Imagine you’re a young, newly married wildlife ranger. You work in a remote national park, so you often must leave your spouse behind for several months or sometimes, if you're lucky, bring them with you. But when you arrive at the accommodation you’ve been promised, you discover it’s a tin hut. In summer, the heat is unbearable—upwards of 40 °Celsius (100 °Farenheit) outside. In winter, it’s freezing.
We can’t expect somebody to live like this and still put on their boots every morning, pick up their weapon, and patrol the national park, where they might encounter a lion, an angry elephant, an armed poacher, or an illegal miner.
They’re tired. Sometimes hungry. Worried about their families’ education and healthcare.
I wouldn’t be able to do it, and I don’t think others should be expected to either—certainly not under conditions in which their own welfare seems to be low on the list of priorities.
As conservationists, we simply cannot leave behind the most significant and important defenders of wildlife and protected areas. Rangers are not only one of the most fundamental building blocks of conservation but are global planetary health workers. We must do everything possible to honour their tremendous bravery by improving their wellbeing, safety, and security—and that of their families.
The dangers rangers face
Globally, we estimate that at least 150 rangers die in the line of duty every year.
The International Rangers Federation recorded 2,351 on-duty ranger fatalities between 2006 and 2021. Almost half (42.2%) were felonious deaths—wildlife crime is big business and is often connected to other organised crimes. Poachers, militias, and terrorists target and kill rangers.
The other half of the on-duty fatalities were from accidents, illness, wildlife attacks, or other work-related casualties.
Worryingly, ranger deaths seem to be increasing. Some fatalities could be avoided with better protection and equipment, more training, and safer work environments.
When a ranger’s life is lost, their family is left to pick up the pieces, especially the financial burden. Many rangers do not have access to insurance policies to protect their family’s financial security if they die or are too injured to work.
What do rangers need?
At the very least, rangers need decent accommodation and rations, reliable vehicles, good boots, and uniforms. When these basic needs are met, they can tackle most of the tasks set in front of them, even amidst extraordinary difficulty and physical hardship.
But there are other pieces of equipment that make a tremendous difference to their wellbeing. If they have an SAT phone, for example, they can call for help if they get into trouble. When they know their colleagues will come rescue them if they are injured by an animal or a poacher, it boosts their morale. And that boosts their performance.
Rangers need insurance that supports their families if they can no longer work. Going to work knowing there is a safety net also raises their morale. We must also ensure rangers are receiving a living wage and are paid on time each month.
Recognition and support of the emotional toll it takes when their colleagues have been killed or injured is also crucial. Providing services like memorials and honouring their sacrifices can make a big difference.
I was fortunate to be in Zambia for World Ranger Day this year, and we held a moving afternoon ceremony recognising fallen rangers at a monument in Lusaka Park, which was developed with support from IFAW and other conservation NGOs. If you think about the role of ceremonies in your personal life or in groups or associations you belong to, you understand that these moments of recognition matter. They matter to your identity, your pride, and your dignity.
This understanding means that we dedicate part of our resources towards improving living and working conditions for rangers, especially ensuring that their workplace has adequate resources, since most of them spend more time protecting animals and landscapes than they spend at home.
How IFAW supports wildlife rangers’ welfare
IFAW doesn’t employ any rangers. They are usually government or community employees whose salaries and equipment are funded by taxes or tourism revenue. But many of these governments face often challenging economic circumstances and many competing priorities. That’s why it’s up to IFAW and our global partnerships and funders to step in. Because, if we don’t, our conservation efforts will fail.
In Kenya, IFAW supports more than 85 Olgulului Community Wildlife Rangers by providing logistical support, such as paying salaries and providing supplies like food rations, medical insurance, equipment, uniforms, vehicles, digital radios, and vehicle maintenance and data collection tools.
We also recently completed the newly constructed David Rio Community Ranger Base, which now provides ten rangers comfortably furnished living quarters.
In February 2019, along with local community leaders, IFAW’s wildlife security team created Team Lioness. These Maasai women are defying social norms and creating new opportunities for women.
In Zimbabwe, when tourism shut down at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, IFAW immediately shifted its focus to support ranger welfare so key staff could remain at their posts. As a result, not a single elephant poaching was recorded in Hwange National Park in the past three years.
IFAW recently handed over the Makona Ranger Base station to Zimbabwe’s parks and wildlife management agency, ZimParks, as part of its 25-year, 50-million-dollar conservation support to Hwange National Park. Makona is a permanent, full-service ranger base with an operations center and staff housing for rangers and their families who will live there permanently to protect the park and wildlife and provide a swift response to human-wildlife conflict incidents in bordering community areas.
On the other side of the globe, IFAW partnered with local governmental partners in Jinghong, China, to support rangers as part of the Human–Elephant Co-existence Community Ranger Network Initiative. Launched in April 2021, the initiative enhances the safety of both humans and elephants, because an increasing number of elephants are roaming outside of reserve areas and clashing with locals.
To achieve our goals for rangers, we have joined forces with key global organisations to better coordinate and pool the limited resources available for ranger welfare. Our partners include United for Wildlife, International Ranger Federation, Universal Ranger Support Alliance, and Game Rangers International.
Our hope for the future
Our goal is to ensure rangers have safe, decent working and living standards. We aim to provide adequate resources, equipment, and technology they need to carry out their duties, as well as the legal and policy frameworks that protect workers’ rights over and above global human rights standards.
It is easy to find controversy in conservation practice. There are many competing agendas and opinions, but no one thinks that supporting rangers is a bad idea. In an overly complicated world, it is a simple, clear, and effective path to success. The global community must collectively recognise and prioritise these essential workers.
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