The life of a ranger – “Each day could be our last”
“I always start my day with a prayer,” says Virunga ranger Gracien Muyisa Sivanza. “I imagine we have similar work schedules to other people, but the difference is we’re faced with major challenges on a daily basis. In reality, we live each day knowing it could be our last.”
That hard reality hit home in January 2021, when six rangers were killed by local militia in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the last remaining habitats for mountain gorillas. Another attack, in April 2020, saw 12 Virunga rangers and five civilians murdered, the worst day of violence in the park’s history.
“It’s difficult to find the exact words,” says Gracien. “I lost several colleagues in 2020 and 2021. Believe me, it’s a very painful experience to lose so many young people – brothers, fathers and husbands – all at once. What really terrifies me is when I see their families at funerals. Tears always flow. But then I pull myself together and life goes on.”
The threat of violence against Virunga’s protectors continues. For more than 20 years, eastern DRC has suffered instability and conflict, creating national and foreign armed groups, many of which operate within the park, illegally exploiting the natural resources. “They’re well-structured, armed, and don’t follow the rules of engagement,” Gracien says. They’re the perpetrators of many killings in the region and responsible for the majority of ranger deaths.”
The fight to protect Virunga isn’t just about gorillas. Gracien, who’s worked as a ranger since 2011, sees it as a larger mission for Congolese people, for state authority and the rule of law, for local and national economies, and the future of the country itself. “I’ve dedicated my life to safeguarding Virunga because it’s a pillar for the development of North Kivu province and the DRC,” he explains.
“We have some of the world’s most unique animals, including mountain gorillas and eastern lowland gorillas, chimpanzees, forest and savanna elephants, hippos, lions, leopards… Virunga’s landscapes are unrivalled: active volcanoes, glaciers, dense forest, rivers… The park’s responsible for development projects that promote peace and help create jobs. The DRC’s one of the best tourist destinations in the world. Millions of people depend on tourism.”
“What’s certain is that my fellow rangers who passed away loved their work and made the ultimate sacrifice,” he adds. “They’re the heroes of conservation. To honour their memories, we continue the fight we started together, to the end. I think they’re proud of us, wherever they are. They didn’t die in vain. All we want is justice. I have faith that the people responsible for these killings will one day be judged.”
Rangers across Africa and around the world serve on the frontline to protect the world’s wildlife, including the endangered species hunted and killed for the illegal wildlife trade, such as rhinos, elephants and pangolins. It’s a challenging, often dangerous job. For some, it’s just a way to feed their family and pay for clothes, school and healthcare, sometimes in places where few good opportunities exist. But the majority of rangers I’ve met and talked to are driven by a desire to protect wildlife.
“Wildlife can’t speak out and defend themselves,” says Sergeant Nyaradzo Hoto from the Akashinga, Zimbabwe’s all-female anti-poaching unit. “I found employment in protecting wildlife, so it gives me purpose. Every day, animals are being exploited to satisfy human needs and desires. Animals have the right to live. With my love for them, it’s worth it to stand up and dedicate my life to protecting wildlife.”
Set up by the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF), the Akashinga means ‘brave ones’ in the local Shona language. Many of the women come from rural villages and traumatic backgrounds, including sexual assault and domestic abuse. Their backgrounds and training means they’re just as formidable as men when it comes to protecting animals and arresting poachers.
But women are less corruptible, more likely to put family and community before self-interest, and often better at intelligence-gathering, with an ear to the ground and access to local conversations that can contain vital information to combat poaching.
“We communicate better as women and we trust each other,” Hoto explains. “You feel safer telling the other ladies about your challenges, so you help each other overcome problems. Female rangers also have strong morale and integrity. They’re less corrupt and can’t be easily bribed. By nature, women have a motherly heart. We’re more caring. The way we’re responsible to our children is the same way we treat wildlife and nature.”
As in Virunga, Akashinga rangers go to work each day knowing the risks. “During patrols, it’s hard to know what the poachers will be thinking, especially when we’re tracking them,” says Hoto.
The tragic news from Virunga in January was felt here, with a sense of empathy among rangers around the world. “The Virunga attack made me angry and afraid,” admits Hoto. “Rangers protect endangered species and nature, and I’m angry they were killed like that, while doing their service. Other rangers might be discouraged or filled with fear, but we need to be brave, because we dedicate our lives to protecting animals.”
