In our fight to protect Africa’s elephants, rangers are our most precious allies
It is 8 am. The temperature is already near 40°C on this part of the planet, which has now been identified as a high-risk cross-border poaching hotspot. In the Boubanjida National Park in North Cameroon, where several hundred elephants were poached in 2012, and in the Sena Oura National Park to the southwest in Chad, I watch these men, wildlife rangers or village guards of all ages, sitting at their school benches in the shade of a few scattered trees.
They listen attentively to the training being given by the four highly experienced instructors in anti-poaching techniques deployed by the International Fund for Animal Welfare on each side of the Cameroon-Chad border. The content of this two month programme, which includes both lectures and practical lessons, is dense: first aid, use of the compass and GPS, camouflage, going out on patrol, ambush, searching a bivouac or a vehicle, questioning and arrest techniques, self-defence, risk assessment, and more.
Strangely, many of them seem to be discovering only now these basic anti-poaching techniques and tactics.
Yet these are the men that governments, in ever more numerous and costly summits and international symposia, boast about recruiting by the dozen and deploying on the front line to stamp out poaching, even as the elephants are disappearing...
Thus, in Boubanjida National Park, the numbers of recruits is reported to have gone from 6 to 60 wildlife rangers. In Sena Oura National Park we are told their numbers have grown from 0 to 13 men.
But let us not be fooled by the politics of figures.
Some of these illiterate men have had no anti-poaching training. Some of them are too old and physically out of condition to go on patrol; some of them do not speak the same language as their neighbours, exacerbating ethnic divisions and tensions; some are no longer receiving their salaries which have been dispersed in the twists and turns of institutionalised corruption...
However they all have in common the obligation to subsist without resources, the duty to fight without any arms or ammunition, in an area where local poaching is becoming more hard-line, and the poaching of Sudanese horsemen determined to take their share of ‘white gold’ is endemic.
They all have in common the fact that they have already been sacrificed...
Is the international community going to remain silent for much longer about this reality of which no actor in the field is unaware? Will it be satisfied much longer with a model which is doomed to failure, where the political decisions adopted very rarely take root on the ground? Will it continue much longer to be complacently duped by governments which proclaim their desire to protect their wildlife, all the while refusing to equip and arm their guards? Looking more closely one might believe that this masquerade has become a real business.
Yet in our fight to protect the elephants the guards are our most precious allies.
They should be the spearhead - confident, motivated, valued, esteemed, congratulated, encouraged, listened to - which we can rely on. But the reality is often different. They are abandoned. And this abandonment, in some African countries, brings them to cross the red line and join the enemy.
It is therefore urgent that the international community, alongside IFAW, should review the status of these men and enhance the standing of this profession. Rethinking the selection criteria for wildlife rangers, defining a career development plan which can be standardised (at least at sub-regional level), integrating anti-poaching training with the curriculum of military academies, training protected zone conservators in anti-poaching techniques; these are some of the paths to be explored rather than neglected, if we wish to protect the last elephants on the planet.
The IFAW training is therefore perceived by these men, long forgotten by their hierarchy, as an outstretched hand, helping them to survive and undertake the dangerous task which they have been set.
For two months, ecoguards and village guards in Boubandjida and Sena-Oura National Parks are learning new skills and techniques that are making them safer and more effective in the bush. During this hands-on training, the guards regain their self-confidence. The imminent arrival of IFAW’s specialized gear and equipment which includes communication tools, tents, tarps, boots, first aid kits, and other essential tools to carry out patrols give them a renewed sense of their mission. They are now better prepared and equipped to counter poaching in their parks. But they remain...unarmed, waiting for their governments to follow suit and invest in their security and profession like IFAW has.
The wildlife rangers need us all.
Without them at our side, we will probably not lose the war of words and ideas, but we will definitely lose the war for wildlife which is playing out on the ground.