A female corpse lay motionless in a fresh pool of blood desiccating in the Zambian heat, her skull callously smashed by a machete, her body barbarically butchered and left for dead by two cold-blooded killers.
This time the vultures were not circling around one of the 96 African elephants senselessly murdered each day by poachers for their tusks nor one of the 1,000 rhinos who disappear from the wild every year. This was the human corpse of Esnart Paundi, a female park ranger and a devoted mother of four who had been brutally slaughtered in the line of duty for doing her job and catching two poachers smuggling ivory and wildlife to Zambia’s copper belt.
Like thousands of other rangers around the world, Paundi had dedicated her professional life to protecting nature, a job she regularly described as something of a ‘dream’ but a contract which ultimately meant that she never saw her 40th birthday and, more pertinently, that she never got to see her four orphaned children grow up.
If you want to kid yourself that Paundi’s chilling demise is a ‘one-off’ incident in the modern world then stop reading right now. The reality is an average of 100 rangers like Paundi die each year protecting nature with over 1,000 recorded Ranger fatalities in the last 10 years, a figure which International Ranger Federation (IRF) President Sean Willmore believes can at least be doubled because of the failure of many countries to report such statistics.
'Dedicate their lives'
“The rise in elephant and rhino poaching has led to a significant increase in the deaths of rangers in Africa,” said Willmore, who is also founder of the charity the Thin Green Line Foundation (TGLF) which supports rangers and their families. “These guys dedicate their lives to their jobs and to our planet and should be treated like heroes.
“That is why we have introduced World Ranger Day which takes place on 31 July each year. It is the day we remember those special rangers who lost their lives in the field with an honour roll and at the same time we celebrate the incredible job these guys do out there every day. They risk their lives for the planet and they often spend months away from their families to do it. It is a dedication to a terrific cause.”
It is certainly not a job for the faint-hearted. In Thailand alone, a country in which 20,490 rangers currently ply their trade in 411 protected areas, a staggering 40 park rangers have been murdered and 23 left in a critical condition in the last 5 years. The odds of survival are even further stacked against any ranger working in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo where over 140 rangers have been killed since the turn of the century.
Worth more than gold
Like many things in life, it all comes down to money. The demand for rhino horn and elephant tusks from Asia, in particular Vietnam, has led to a rise in poaching throughout Africa. The lure of bounty puts the lives of the animals under threat and, should a ranger come between a poacher and his prize, their lives become collateral damage. Demand is so high that a kilogram of rhino horn now has a higher market value than gold or cocaine. By the latest count in 2014 in which there were 60 reported fatalities, the death toll had marginally fallen, a fact which Willmore hopes has something to do with the IRF’s hard work to educate and equip rangers all over the planet.
“Our role at the IRF is to start protecting nature’s protectors,” said Willmore. “Now we have started doing this we hope to get greater results on the ground. Poaching and militia attacks count for around 60% of the rangers we lose. We also have many deaths which could have been prevented such as animal attacks and basic injuries. This is often a combination of lack of training and not having the equipment to protect themselves. We need rangers with the right equipment, the right training and the right support because they can make a huge difference on the ground.”
World Ranger Day was first launched in 2007 and with both IUCN and Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge now an ambassador to the 2014 campaign, the IRF hope this latest edition will finally get the support it warrants. “It’s wonderful that the Duke of Cambridge has come on board to help support us,” said Willmore, who is also hosting a side event for rangers at the World Parks Congress in Sydney in 2014.
“In fact it is great that everyone is now talking about the plight and the struggle of rangers all over the world. Now our role and responsibility as a world community is that we turn that awareness into action on the ground and get out there and support the people that need our help.”
As well as equipping and training rangers all over the world, the IRF and TGLF also support families who have suffered because of losing a ranger on duty. In the case of Esnart Paundi, the TGLF paid for the schooling of her four children to give them the opportunity to rebuild their lives. The families of many other rangers have had similar help.
There are other pieces of good news stories starting to emerge from the grassroots too. One training initiative in Kenya allowed Community Maasai Rangers to help increase the local lion population on their community lands from just 6 individuals to over 70 after making the locals aware of the important role of the lion within the region.
“It’s not just about protecting species it’s also about engaging their local communities in conservation,” said Willmore. “If communities are educated about the importance of the environment they live in then this can have a supremely positive impact on the national parks.”
The lives of Paundi and the hundreds of other rangers who have fallen victim to poachers can never be recovered but we can take solace from the fact that positive steps are being taken to make sure rangers get the support and the appreciation they need. If only somebody could educate the poachers then rhinos, elephants and rangers alike would have even more to celebrate this time next year.
Join the World Ranger Day Thunderclap on Twitter http://thndr.it/1ohx5o4