for National Geographic News
Park rangers are under attack worldwide. Poachers, smugglers, trespassers, and roaming gangs of heavily armed guerillas shoot their way in to and out of nature reserves. Park rangers are often in the way. But now these wilderness protectors want protection for themselves.
So serious is the problem that the World Conservation Union (IUCN) has placed it high on the agenda for the 5th World Parks Congress, being held in Durban, South Africa from September 8 to 17.
This is the first time the congress, held once a decade, is being convened in Africa. It makes it all the more apt that the safety of rangers will be a special focus, because it is on this continent that park rangers are most often under fire.
The IUCN, the Switzerland-based international coalition of governments and NGOs that organizes the World Parks Congress, has launched "Protect the Protectors," an initiative undertaken jointly with the International Ranger Federation (IRF) to draw global attention to the increasing dangers faced by rangers and the need to improve their safety.
The initiative arose from the 4th World Ranger Congress held in April in Victoria, Australia, which was presented with an alarming survey done by the International Ranger Federation, representing associations around the world.
The survey showed that assaults and murders of game rangers have increased drastically over the past five years. From only 17 associations surveyed, there were reports of 31 rangers killed and 32 injured since 1998. "The actual figure is certainly much higher," the survey noted.
In a particularly gruesome instance ten rangers were kidnapped and seven murdered by rebels in Uganda's Murchinson National Park.
In Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, a World Heritage site and home to about 350 of the world's remaining 600 mountain gorillas, the chief game ranger, John Makombo, has been shot at several times. He told the rangers' congress how poachers would kill whole families of gorillas to snatch a baby, which sells for about U.S. $1,000 on the black market.
He also said that arming rangers alone would not solve the problem. He carries a gun for self-protection but doesn't want to use it, he said. " I want to use the mouth so all of us can understand what conservation is," he said.
In neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, a warden in the Virunga National Park, Jobogo Mirindi, was wounded in the leg by rebels who occupied the park authority's headquarters.
War and Civil Instability
Arrie Schreiber, chairman of the Game Rangers Association of Africa (GRAA), an organization in its infancy but hoping to get a central office and secretariat soon, says the problem goes hand in hand with war and civil instability. So, not surprisingly, it is one particularly plaguing Africa. Protected areas in Ivory Coast are under serious threat from its civil war, for example.
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