In 2003, Sean Willmore was at an international rangers’ conference in Australia. In his presentation, Jobogo Mirindi, a ranger from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, showed a photograph of thirty-odd of his colleagues. Six rangers’ heads were circled in red. They were the only ones that had survived since the photograph was taken five years earlier.
Willmore set up The Thin Green Line Foundation to support rangers and their families. Between 2009 and 2016, 595 rangers were killed. “It’s absolutely a war. It’s an untold war and we’ve lost over one thousand rangers that we know of,” Willmore says in a promotional video for The Thin Green Line Foundation.
Five more dead rangers
Writing in The Guardian last week, Jeremy Hance reports that,
Five wildlife rangers and three other men working in wildlife protection have lost their lives in four separate countries in the past month, highlighting the numerous hazards rangers and their colleagues face in protecting the world’s wild lands and species.
Hance reports on the following deaths:
- On 24 January 2017 two men working for African Parks law enforcement team died in a helicopter crash in Central African Republic.
- On 17 February 2017, elephant poachers shot and killed a ranger with the Kenyan Wildlife Service in Tsavo national park.
- Three rangers diedwhen their speed boat capsized in Virunga national park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
- In India, forest ranger died out while trying to stamp out a fire in Bandipur national park.
The tragic reality is that this number of ranger deaths is more or less typical. According to The Thin Green Line Foundation, about 100 rangers are killed every year, an average of two each week. At a recent presentation at the University of South Australia, Willmore lists eight rangers killed in a little over a week. He says,
“If you don’t want to call it a war, give me another name and I’ll use it, but that’s pretty much what’s happening in a lot of places around the world.”
Two-thirds of the rangers die at the hands of poachers.
Willmore points out that,
Protecting wildlife is no longer just a case of stopping poaching by poor local villagers. Illegal wildlife crime is now estimated to be worth more than $20bn (£16bn) per year, ranked only behind drugs, weapons and human trafficking in the criminal value chain.
650 dead elephants
The most horrific example took place in Bouba Ndjida National Park in Cameroon. Over a period of three months in early 2012, between 50 and 100 Sudanese and Chadian poachers on horseback killed 650 elephants. The poachers had links with the Janjaweed militia.
The slaughter was finally stopped in mid-April 2012, when the Cameroon government sent soldiers to the park to drive the poachers out.
In an interview on the anniversary of the slaughter, Céline Sissler-Bienvenu of the International Fund for Animal Welfare comments that the nature of poaching has changed in recent years:
The face of poaching has changed because before it was more subsistence poaching — except in the ’80s. But it was not to feed the Asian market and not done that way. So now we clearly see a very organized way of poaching and it comes with a very strong determination. It is very, very well organized — and it does not give a chance to the animals to survive.
The following year, poachers killed 86 elephants in one night near the town of Ganba in southern Chad, close to the Cameroon border.
Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has lost 150 rangers in the past decade. It is the world’s most dangerous park. Many of the rangers were killed in attacks by the FDLR (Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda, the Rwandan Hutu rebel group), and the Mai-Mai (a range of different militia groups formed during Congo’s wars since 1996).
The militarisation of conservation
Conservation Watch was set up to monitor the dark side of conservation – human rights abuses carried out in the name of conservation. So far, the focus has been on abuses carried out by forest guards against indigenous peoples and local communities living in and near to protected areas.
But this is not a straightforward problem. Conservation is becoming increasingly militarised and conservationists often talk about a “conservation war”. As Rosaleen Duffy of the University of Sheffield has pointed out there are serious problems with this approach,
Simply focusing on military-style protection of wildlife from poaching is not effective: it can produce short term protection, but ultimately undermines wildlife conservation because it pits local communities against wildlife, reducing support for wildlife amongst people who live with it: the very people conservation ultimately relies on.
On the other hand, poaching has devastating impacts on wildlife. It is increasingly linked with international criminal networks and rebel militias. The poachers are heavily armed and well organised. And far too many rangers are losing their lives trying to protect wildlife.
PHOTO Credit: 2009 – 2016: Ranger roll of honour. In Memoriam. The Thin Green Line Foundation.