On April 9, suspected members of an armed militia gunned down five wildlife rangers and their driver in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was the worst attack in Virunga’s bloody history, and the latest in a long line of tragic incidents in which rangers have lost their lives defending the planet’s natural heritage.
But it’s not just danger that rangers must contend with. Mongabay spoke with people who have worked with or alongside front-line ranger forces in Africa and Asia. They described challenging working conditions, community ostracization, isolation from family, poor equipment and inadequate training for many rangers — all for low pay and little respect.
“The pressure is relentless, there is no respite” said Elise Serfontein, founding director of Stop Rhino Poaching. “The physical and mental fatigue is taking its toll.”
Despite a growing awareness of the vulnerability of many of the world’s most beloved and charismatic species, such as elephants and rhinos, there is little awareness and virtually no research into the stress and possible mental health implications for those tasked with defending them. In fact, more research has been conducted on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among elephants following a poaching incident than on the rangers protecting them.
“We have got to take care of the people that make a difference,” said Johan Jooste, head of anti-poaching forces at South Africa National Parks (SANParks).
A dangerous line of work
Eighty-two percent of rangers in Africa and 63 percent of rangers in Asia said they had faced a life-threatening situation in the line of duty, according to 2016 surveys by WWF, one of the world’s largest conservation groups. These are the only extensive surveys ever to examine rangers’ working conditions.
The Thin Green Line Foundation, a Melbourne-based organization dedicated to supporting rangers, has been compiling data on ranger deaths on the job for the last 10 years. Between 50 and 70 percent of the recorded deaths are due to conflict with poachers. The remainder are due to the challenging conditions rangers face every day, such as working alongside dangerous animals and in perilous environments.
“I can categorically tell you about the 100-120 [ranger deaths] we know of each year,” said Sean Willmore, founder of the Thin Green Line Foundation and president of the International Ranger Federation, a non-profit organization overseeing 90 ranger associations worldwide. Topping the list is India, with 175 deaths in the last five years alone.
Willmore said he believed the true global figure could be much higher, since the organization lacks data from a number of countries in Asia and the Middle East.
Rohit Singh, a law enforcement specialist with the WWF and chairman of the Ranger Federation of Asia, was kidnapped and held for three days, during which he was routinely beaten, after an undercover operation in Nepal went wrong in 2006.
But the 15-year veteran is quick to downplay the experience, instead pointing out the risks his fellow rangers endure.
“What I have faced is just one example of what thousands of rangers are faced with every day,” he said.
That Singh considers his ordeal unexceptional offers some insight into the violence that many rangers are forced to live with on a daily basis. Psychological research has shown, unsurprisingly, that soldiers and police officers exposed to dangerous and stressful situations over an extended period of time face increased risk of mental health issues. Although no one has published similar research on rangers, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to that end from those who have spent time on the front lines.
Willmore recalled a ranger he met in Kahuzi-Biéga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who eight months earlier had come face-to-face with three poachers armed with AK-47s in the bush. In the ensuing fight, the ranger killed one poacher and injured another before being shot three times. He managed to escape and crawl the 10 kilometers (6 miles) back to his station.
With parks resources already thinly spread, management asked him to return to work before his injuries had fully healed and without any psychological support.
“The look on his face, the look in his eyes. I can still see it perfectly, he was just petrified,” Willmore said.
Rangers often come from the same communities as poachers, inevitably leading to additional conflict. Of the 570 rangers WWF surveyed across Africa, 75 percent said their local communities had threatened them because of their work.
“I’ve seen guys receive death threats and they don’t know how to deal with it,” said Francis Massé, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Sheffield. “They don’t know if these guys who are threatening them also know where their family lives in the city.”
Massé studied the anti-poaching forces in Mozambique for his Ph.D. Many of the rangers faced threats and attacks during the five months he spent living alongside them. Massé said he believed Mozambique’s legal system exacerbated the problem.
“[Poachers] get arrested and in two weeks they are back out in the communities right outside the park where the rangers have to pass in and out,” he said. “I’ve seen rangers cry from the stress, from being afraid … because of the strain and the stress and the anxiety that goes along with their work.”
The poaching war
Not all rangers face the same level of risk. Chris Galliers, chairman of the Game Rangers Association of Africa, said threats vary significantly in different countries, from tackling subsistence poachers with snares, to heavily armed militias.
