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A photo of an anti-poaching team patrolling in the park in Zakouma.

An anti-poaching team patrols in Zakouma National Park, Chad, in February 2014.

PHOTOGRAPH BY MARCO LONGARI, AFP/GETTY

Laurel Neme

for National Geographic

Published June 27, 2014

In May 2008 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), 80 Mai Mai militia ambushed a unit of 12 wildlife rangers on patrol near Rwindi in Virunga National Park, wounding Habimana Buzara in the leg as he covered their retreat.

The rangers watched helplessly as the rebel group—aiming to terrorize the unit—tortured their injured comrade and kicked him in the head until he died. They buried their friend later that day, and the next morning they were back at work.

Wildlife rangers endure similar ordeals to soldiers in combat. They routinely face death, injury, or torture from poachers, and the wild animals they protect can kill them too. In the DRC, which has been riven by almost two decades of civil war and political instability, about 150 rangers have been killed in Virunga alone since 2004.

Rangers are exposed to deeply disturbing scenes, with each poached carcass a frustrating and grisly reminder of failure, and they operate in the bush under harsh physical conditions, often with inadequate equipment, pay, and support.

"Worldwide, about two rangers are killed every week," says Sean Willmore, president of the International Ranger Federation and founder of the Thin Green Line Foundation, a charity that trains rangers and supports the widows of those killed in the line of duty. "But that's only partial data," he adds. "It could be double that amount."

A photo of Emmanuel DeMerode walking through Virunga National Park with park rangers.
Emmanuel de Merode, chief warden of Virunga National Park, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, leads other rangers down a path in the mountain gorilla area of the park.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BRENT STIRTON, GETTY

Relentless Onslaught

In March 2013, poachers killed nearly 90 elephants in southwestern Chad, including 30 pregnant females, many of which aborted their calves when they were shot.

Since mid-April, poachers have slaughtered 68 elephants in Garamba National Park, in the DRC, hacking off tusks and removing the animals' brains and genitals. Nine elephants had bullet wounds to the top of their heads and backs, indicating they'd been shot with precision from helicopters.

In Focus

In May in Mount Kenya National Park, Mountain Bull, a great tusker who was under constant monitoring and had had a portion of his tusks removed to deter poachers, was killed. And this month, beloved Satao, thought to be the largest of Kenya's elephants, with massive tusks that almost touched the ground, was found in Tsavo East National Park with his face mutilated and his tusks gone.

During the previous 18 months, Kenya Wildlife Service rangers and staff with the NGO Tsavo Trust had jointly monitored Satao's movements. But with "mounting poaching pressures and anti-poaching resources stretched to the limit, it proved impossible to prevent the poachers getting through the net," according to the trust's published statement. On June 21, the Star newspaper reported that KWS rangers arrested three suspects in the killing.

Rangers on rhino battlegrounds face similar tragedies. In South Africa through June 5 of this year, poachers had killed 442 rhinos, 293 in Kruger National Park alone.

On February 28, 2014, tourists in the park came across a mutilated rhino wandering dazed, but alive, on the side of the road. Half its face had been hacked off with a panga, or machete, and its eyes had been gouged out.

Rangers then launched a search​, but dense bush and heavy rain made tracking difficult. It took them three days to locate the rhino, and when they did, they found that it had a bullet in its brain. They had no option but to put the animal out of its misery.

"It's a relentless onslaught," says Johan Jooste, special projects commander with South African National Parks (SANParks). "This place gives new meaning to 24/7."

A photo of a park warden in Virunga National Park with an orphaned mountain gorilla.
A ranger sits with an orphaned mountain gorilla in Virunga National Park's gorilla sanctuary in July 2012.
PHOTOGRAPH BY PHIL MOORE, AFP/GETTY

Rangers Are Targets Too

Haltebaye Ndotoingar, assistant conservator at Chad's Zakouma National Park, says his worst day on the job was April 2, 2002, when he watched a man in his unit die during a battle with heavily armed poachers.

