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Africa’s Rangers at the Frontline of the Poaching War

This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic Voices blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.

Text and Photos by iLCP Fellow Peter Chadwick

Dogs are playing an ever increasingly important role in the war against poaching and form very close bonds with their ranger handlers.
Dogs are playing an ever increasingly important role in the war against poaching and form very close bonds with their ranger handlers.

While the world’s media largely focuses on the rhino and elephant poaching that is taking place on the African continent, little attention is given to the field rangers who are the ones at the frontline of this war against Africa’s iconic wildlife.

Proper and regular training is imperative for ranger teams so that they can tackle well-armed groups of poachers operating with high-caliber weapons.
Proper and regular training is imperative for ranger teams so that they can tackle well-armed groups of poachers operating with high-caliber weapons.
A large-caliber hunting rifle is placed in a police forensic bag as part of evidence collected during an anti-poaching operation.
A large-caliber hunting rifle is placed in a police forensic bag as part of evidence collected during an anti-poaching operation.

The ranger’s job is often undertaken without recognition and with little understanding of the extent and complexity of the work that they do and the positive impact that these rangers make for conservation. The rangers have to work in remote wilderness areas under arduous conditions, usually where communication is a serious challenge and resource support is extremely scarce. They make enormous sacrifices, regularly placing their lives at risk in ensuring the integrity and conservation of Africa’s protected areas. The work of these conservation heroes is not only about undertaking law enforcement patrols, but they also assist in other important conservation tasks such as game capture, fighting fires and the monitoring of the wildlife that they spend so much time protecting. To be effective, they need to be well trained and properly equipped and require the traits of discipline, honesty, integrity, fitness and the ability to work as part of a team under difficult conditions.

Ranger teams operate in extremely harsh conditions in all forms of inclement weather and are often poorly supported and equipped.
Ranger teams operate in extremely harsh conditions in all forms of inclement weather and are often poorly supported and equipped.
Conservationists immobilize an adult White Rhino cow in order to fit a radio-tracking collar to her. This will help with being able to monitor her and thus reduce the risk of her being poached.
Conservationists immobilize an adult White Rhino cow in order to fit a radio-tracking collar to her. This will help with being able to monitor her and thus reduce the risk of her being poached.

In the current war against rhino and elephant poaching, the potential of running into well-armed poachers runs thick and mental preparation prior to heading out on a patrol is essential. After a thorough kit check, the rangers deliberately slow their breathing down to control and compensate for their increased heart rates. Once out in the field, they make sure that nothing is rushed and that their movements become well coordinated as they work as a team. They signal to one another by hand and regular stops are made in the bush to just observe and listen. Eyes are constantly searching for any abnormality and hearing is peeled to listen for any unnatural sounds or alarm calls. Sense of smell becomes highly aware of anything that gives away the presence of other humans and every one of the ranger’s footsteps is carefully placed so as not to make a sound and give away the presence of the ranger team on patrol.

Apart from foot patrols, rangers operate by using vehicles, motorbikes and even horses and these aid particularly in checking protected area boundaries for signs of poacher incursions.
Apart from foot patrols, rangers operate by using vehicles, motorbikes and even horses and these aid particularly in checking protected area boundaries for signs of poacher incursions.

As an ex-ranger, having spent many years in the field, I have been privileged to have worked with many ranger teams across Africa. I have selected, trained, mentored and labored alongside them and have proudly watched their careers develop. I have patrolled with them in the fight against poaching and have spent days and nights with them out in the field under tough and rugged conditions. Together, we have been frustrated by poaching gangs for months on end until all of our efforts finally paid off with the arrest of these groups that have been decimating our wildlife. These poachers have on occasion, shot at us and we have in turn had to shoot back. I have seen the consequences of these violent encounters on both the poachers and on the psychology of my staff. I have had to medically evacuate rangers when they have been injured and have had to restart their hearts in the confined space of small medevac helicopters. I have also had to watch the life fade from their eyes and then be the first to tell their beloved family members that their father/son/husband would no longer be returning home!