The resurgence of the illegal ivory and rhino horn trade over the last 10 years has created especially dangerous conditions for rangers in sub-Saharan Africa.
South Africa saw the start of an intense escalation in rhino poaching in 2008. The year before, poachers killed just 13 rhinos. By 2013, they were killing over a thousand a year. In total, the country has lost more than 7,100 rhinos in the last 10 years. Meanwhile, poachers killed around 30 percent of savanna elephants between 2007 and 2014, and 66 percent of forest elephants between 2008 and 2016.
Organized criminal networks have been enticed into the rhino horn and ivory trade by the vast amount of money exchanging hands. The result: well-funded and supplied poaching syndicates.
In his role with SANParks, Jooste, a former major general in the South African military, is charged with defending Kruger National Park’s white rhino population. He said he believed the poaching syndicates were now more assertive and aggressive than ever before.
In response, many conservation managers have adopted paramilitary-style tactics, sparking a heated debate about the “militarization of conservation.”
Law enforcement has always been part of a ranger’s duties, but in areas where poaching is most intense it is now eclipsing all other duties.
“Eighty percent of the work now, in many of the parks, is hard-core, 24/7 operations to combat poaching,” Jooste said.
Rangers, originally trained for traditional conservation tasks like ecological surveying, now need a whole new skill set. In many countries, the resources are not available to train rangers for these new, often combat-oriented, responsibilities, leaving them unprepared for what is required on the ground.
“It’s really difficult for a ranger that’s been given a gun and sent out on patrol to know how to escalate properly,” Willmore said. “It’s more dangerous for the ranger and the poacher.”
And the new rules of the game are not always clear.
Serfontein, who has worked closely with rangers through her NGO, Stop Rhino Poaching, said she believed the legal implications for rangers engaging with poachers added another layer of complexity and stress.
“You have a split second to make a call,” she said. “Pulling that trigger to defend your life and the lives of your fellow rangers will result in a police inquest or potential murder charge.”
For many rangers, especially those who have served for a long time, this increasingly violent and soldier-like role is not what they signed up for.
“Not everyone is comfortable with being in the position of having to possibly shoot someone,” Massé said. “It’s asking a lot of people to go way beyond what we would think of as a conservation ranger.”
But for many there is little choice. In impoverished countries like Mozambique, where Massé conducted his research, paid employment is hard to come by. Leaving a relatively secure job, however dangerous, is simply not an option when there’s a family to support, no matter the personal and familial toll.
So far, support for rangers has not kept pace with the escalating violence of their role.
“Just as [parks] need to adapt their strategies and escalate their responses … so they need to adjust their ranger well-being programs,” Serfontein said.
Tough working conditions
Besides being dangerous, ranging can be a tough life. Rangers often spend long periods away from home on patrols, and Willmore said isolation was the number one stressor for rangers.
The rangers Massé studied in northern Mozambique were dropped off in remote areas the size of Switzerland for three months at a time — up to five if trucks were unable to reach them during the rainy season.
“They’ll tell you straight: ‘This is no way to live,’” Massé said.
Some families are allowed to stay at ranger stations, but these are generally remote sites with no schools nearby. Rangers are often forced to choose between educating their children and keeping them close. The result is that children as young as 3 are often sent away to boarding school.
“This is heart-breaking stuff, when you’ve got to say goodbye to your 3- or 4-year-old not to see them for the rest of the year,” Willmore said.
This has an impact on relationships. In some countries, the divorce rate among rangers is as high as 90 percent, according to Willmore, who attributes this to the pressures of so much time spent apart.
To add to their stress, many rangers are also chronically underequipped. The WWF survey revealed that as many as 74 percent of the rangers polled in Asia did not feel they had the adequate equipment to safely discharge their duties.
“Most rangers don’t even have the basics like mosquito nets, boots, uniforms and wet weather gear,” Willmore said.
For all the risk and hardship rangers endure, remuneration is often poor. Rangers cited low and erratic pay as the worst part of the job in both the African and Asian WWF ranger surveys. Low pay was also the number one reason why rangers did not want their children to follow in their footsteps.
Financial insecurity is further compounded by a lack of life insurance. Many rangers are the sole breadwinners in their family. If they are killed in the line of duty, their family could be left bereft.