At dawn one day in September 2012, some 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Zakouma, poachers killed five guards (one other escaped but is presumed dead) in the wet season elephant range outside the park. The murders were likely payback for a raid on their camp a month earlier.

In April 2014, Virunga's head warden, Emmanuel de Merode, survived after being shot in a roadside ambush in what may have been an assassination attempt. He'd made many enemies as a result of his efforts to curb poaching in the park and to enforce a ban on charcoal production and stop oil exploration there.

Even successful operations can end traumatically for rangers.

After receiving a tip, rangers in Kruger pursued a poaching gang led by an ex-soldier. "Shortly after getting into the area, we heard two muffled shots fired in quick succession," says Don English, the regional ranger for Marula South. The unit hiked toward the shots and froze when the undergrowth rustled. Just then four poachers burst out of the thicket, and the rangers dived for cover behind an anthill. After several intense exchanges of gunfire, they gave chase and apprehended two of the poachers. Two others escaped.

During questioning, the poachers admitted that they'd shot two rhinos. The rangers immediately mounted a helicopter search for the wounded animals, following tracks in the tall grass until they located an adult female in severe distress. Her calf and another young rhino were nearby.

As they hovered above her checking for bullet wounds, the rhino stumbled away and collapsed. "With blood gushing out of her nostrils and mouth, in saddened silence we watched her die in front of us," English later wrote in his journal.

"It doesn't come naturally to any human being to put bodies into a body bag," SANParks Jooste says. "Just to see the barbaric slaughter of those animals, it's not good for any of us. It's not good to see blood on the soil of good earth. It's not supposed to be."

A photo of a soldier from the South African National Defense Force patrolling against rhino poachers.
A South African soldier participates in a night patrol exercise against rhino poachers in Kruger National Park in July 2011.
PHOTOGRAPH BY STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN, AFP/GETTY

Rules of Engagement

Unlike soldiers in combat, rangers pursue criminals, not enemy combatants. Rangers enforce national laws and work under specified rules, and in South Africa and elsewhere, they're permitted to fire only in self-defense.

That need for restraint can be stressful, Jooste says. "Here's this [ranger], tracking poachers in 45 degrees [Celsius, or 113 degrees Fahrenheit] for many days. He gets a sighting, but he cannot shoot at the person. He must now stalk the person." Yet the thick bush hinders tracking. When the ranger finally finds his quarry, "then he must challenge the poacher. Only when that person picks up his rifle may he defend himself. And that is taxing."

According to Jooste, in 2013 SANParks rangers engaged in 65 firefights, but they recorded 108 sightings of poachers. "Because we're law abiding, they get away. Because they run away into the bush, [the poachers] have the advantage."

In addition, when a ranger in South Africa kills a poacher, the ensuing police investigation puts pressure on the ranger and his or her family—even if the case is dismissed. "You're on the defensive all along," Jooste says. "You know that when you sight them, in a split second you'll have to make a decision whether to defend yourself, and there will be consequences."

A photo of the carcasses of a rhino and her calf at the Finfoot Lake Reserve in South Africa after being killed by poachers.
This rhino and her calf were killed by poachers at the Finfoot Lake Reserve in South Africa in 2012.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIEL BORN, THE TIMES/GALLO IMAGES VIA GETTY

Steadfast Commitment

"Many who become game rangers go into it knowing that the position goes with many dangers of wild animals, dehydration, irritating insects, never mind the poachers—and most are the type of tough personality that can handle the rigors of the job," says Kevin Bewick, head of the Anti-Poaching Intelligence Group of Southern Africa.

A recent ranger recruitment drive for Virunga yielded 1,800 applicants for 112 spots, despite the high death toll in the park during the past decade. For many, the attraction is the promise of a job, but that's not the only, or even the main, factor.

"Being a ranger was not a choice but a calling," says Stephen Midzi, whose base is Shangoni Post in Kruger. "I was born for this, so had to fulfill what has already been written in my book of life."

Zakouma's Ndotoingar says simply, "I'm proud of my work."