Given the increased threat against rhino’s, many of them have been fitted with radio tracking devices and the anti-poaching units use this to their advantage to find and monitor the animals on a regular basis in rugged terrain.
Given the increased threat against rhino’s, many of them have been fitted with radio tracking devices and the anti-poaching units use this to their advantage to find and monitor the animals on a regular basis in rugged terrain.
These pillars of wire at Hlane National Park in Swaziland are just a fraction of the thousands of deadly snares that ranger teams have recovered. Snares are a silent killer that is decimating countless thousands of animals of many species.
These pillars of wire at Hlane National Park in Swaziland are just a fraction of the thousands of deadly snares that ranger teams have recovered. Snares are a silent killer that is decimating countless thousands of animals of many species.

The effects of this armed conflict are not only grievous, but are also detrimental to rangers’ well-being. Rangers are now expected to go beyond their typical role as conservationists to become active players in guerrilla warfare, putting their lives in constant jeopardy. Rising incidents of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), acute stress disorder and burnout fatigue are just some of the effects rangers have to endure as a result of this ongoing assault on our natural heritage.

Full moon periods always result in increased incursions by poachers and ranger teams have to be particularly vigilant and spend many long nights patrolling and protecting the rhino and elephant.
Full moon periods always result in increased incursions by poachers and ranger teams have to be particularly vigilant and spend many long nights patrolling and protecting the rhino and elephant.
The skeletal remains of a poached White Rhino cow that savagely had her horns cut off while she was still alive and as her young calf stood nearby. The calf has since been taken to a rehabilitation center for care and protection.
The skeletal remains of a poached White Rhino cow that savagely had her horns cut off while she was still alive and as her young calf stood nearby. The calf has since been taken to a rehabilitation center for care and protection.

They are waging a war that is relentless, unforgiving and uncompromising in nature and that is taking its toll physically and emotionally. All conservation efforts in Africa will amount to very little without a well skilled, resourced, dedicated and motivated field force. It is high time that we all rise up and recognize the crucial role that these heroes play and we must support them in every way possible!

A field ranger wearing a balaclava to protect his identity and armed with a shotgun, stands guard over a suspected rhino poacher, while the rest of the crime scene is being searched by forensic experts.
A field ranger wearing a balaclava to protect his identity and armed with a shotgun, stands guard over a suspected rhino poacher, while the rest of the crime scene is being searched by forensic experts.

The Game Rangers Association of Africa (GRAA) is committed to increasing the necessary support systems rangers so desperately need, and I have partnered with them in order to promote the following key messages.

 

  • Supporting rangers is supporting conservation.
  • Supporting rangers is supporting the species and habitats that they protect.
  • Rangers form the ‘thin green line’ protecting our natural heritage, they are our last line of defence.
  • A rangers work is multifaceted and is much broader than just anti-poaching efforts.
  • Without rangers conservation efforts in Africa are doomed.
  • Solutions are available – change the dialogue from adversity to collaboration and support and solutions can emerge.
  • Protecting nature is up to everyone not just rangers.

 

Support Africa’s Rangers by supporting the GRAA (http://www.gameranger.org)

The fight against rhino and elephant poaching can be likened to a full-scale guerrilla war and aerial surveillance is a great asset that is used as an effective tool to combat it.
The fight against rhino and elephant poaching can be likened to a full-scale guerrilla war and aerial surveillance is a great asset that is used as an effective tool to combat it.

Peter Chadwick is an internationally recognized award-winning photographer. He specializes in photographing and writing about conservation and environmental issues on the African continent.

Photo Web: www.peterchadwick.co.za

Blog: www.photodestination.co.za

Twitter: @WildImagery

Instagram: peterianchadwick (http://www.peterchadwick.co.za)

Support the work of the International League of Conservation Photographers by donating at this link.

Comments

  1. PAUL PHELAN
    south africa
    April 5, 5:29 am

    Great promotion of our men in the field .