By Emma Stokes
On World Ranger Day, we laud the men and women who risk their lives to protect wildlife and wild places around the world.
Park rangers, also known as ecoguards in some parts of the world such as Central Africa, are often the sole representatives of the law when civil strife breaks out in remote, wild areas throughout the world. The men and women on the frontlines of conservation know the land and the people and serve as the eyes and ears for all who are invested in the protection of species threatened by poaching today.
As they patrol an area on foot – sometimes for days or weeks – ecoguards look for signs of poachers including hunting camps, gun cartridges and wildlife carcasses. They also deduce how recently a poaching incident may have occurred—a crucial step for catching up with offenders and making arrests. Their work is not only important in helping catch poachers but also in maintaining a strong presence in important wildlife areas – thus acting as a strong deterrent to would-be offenders.
Since WCS (the Wildlife Conservation Society, where I work as a conservation scientist), and the Republic of Congo signed a public-private partnership agreement on the management of Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park last year, the number of ecoguards in the park has increased fivefold: we now have close to 80 rangers here.
Being an ecoguard at Nouabalé-Ndoki is dangerous work, but it is regarded as a critical job. The park is one of the most important remaining strongholds for gorillas and forest elephants in Central Africa and it’s one of the region’s most intact natural areas.
Most of the people we recruit are local residents, and we’re not short on candidates. In fact, a few of the children my husband and colleague Mark Gately (who directs the WCS Congo program) taught as children since 1999 now work as ecoguards. One such man, Patrice Bakembe, is following in the footsteps of his father, who is also a guard. Through the conservation education project Club Ebobo, Mark conveyed to youngsters like Patrice the importance of wildlife to the local ecology and the nation’s development and why certain species must be protected.
Elephant poaching remains a major issue in the Republic of Congo. Data my colleagues collected from Central Africa show that 65 percent of forest elephants were killed between 2002 and 2013, with just under a quarter of the remaining population in Congo. The skyrocketing demand for ivory is fueling the indiscriminate poaching of African elephants – 96 of these majestic animals are killed each day.
Unsurprisingly, the work of ecoguards is more pivotal than ever. In the last five years, the local price of ivory has gone up ten-fold and poachers – increasingly organized criminal networks -– are willing to risk more to slaughter an elephant. Guards patrol very long distances – they’re often out for up to three weeks at a time – in remote areas of Nouabalé-Ndoki.
While technology, including field sensors such as remote cameras and SMART – a free tool helping rangers document and better plan where patrols go, what they see, and how they respond – are helpful in combating the poaching, at the core what we need is a team of motivated and dedicated front-line rangers, with solid leadership and a strong sense of pride and duty in their work. And that takes time and good old fashioned on-the-ground hard work to build.
We’re currently working with Maisha Consulting and the Congolese military to provide intensive training to a handpicked elite team of ecoguards. Some of those rangers will be a part of a rapid response team that’ll help us maximize the number of poacher arrests. They’ll also be building on the intelligence we’ve collected as part of our anti-poaching efforts.
The poaching inside Nouabalé-Ndoki remains low, but there’s still high pressure outside the park, specifically on elephants. That’s our motivation for why we’re working on an intelligence-led approach. We want to understand who and where the poachers are and disrupt those networks before they poach.
In Central Africa in particular, we’re operating in an extremely challenging natural environment; anti-poaching work in dense forests is tough, physically exhausting, and often requires many days of marching through thick forest or heavy swamps. Even armed with the latest satellite technology, we fundamentally rely on the field skills, dedication and bravery of our ecoguards in carrying out their work. We’re immensely grateful to this dedicated group of men and women who often risk their lives in order to protect iconic wildlife beloved the world over for the benefit of future generations.
Emma Stokes is the Director of Conservation Science for WCS’s (the Wildlife Conservation Society’s) Africa program.