"Not a single guy has quit," SANParks' Jooste notes, adding that without the rangers like Midzi, poaching statistics would be a lot worse. "Look what would happen if we weren't here."

A photo of a group of rangers at the Zakouma National Park in Chad.
Rangers gather before going on patrol in Zakouma National Park in 2014.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MARCO LONGARI, AFP/GETTY

Psychological Challenges

Rangers deal with the stress of their work in many ways. Some use sport—running or soccer. Others simply accept it. "I try to challenge myself," says Zakouma radio operator Hadj Tadio. "I chose the business, and I knew that the worst awaits me."

"I've seen exactly 409 dead elephants to date," says Richard Ruggiero, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Branch Chief for Asia and Africa, who regularly works on the front lines with rangers. "My only recourse now is to try hard to stop thinking about how I feel. It's an indulgence that only leads to more heartbreak, anger, and frustration. So I just plunge forward."

Others obtain solace from the place they love. Kruger's Midzi puts it this way: "To sit among a pride of lions and hear them roar in synchrony, that's a moment that always renews my energy."

Although no studies exist on how rangers in anti-poaching units are affected by repeated exposure to disturbing situations, the trauma suffered by soldiers in war zones may offer the closest proxy.

A 2010 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs guide warned families of "combat stress" among returning service members and listed their experiences, which are similar to those faced by rangers: Most U.S. troops serving in Iraq (in 2006) were attacked or ambushed (60 percent); received incoming fire (86 percent); were shot at (50 percent); discharged a weapon (36 percent); saw dead bodies or remains (63 percent); and knew someone seriously injured or killed (79 percent). It was noted that these types of ordeals can provoke a range of reactions, such as sleeplessness, agitation, anger, anxiety, and depression.

SANParks requires that whenever rangers engage directly with poachers, they see a psychologist. "This is a guerilla warfare situation being fought by men and women trained to protect animals and not trained to kill," says Rethea Fincham, a clinical psychologist who treats rangers at Kruger.

She worries that when pushed too far, rangers could become a risk to themselves or others. Post-traumatic stress can provoke symptoms such as flashbacks, hypervigilance, or avoidance, which in turn could cause an elevated fright response. The danger: A ranger shoots unnecessarily, or hesitates to shoot when necessary, endangering himself or his colleagues.

Self-medication, too, with alcohol or cannabis can lead to potentially dangerous reactions on the job.

A photo of the return of 120 ICCN Rangers to Virunga National Park.
After having to leave Virunga National Park because of fighting in the region, 120 courageous rangers joyfully returned in November 2008.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BRENT STIRTION, GETTY

Community Support

On May 11 conservancy ranger Ltadamwa Lardagos of the Northern Rangelands Trust was killed on the slopes of Mount Kenya in a battle with a band of cattle raiders who had evaded law enforcement for days. Although the men escaped, villagers reported their movements to Lardagos's unit, and his team apprehended his killer later that day.

The trust's anti-poaching teams, with members nominated by their communities and representing each of the three ethnic groups in the area, patrol conservancies in northern Kenya to prevent livestock theft, which exacerbates ethnic tensions and is increasingly linked to ivory poaching. As a result of the patrols, the number of poached elephants in community conservancies decreased from 108 in 2012 to 45 in 2013.

On May 23, Zambia's Liuwa Plain National Park head ranger Dexter Chilunda was killed by poachers. People in the local community quickly stepped forward with crucial information that led to the arrest of two suspects and the recovery of both Chilundu's rifle and the shotgun used to murder him.

Community backing has even helped turn some poachers into conservationists. "When I was a poacher, I was seen as somebody who was just a drunk," says Kenyan Sammy Manthi of Kidong'u Village, who now works as a community ranger with Tsavo Pride, an organization of former poachers that aims to create alternative livelihoods in villages around Tsavo West National Park. "Now that I am a ranger, I am a respected member of my community."