There are other dangers inherent to life as a ranger, including the wildlife they’re trying to protect. “The terrain we work in is harsh and difficult,” says Purity Lakara, a ranger with Team Lioness, part of the Olgulului Community Wildlife Rangers, funded by IFAW, who work in Kenya’s Amboseli Ecosystem. “We’re protecting animals but some of them are very dangerous and aggressive: buffalo, lion, elephant… During the rainy season, the bushes are very thick and animals, like the buffalo, hide behind those bushes. You might not be aware it’s there, and abruptly it can come out and chase you, and you can be injured.”
“There was one time on patrol last year,” she continues. “In the bush, we came across a buffalo resting under a tree. We were as close as two metres to it. The buffalo was very aggressive, because there were two; they were probably mating. It made that harsh sound. Some of us lay flat on the ground, because its horns are curved and it’s difficult to pick you up from the ground, and some of us ran and climbed up a tree. We remained silent until it went away. Our training helped save our lives.”
Team Lioness is the first group of female rangers in the largely patriarchal Maasai community. Distinct from Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) rangers, they patrol community lands around Amboseli National Park, close to the border with Tanzania, a porous region for bushmeat poaching. The area’s threatened by armed poachers, drawn particularly to Amboseli’s famous tusker elephants, as well as local people hunting for bushmeat to eat or sell. The pandemic has made the rangers’ task more dangerous, as poverty and hunger have made people more desperate.
Protecting wildlife is seen as a way to safeguard the future for local people, including Purity’s three-year-old daughter Sintamai. “We earn money from protecting the animals, but it’s a good job because it promotes and helps our environment and surroundings to look beautiful and return to the natural way,” she explains. “There are other jobs in the area, like teaching. But this job as a ranger is the best job, according to me. Because I’m benefitting from it and the community and people outside are benefiting from it.”
Part of Team Lioness’ work is to reduce human-wildlife conflict. “We protect the community,” says Purity. “We sometimes find animals, like lions or elephants, and they get into a community’s boma or farm, destroy their crops and attack their animals, and it creates conflict. It can be hard to explain to people who only have one cattle, and it’s been killed or attacked by a lion.”
Revenge or pre-emptive attacks against lions and elephants often results in painful injuries or death for the animals. “It upsets me to see,” says Purity. “Sometimes people spear them, sometimes they poison an old carcass. You can imagine: you’re sacrificing all your time to protect this animal and it’s been killed.”
News of what happened in Virunga had an impact on Amboseli’s rangers too. “It’s very emotional to see your fellow rangers being killed,” says Purity. “We’re also risking our lives. The poachers who kill wildlife are fully armed and we’re not armed. It’s very dangerous. We think about losing our lives. Our families depend on us. We have children. You can imagine losing your life, leaving your children and family behind, how they would feel. We are afraid of that.”
With their lives on the line, few people are as motivated as rangers to want to see the illegal wildlife trade that drives poaching properly tackled. But their voices are rarely heard in the global conversation about wildlife and conservation. “People worldwide should be made aware about the effects of trading in wildlife, especially the young generations, because they’re the future,” Hoto suggests. “I’d also like to see Africa helping people by giving them projects to create livelihoods that turn them away from destructive things, like poaching.”
As long as the illegal wildlife trade is so profitable, fuelled by a demand in Asia and around the world for rhino horn, ivory, tiger skins and bones, pangolin scales and other animal products, and as long as people are driven to enter protected areas to use the natural resources, there will be a need for rangers to risk their lives. “I’d like to see the world’s animals being protected,” says Purity. “They’re God’s creations, like us. We’re told in the Commandments that we must take care of them. We need to protect wildlife, protect their habitats and share what we have with them: the natural resources, the human-made resources, the water points and grazing lands.”
Worth up to an estimated £15 billion ($23 billion) every year, the global illegal wildlife trade is pushing animals towards extinction. But it also costs human lives. “I’d like to see governments of the world stopping illegal activity, like ivory,” Purity says. “Because if the government raises the rules to protect animals, it will make our work easier. When the poachers hear the government’s put up the rules if you’re caught with ivory, they’ll be more afraid. If governments can decrease the trade, it will help us live a better life, without stress. I’d like to see tougher measures and tougher penalties to deal with it at the top level.”
Team Lioness: www.ifaw.org