighbors who still be poaching.
May 11, 2011 - 19:57
7 anum khan wwf
time for action
High honors to all rangers who knowingly put themselves at risk; guarding the world's endemic
wildlife stock. i think
its necessary to make a elaborated program,
and to create some type of gratification for every heroic action and
to pressurise the goverment by showing the problems and
making actions to help the Rangers.they should be protected just as the Wild animals
since both lives are important.
We need to stop discussing and debating, and start acting.
May 8, 2011 - 09:16
8 Gisela Paredes Leguizamón Parques Nacionales de Colombia
Putting on park ranger`s place 2
Hace dos semanas perecio ahogado el compañero Alex y el viernes al pisar un campo minado murió un colega y dos estan en estado critico. Hasta cuando, de veras les invito a pensar y concretar las propuestas. Paz en su tumba y un fraterno saludos a sus familias y compañeros
May 2, 2011 - 16:04
9 Pedro Alcântara
Too much is demanded from park rangers

Concerned governments can include the patrolling of parks and reserves in the training programs of their country’s military, paramilitary and police forces.
The additional costs, if any, will be minimal.
The level of protection of conservation areas against organized criminals will be greatly increased.
Last, but not least, in addition to improved field training the awareness of these armed forces regarding environmental problems will certainly increase.

April 28, 2011 - 19:10
10 andrea na
If found selling illegal wildlife parts - people should be put straight into jail, no parol for life. This would stop alot of the market in China/Asia. Often fines don't work as people just go into more crime to pay the fine. Give Rangers the same powers as Police and the same wage so they can make a firmer stand against illegal poachers.
Thank you to all rangers who look after our wonderful amazing wildlife!
April 28, 2011 - 05:31
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