A photo of an orphan lowland gorilla in bed with her caregiver in Goma.
An orphaned lowland gorilla settles down for the night with her caregiver, a specially trained ranger, in April 2008 in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BRENT STIRTION, GETTY

More Help Needed

"These men are really taking the strain," says psychologist Fincham. "In order to keep them in this fight, more of the finances given for rhino poaching needs to go into the maintenance of the men at grassroots level."

Many rangers lack proper training and equipment, even the most basic gear such as boots or first aid kits. And when something goes wrong—someone is injured, or worse—there's little support for the families.

Ranger work is so hard, the International Ranger Foundation's Willmore says, "you'd think they might pull back, but they don't. It's unbelievable that they go out. Imagine the difference when we do the positive side. Imagine how much more effective they could be with support and equipment."

Lardagos, 36, left behind a wife and two young children. Virunga's Buzara, 29, was the father of three, and Chilunda, the father of four.

Wives and husbands have to cope not only with losing a spouse or parent but also with losing their income and housing (which goes to replacements), and they often can't afford to send their children to school.

For the rangers themselves, knowing that if they get hurt, their families will suffer, lowers morale. "When you start supporting widows and orphans, those still alive think people do care," says Willmore. "It has a huge impact on the rangers and goes a long way to motivating them."

So far, Willmore's Thin Green Line Foundation has given financial support to a hundred families, with a thousand more lined up for help. African Parks Network—an NGO that, in partnership with governments, runs seven national parks in six countries (Zambia, Malawi, DRC, Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Chad)—provides a life insurance policy that pays widows the equivalent of three years' salary. In some cases, as with Lardagos's family, private donations are providing critical support.

Strong laws and meaningful prosecutions with harsh penalties (more than just a slap on the wrist) also send a message to rangers that their work counts.

In November 2011, two rangers spotted a Mozambican poaching gang in South Africa's Ndumo Game Reserve tracking a white rhino and ordered the men to lower their weapons. Instead, the men pointed their bolt-action rifles at the rangers, who fired, killing one poacher, Erasmo Mazivele. The rangers apprehended another, Wawito Mawala.

When the case came to court in June 2013, the outcome was stunning: Mawala was convicted of murdering his accomplice—even though it was the rangers who shot him. The magistrate stated that Mawala knowingly put his accomplice in that dangerous situation.

Make Targeting Kingpins a Priority

It's vital to root out corruption and arrest ringleaders at the top of the supply chain—otherwise, when poachers are caught, new ones simply replace them.

On its Facebook page in May, the Game Rangers Association of Africa noted that of the 96 rhino poaching arrests made in the first four months of 2014 in South Africa, all were low-level poachers, not kingpins or even mid-level operators.

In March, renowned conservationist and former Kenya Wildlife Service director Richard Leakey said that those behind the poaching in Kenya are protected by influential government officials, and he called on President Uhuru Kenyatta to take action.

Paula Kahumbu, CEO of WildlifeDirect, and Philip Murgor, former director of public prosecutions in Kenya, echoed those statements, noting the alleged involvement of an MP from Central Province, a governor from the Rift Valley, and two Mombasa businessmen.

Meanwhile, Kenya Television Network's Dennis Onsarigo reported that "the country has only 11 kingpins behind the country's largest onslaught on rhinos and elephants" and that they "are known to authorities."

"Put yourself in the shoes of an honest ranger," says Andrea Crosta, the founder of Elephant Action League and WildLeaks. "Think about the increased motivation if law enforcement could bust those high up in the ivory supply chain."

Until that happens, how many more animals—and people—will die?

31 comments
Mary Petch-Pollard
Mary Petch-Pollard

Huge respect, admiration, love & thanks to each and every one who risks all for our precious wildlife !

Ashley McAvey
Ashley McAvey

What an amazing article! We need way more of these. A true look into these unsung heroes-- they deserve so much more attention and praise and thanks.  God bless them and their families. I know millions of folks stand behind them- -we just need their stories told more often so we can support them!

