Africa, Life, etc

Unsung heroes: Africa’s rangers are the guardians of the continent’s precious natural assets

By Peter Borchert 6 July 2015

Conservation needs to work with unlikely bedfellows – the hunters, the miners and loggers. Given Africa’s need for economic growth and employments these activities that are so often adjacent, to and sometimes in, protected areas will never be wished away. It would be better therefore if they were included in the conservation discussion and became allies of wildlife areas rather than being perceived as ‘the enemy’. PETER BORCHERT on game rangers, poaching and the need to collaborate to save the continent’s precious wildlife.

Rangers are the guardians of our planet’s most precious natural assets and it’s unnerving to think that every day they go to work, their lives are at risk as a result of human greed and cruelty. Without solid protection, proper law enforcement and a strong support network for those unsung heroes of conservation, our efforts to protect wildlife are a lost case. Any conservation action should start with supporting those that put their lives on the line to protect it every day.” Julia Marton-Lefèvre, IUCN Director General.

On 25 April this year an all too common tragedy unfolded in Africa. Agoyo Mbikoyo was on patrol in the southern section of Garamba National Park In the Democratic Republic of Congo where he was part of a 10-day patrol unit monitoring elephants. Agoyo was no novice in the field. For more than seven years he had worked tirelessly in Garamba doing his best to protect the park and its wildlife from the ravages of poaching. On that fateful day he was not far from his patrol unit’s campsite when he ran into a group of armed poachers. Shots rang out and Agoyo was critically wounded. He managed to struggle back to his camp but collapsed and died on arrival.

Not only had a fine man perished in the line of duty, but a family was robbed of a father and husband, and the community of a role model.

Game rangers have always faced danger; it goes with the territory. But in recent years circumstances have changed dramatically, not only in Africa but in many other parts of the world where the vine-like tendrils of an illegal wildlife trade worth as much as US$20 billion by some estimates, reach deeply into the very fabric of wild places and the creatures they harbour.

Some poaching is simply opportunistic of course; poor desperate people laying traps for any protein they can snare. It has always been thus. But increasingly wildlife crimes are committed by ruthless criminals many of them well-armed who have no compunction in murdering rhinos and elephants, not to mention any rangers who might get in their way. And there are quite a few who have – worldwide ranger deaths resulting from violent poaching encounters numbers more than 1,000 over the past decade. Those badly injured add thousands more to the statistics.

As reprehensible the violent actions of poachers undoubtedly are, we know that they are not the criminal brains behind the slaughter. They are merely the foot soldiers sent into battle to secure the treasure which is quickly and efficiently moved up the supply line via a network of middle men, across porous borders, through corrupt customs posts and transit countries to the end markets which are predominantly in East Asia. The term foot soldier is no euphemism; poaching in Africa is a highly militarised trade that funds wide-ranging politically destabilising activities

Varun Vira and Thomas Ewing’s Ivory’s Curse, a report published by the Born Free USA and C4ADS, reveals that Sudan harbours some of Africa’s longest standing, most violent and proficient hunters. They have close ties with regional conflicts and double as militiamen for Janjaweed and other groups. In the DRC, the army itself is seen as the premier agency of poaching with the town on Kisingani known as a major regional poaching hub. Moving across into Tanzania, where in the Selous alone elephant populations have crashed from well over 100,000 in the late 1970s to little more than 13,000, poaching appears to bore straight into the upper echelons of politics and state agencies.

In neighboring Kenya, escalating poaching is also reputedly tied to corruption within the country and across the northern border where some poaching groups have links with Al-Shabaab and other Somali militias. Confrontations between well-informed, well-armed poachers and rangers are particularly violent in Kenya while its major port, Mombasa, is the most active trafficking hub in Africa.

In Mozambique, too, elephants have suffered massive declines, the country’s rhinos are gone and Mozambicans now hunt almost with impunity in the Kruger National Park. Even the presence of the South African military in Kruger seems to be little of a deterrent. Nor are the atrocities limited to remote parts of the park: a recent tourist driving the southern routes told me that they had witnessed two mutilated rhino carcasses in plain view of the road and had seen another dead rhino being removed from the scene in a flatbed truck. To the north, in Zimbabwe, things are suspiciously quiet, but given the levels of patronage and corruption in that country and the fact that wildlife represents one of the few ways of accessing scarce foreign exchange, the clock is ticking.

