Protect the protectors
BBC Wildlife|August 2021
Rangers are nature’s first responders. They risk their lives to protect our planet, yet some don’t even own a pair of boots. So, why are rangers not respected and supported? And what’s being done about it?
Sarah McPherson

Can you name another profession that, all in a day’s work, fights wildlife crime, prevents extinction and mitigates against climate change and zoonotic disease? No, you can’t, because there isn’t one,” says Sean Willmore, managing director of ranger support charity the Thin Green Line Foundation (TGLF). “Wildlife rangers are the missing link in saving our planet.”

Global biodiversity loss has reached unprecedented levels, with one million species estimated to be threatened with extinction. Protected areas are key to saving wildlife, but they cannot function without rangers. Whether on the icy wastes of Russia’s Wrangel Island, where they prevent conflict between polar bears and people; on the ragged slopes of Mongolia’s Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park, where they’re camera-trapping snow leopards; or in the high fells of our very own Lake District, where they manage a landscape shared with thousands of visitors, rangers defend ecosystems across the globe.

“If you imagine the planet as a house, then every park is a brick in its foundation,” says Barney Long, senior director of species conservation at Re:wild and contributor to Life on the Frontline 2019, a global survey on the working conditions of rangers. “By looking after those bricks, rangers provide essential services for humankind: the clean air we breathe, the freshwater we drink, the biodiversity that gives us new drugs every year. The planet would be pretty much unliveable without them.”

So, it makes no sense whatsoever that the vast majority of the world’s rangers are not properly resourced, supported or trained. Shockingly, nearly half of the 7,110 rangers interviewed for Life on the Frontline stated that provision of basic needs, such as drinking water, was inadequate; more than half said that medical treatment, when required, was insufficient.

Marcelo Segalerba

Freelance consultant ranger, Brazil

I’ve had a passion for nature and conservation from an early age. When I realised that people were risking their lives to protect nature, I wanted to be one of them. Rangers are my heroes.

In 1998, when I was 26, I got a job as park ranger in San Miguel National Park, on the border with Brazil. I was the only ranger there at the time. That same year, I completed a ranger course in Mexico. It was expensive, so my parents helped me to pay for it. I’ll always be grateful for that.

I have been training indigenous rangers since 2005. They needed help protecting their land in the Brazilian Amazon. Seeing them achieving remarkable things is very rewarding.

Being a ranger comes with many risks – wildlife criminals, natural disasters, wild animals, poisonous plants. Once, I was shot at by poachers. I could hear the bullets landing all around me, but luckily they all missed.

I was once given a female pale throated sloth to take care of. She had fallen out of a tree into the road and been hit by a car. I spent weeks nursing her back to health and then re-released her. It was hard saying goodbye. I will never forget the last time she looked at me.

I have to be prepared for anything. A major challenge of my job is simply returning home alive. We need better working conditions, recognition, security, pay and legal support. But I’d never dream of giving up.

Dangers of the day job

If the data is gloomy, the situation on the ground is gloomier still. “There are about 1.5 million rangers in the world, and my guess is that 80-90 per cent of them are completely under-equipped,” says Willmore. “Some don’t have any boots. In Thailand, I’ve seen rangers drinking out of waterholes that elephants defecate in. In Africa, they have no mosquito nets and get malaria eight times a year.”

As if the bugs and no boots weren’t enough to discourage the faint-hearted from a career in the ranger sector, this is also one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, claiming more than 1,000 lives in the past decade. Violent clashes with armed poachers hit the headlines with tragic regularity (in January, another six rangers were killed by rebels in Virunga National Park, bringing the total number of ranger deaths there to more than 200), but there is more than one way to die in the wilderness. There are attacks by large predatory animals; there are deadly bites and stings; there are tropical diseases, road accidents and bushfires. Rangers put their lives on the line every day.

The underlying problem, according to Long, is that despite everything we know about the natural world going to hell in a handcart, the global ranger force remains woefully under-professionalised. Professional, government-paid rangers – such as those in Canada, the USA or the UK – are the exception, not the rule; most rangers work in a community or indigenous capacity, supported by local villages, charities or NGOs. “If we don’t treat rangers properly, they will not be able to protect the planet,” says Long. “I can’t fathom why we’re not throwing everything at this right now.”

RANGERS STORIES

Prem Kanwar

Assistant forester, Bhainsrorgarh Sanctuary, India

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