Lulu Itipa
Lulu Itipa

When an ammo or wire snare has to be removed from an elephant or other severe injuries inflicted by poachers attended to, a vet doctor darts it into sedation. Guarded by rangers, vet proceeds to work on the elephant. Oftentimes, poachers descend on the rescue team. Gunfire ensues. Vet, rangers and elephant face yet another danger. At times the sedation fades before the vet is done with the wounded elephant. It then resurrects to attack vet and rangers - as happened to a vet working with Uganda Wildlife Authority in 2008!   That elephant product the poachers seek for is human blood product and inhuman!!!

Deddy Hadinata
Deddy Hadinata

There are many military aids from developed countries to developing countries. Why don't we switch some of the aids to those rangers (equipment or trainings)? There also military exercises between countries. Why don't we do it in those parks? Instead of exercising against imaginary enemy, we can aim the target against poachers. I guess we don't need heavy armaments for a kind of exercises, and it wouldn't disturb the park much.

Tory Braden
Tory Braden

Excellent and thorough article of the horrendous suffering humans, we and rangers, are going thru as we watch our world heritage wildlife slaughtered.

Stephanie Corwin
Stephanie Corwin

Is there anything us "regular folks" can do to help the rangers do their jobs?

Jorge Dias
Jorge Dias

Congratulations to all for the excellent and dignified work, thanks to you the world is a better place. I wonder, in this age of satellites and high-tech, solar-powered drones and mini-cameras would not guarantee more and better security for all? Hugs!

Lori Sirianni
Lori Sirianni

The "rules of engagement" are ridiculous; no wonder poachers escape and so many rangers are being killed.  Shooting only in self-defense implies that in order to catch poachers, rangers basically have to make themselves targets for poachers.  African governments need to change their rules to allow shoot-on-sight policies for rangers to shoot poachers.  Enough is enough - too many good men are being killed and the elephants and rhinos are so perilously close to extinction, it's time for zero tolerance and shooting poachers on sight.  To hell with their so-called human rights. Poachers have no regard for the rangers' human rights or the rights of the animals to live - they deserve to forfeit their own lives. 

Miguel Belloso Bueno
Miguel Belloso Bueno

no al trafico de animales y colmillos de marfil que las próximas generaciones los puedan conocer

Gerda Aerts
Gerda Aerts

Het is goed dat er nog rangers zijn ze werken in moeilijke omstandigheden ze zouden elke stroper moeten mogen beschieten want als zo voort gaat zijn er geen olifanten of neushoorns meer de stropers slachten ze gruwelijk af het moet stoppen !!!

Julie Dawson
Julie Dawson

Incredibly insightful article! Thankyou for honouring the unsung hero's of our wildlife!


Matt Dickson
Matt Dickson

Great article-- thanks for covering these Rangers and the often unsung work they do.  The pictures of the orphaned gorillas was heartbreaking..

Cathy Dean
Cathy Dean

This article does a great job of highlighting the awful situation rangers find themselves in. A few years ago, they'd have signed up because they love the bush, the animals - the sights and sounds of the wilderness. And now they find themselves wearing bullet-proof vests and learning how to use the latest high-tech military gear - if they're lucky. How many of us do jobs where we risk our lives every day? I'm full of admiration for rangers, and the work they do. We need to give them all our support.

Alex Hofford
Alex Hofford

We need to take down the ivory trade kingpins in China and Africa, drastically increase fines and jail sentences, and make demand elimination a top priority.

Alex Hofford

Hong Kong

Kim Hinson
Kim Hinson

Wow! Rangers are definitely unsung heroes!

Matthew Mo
Matthew Mo

This is one of the most interesting reads on the wildlife trade that I've come across. Neme brought a rather unorthodox approach in highlighting the daily struggles of park rangers (in Africa). It is quite evident that these quiet professionals need more international support (i.e. training, equipment, funding, personnel).  Additionally, the international community must steer away from the mindset that the wildlife trade is solely a conservation issue, and realize that it also a rapidly evolving global security issue. Terrorist and armed groups are funding operations via the illegal wildlife trade --- which allows them to continue to wreak havoc against innocents. 