So what are the solutions when poaching is so entrenched and endemic throughout Africa? How do you overcome the issues of such widespread corruption together with failing police and judicial systems? How do you counter well-funded and organised terrorist organisations? And added to this is the fact that many African parks are bigger than some countries, they have very little by way of infrastructure, and most are hopelessly underfunded. How on earth can they be effectively patrolled when almost without exception the poachers have access to increasingly sophisticated data on target animals, and they are generally far better equipped than the rangers that have the courage to go up against them? It is not a very cheerful or encouraging picture.

Vira and Ewing acknowledge that “it will be extremely difficult to deter poachers, given the rising price of ivory against local purchasing power”, but they do offer some ground level strategies that if widely supported can make a difference. It will, however, take a very determined and cohesive effort on all fronts with NGOs and civil society leading the way.

First, there has to be broad based buy-in from local communities. In many parts of Africa there is antipathy, if not downright antagonism towards wildlife and those who promote its wellbeing. Conservation is often perceived as putting animals before human needs, so to win the hearts and minds of communities every avenue possible must be followed to demonstrate that people can benefit sustainably from healthy wildlife populations via employment, tourism, inclusion in protected area management and education. These principles have shown their worth and should guide conservation development everywhere. Without them communities are lost as intelligence gaining partners and simply become recruiting grounds for poaching syndicates.

Data is of paramount importance. The more that is known about game and their movements as well as the routes favoured by poachers, the more efficiently those thinly spread ranger resources can be deployed. A major part of data collection is communication technology. Drones, for instance can be used to keep large areas under better surveillance. They may not be the silver bullet that some claim them to be, but they can play a role.

Then there are opportunities to turn poachers into gamekeepers. The shooters are the most expendable link in the value chain, lose a few to the law here and there and more can be recruited. Being able to reintegrate some of these captured offenders and to gain access to their insider knowledge is indeed a difficult process but if successful it can be invaluable to anti-poaching efforts.

In the area of policing, the standard approach of simply following up on the crime is never going to hurt the heart of poaching syndicates. As we have seen, the foot soldiers are expendable. But if canny police work can reveal poaching patterns and information about the transport routes and the places where ivory and horn is passed on among identified middlemen, the picture changes. Armed with such information real damage can be done to the supply chain that could take a long time to repair.

Of the 30,000 plus elephants a year that are killed for their tusks, and the 1,000 plus rhinos for their horn, only a fraction – probably not more than 10% – of the contraband is ever intercepted. But where it is seized a thorough DNA trace test of all pieces must be done openly, and the results publically shared. This information can be used to put real pressure on poaching hotspot countries, and also to spotlight emerging ones thereby opening opportunities for preemptive strikes against poaching operations.

Conservation needs to work with unlikely bedfellows – the hunters, the miners and loggers. It may sound strange, but given Africa’s need for economic growth and employments these activities that are so often adjacent, to and sometimes in, protected areas will never be wished away. It would be better therefore if they were included in the conservation discussion and became allies of wildlife areas rather than being perceived as ‘the enemy’. Even if the smallest fraction of the resources available to these powerful industrial giants was made available to anti-poaching efforts the results could be significant.

Finally, the rangers themselves – the unsung heroes. Of course they need the best possible equipment and the best possible training, but above all they need to be recognised not just for being brave and resolute, but for their intrinsic value as human beings. They need to be paid properly and regularly. Rangers in many countries are poorly remunerated and can go for months without any payment at all. They need security for themselves and their families if and when things go wrong, and livable pensions when they become less able to face the daily rigours of putting their bodies and lives on the line. Now there is a challenge to donors and their agents. DM

Photo by Andy Withers.

NOTE: Agoyo Mbikoyo’s family was more fortunate than many. Garamba, happens to be managed by African Parks, one of the finest and most effective NGOs working in Africa and so his family will be well cared for. There are many wonderful organisations supporting anti-poaching efforts in Africa and elsewhere, but two that focus on the rangers themselves are The Game Rangers’ Association Of Africa (GRAA) and the International Ranger Federation(IRF) where and its charity arm The Thin Green Line Foundation.

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