In the absence of insurance, it has been up to NGOs like the Thin Green Line Foundation to step in and offer support to deceased rangers’ families.
“Those colleagues that have seen their friends die will at least see there is some support for their families,” Willmore said. “It gives them greater confidence and greater morale to continue doing patrols.”
Singh, from the Ranger Federation of Asia, said a lack of recognition was just as demoralizing as low wages.
“They work under extremely difficult conditions but they don’t get credit for it. How do we give the message to the entire world that … it’s a job everyone should look up to?” he said.
When rangers feel the risks they take go unappreciated, the money offered by poaching cartels becomes ever more appealing.
“You think, if no one else cares about me, I may as well get some insurance policy for my family, I may as well take that money,” Willmore said. He added he was amazed that more rangers didn’t choose to sacrifice their integrity for a quick buck, given their difficult living and working conditions.
Even where rangers receive better support, the escalating price of wildlife parts such as rhino horn can be a difficult temptation to resist. Between 2012 and 2016, 17 staff at Kruger National Park were implicated in rhino poaching. In one case, Rodney Landela, a previously highly regarded section ranger who had won a number of awards, was chased down and apprehended inside the park with bloodied shoes, a high-caliber rifle and two rhino horns.
“As the money becomes bigger and the odds become greater there is corruption, some rangers are bought,” Jooste said.
As a former army officer, he said, he was highly aware of the impact such betrayals could have on morale.
A toxic mix
“Add that up, it’s a toxic mix,” Jooste said. “We daily see rangers struggling to cope.”
Under Jooste’s command, South Africa is one of the only places that proactively cares for its rangers’ psychological well-being. Project Embrace, under SANParks, offers psychological support to rangers in Kruger National Park.
As an employer providing firearms, SANParks has a legal duty under the current South African Firearms Act to provide a “psychological debriefing within 48 hours after experiencing any violent incident, discharging their firearm or witnessing a shooting.”
But SANParks also has a team of volunteer rangers who visit stations on a regular basis, teaching rangers and their families techniques to cope with stress and recognize the warning signs of mental health issues.
“Anybody who has to use firearms in any of the armed forces is at greater risk of developing stress-related mental health conditions,” said Susanna Myburg-Fincham, a clinical psychologist working with Project Embrace. “That is well documented.”
Myburg-Fincham, an expert in trauma-related stress, was brought in by SANParks in 2011 to provide psychological counseling to rangers.
“The work I do is preemptive work, to prevent mental health problems,” she said, adding that she believed strongly in the importance of her work.
“All you have to do is look at the Vietnam War where people feel totally abandoned,” she said. “We’re trying not to let that happen, we want our rangers to know that they are supported.”
Myburg-Fincham said she was keen to fill in the research gaps on ranger mental health. She said she found that a narrative approach, where rangers relate their experience through stories, was the most effective method with the Kruger Park rangers.
Jooste said he believed the project was delivering real benefits.
“We are a long way from where we need to be, but the change is significant,” he said.
Project Embrace is just one part of a raft of measures SANParks has put in place to support its rangers, which includes legal advice, advanced training, and state-of-the-art equipment. But the harsh reality is that most ranger forces around the world simply do not have access to the kind of resources that SANParks can afford.
“To have consistent psychological services for these rangers who are in remote communities is a real hard ask,” Willmore said.
Even the well-resourced SANParks program requires additional support. When Serfontein found out about Myburg-Fincham’s work at a conference in 2015, she created a collaboration between Stop Rhino Poaching and the Game Rangers Association of Africa to ensure the project had continued funding and support.
“It’s one thing to implement a [psychological well-being] project,” Serfontein said. “It takes commitment to maintain it.”
So long as there is money to be made from ivory, rhino horn and numerous other wildlife products, poaching and illegal logging are likely to persist. And on the front line of the poaching epidemic, even the well-supported SANParks rangers are struggling to cope.
All of the individuals Mongabay interviewed said rangers were owed more than many of them currently receive: that they should be paid fairly, trained properly, equipped correctly, and supported fully.
But it’s not just a case of more boots, more training and more helicopters. In the increasingly militarized scrabble to defend nature, conservationists must also do much more to protect the psychological well-being of the rangers asked to put their lives on the line.
“They expect the rangers to look after the animals,” Myburg-Fincham said. “Someone has to look after and protect the rangers.”