Swamy Iyer Krishnamoorthy
Swamy Iyer Krishnamoorthy

Bravo! the sincere and courageous Rangers.  May the Almighty bless them in their efforts to save the rare wild lives.

Moorthy

Anne Barbano
Anne Barbano

This article opened my eyes on the cruelty that exists with these terrified animals and also what is happening to the rangers!  Post traumatic stress disorder is prevalent. Horrific torture. We hear about poachers but until now I hadn't read of the severe cruelty they are instilling on these animals. Thank you for this investigative reporting. I will follow up with some of the organizations written here that need our support.

Richard G.
Richard G.

How about getting Safari Club members involved. Require them to be an anti-poaching ranger for a month before they can get a hunting permit. Once they see the real story, they might bring their vast resources to help.

L Hart
L Hart

As the article indicates, poaching is organized crime, and yes, in many countries this kind of crime is protected by politically connected people. While maimed and killed animals sometimes make the headlines in the developed world, this connection to organized crime and official corruption is not covered nearly as much. And as this article points out, the human cost is catastrophic on a number of levels. Just like gold, diamonds, rare earth metals, and oil, these animals are exploited by people who benefit from poverty and chaos. You won't find the guys doing the shooting and maiming driving the luxury cars and living in the palatial villas of Nairobi or Maputo, or occupying the first-class seats on flights to Dubai. Just like the campaigns for transparency and accountability in extractive industries, the anti-poaching effort also should shine the light on who is protecting the shooters, facilitating the illicit financial transfers, perpetuating poverty, and sowing chaos. This is by no means an excuse not to go after the poachers on the ground, but my heart breaks to think of what those rangers go through, knowing that what they're up against is so much bigger than just men with guns.

Eric Nicolas Schneider
Eric Nicolas Schneider

The $20 billion paching trade being linked to organized crime, human trafficking and terrorism is reason enough to reclassify poachers as something like terrorists doing harm to the state, national heritage and economy and permit RANGERS TO SHOOT AND KILL no matter what, when they see poachers. Done. The poachers shoot to kill already, so it wont harm any more but protect rangers and send a strong message. Further, laws instantly need to be called and implemented by the PEOPLE of those nations to enhance just as drastically the punishment for criminal smugglers - be they African, Eurasian, Chinese, whatever AND drag out the people in government. Close the ugly ivory markets in angola etc also. People are used to drastic measures, it will work. Create education campaigns along culture, heritage, biodiversity and tourism economy alongside.

Lisa Groeneweg
Lisa Groeneweg

Rangers are true superheroes!


Lisa Groeneweg

President Chengeta Wildlife

chengetawildlife.org


Shelagh Shapiro
Shelagh Shapiro

Exceptional article about this shocking situation. I had no idea. These rangers are such heroes.

karen ward
karen ward

Why doesn't the U.S. send some troops to help??  This is far  more important to fight for than a losing battle with who we're fighting now.  I bet some of our National Guard could help.


Karen Mo
Karen Mo

@Stephanie Corwin There are many ways you can help. You can financially support wildlife conservation NGOs, such as the ones named in the article. You can also help curb the demand for products made of wildlife body parts, such as ivory. Much of the demand for such products is from Asia. If you are living in a western country, you can find your local environmental groups that lobby your own government to put pressure on those Asian governments to take the issue more seriously. Lastly, if you saw the movie Virunga (http://virungamovie.com/), you will find out that there are lots of mineral deposits underneath these national parks, which attracts some unethical companies in the extractive industry. This, in turn, creates an incentive for the government and rebel groups to destroy the parks by killing all the animals. With a few Google searches you can find all kinds of online petition and activist websites that try to name and shame these companies. It might not feel real, but be part of the movement, even at your desk, can actually help those on the ground.

Martina Anandam
Martina Anandam

@L Hart I completely agree with you. It is not fun fighting a losing war, especially when you know that whatever you do always almost goes unsung and down the drain. 

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