Winning the battle for rangers

(This article was originally published in The Horn autumn 2016. Author: Sam Taylor, Chief Conservation Officer, Borana Conservancy)

Posterity. This is the word most synonymous with worldwide conservation efforts these days. “We must save our wildlife for the generations to come.” “For our children”. These sentiments are as noble as they are necessary.

It is obvious that the only way that we will stop the illicit trade in wildlife goods is through a strategic, multinational and macro-economic approach that addresses markets and demands. Whether it be through the destruction or control of those markets is open to debate, but fundamentally, this is the only way to stop poaching for good.

Cultural shifts, however, can take generations to effect change. International collaboration is laborious, with different nations each expressing conflicting ideologies as to how best to secure wildlife in the long term. We need to be careful that we don’t focus on a solution that won’t happen overnight when we risk losing our wildlife in the morning because, as I write this post, we don’t have a long-term.

Perhaps 100 elephants are slaughtered each day. Simultaneously, up to four rhinos will suffer the same fate. If current trends continue, we have perhaps 10 to 15 years of elephants and rhinos left. If we don’t have a long-term then we need to create one. So, while governments and NGOs deliberate and plan how to end the illicit trade decimating our wildlife, we must focus on the tools at our disposal – the tools that grant them the time.

 We need to win the battle on the frontline in order to win the war.

The Rangers 

What tools do we have? Technology – certainly, and this is often pushed forward as the method to end the crisis. Drones, cameras, motion sensors: all sexy innovations that donors are desperate to fund. Whilst advanced technology, both for anti-poaching and research, is fantastic; it does not replicate loyal, motivated and trusted men. These are the men who, through constant monitoring and time on the ground with their charges, understand rhinos and their wider habitat – and the communities who live near rhino populations. Rangers make decisions and recommendations based on their own understanding of each individual location and indeed, each animal.

The principal success factor is boots – trusted boots – on the ground. These men monitor the animals, make informed decisions and, ultimately, they either have the power in their hands to keep these animals alive, or aid and abet poachers. Either they feel invested in the task they have before them, or they don’t. Technology should provide additional capacity – but it can never replace them.

Rangers are quite literally on the frontline of a war. As a result of growing consumer demand in South East Asia, rhino and elephant poachers have become ever more determined and motivated, using high-calibre assault weapons and sophisticated night-vision to operate at night. Poachers come from an underworld of illegal gunrunners, involved in all facets of gun-crimes, including human trafficking and drugs. It has even been suggested in the global media that there are links between revenue from poaching and terrorism organisations.

 

Those on the ground work long hours in testing and highly dangerous conditions, both day and night, monitoring the whereabouts and status of wildlife; armed anti-poaching units are deployed at night when the threat is greatest. Over 1,000 rangers have been killed globally trying to protect what’s left of our wildlife in the last 15 years. Without denigrating the significance of either, these losses are comparable to the number of British soldiers killed in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Top-quality but basic equipment ensures that rangers perform their job effectively and at minimal risk to themselves. Investment in the men and women on the ground and their welfare should not be jeopardized by the introduction of, and investment in, technology for technology’s sake.

Large sums of money and material gain are associated with the illegal rhino horn and ivory trade, and so a huge amount of trust must be placed in the rangers, who could easily sell inside information as to the whereabouts of both wildlife and fellow rangers and scouts. We firmly believe that investment in the rangers’ welfare, both financially, in terms of equipment and training, and personal investment in each man beyond his professional role, boosts morale and most importantly loyalty to the cause.