The Democratic Republic of Congo is home to some of the last specimens of mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei), a species highly threatened by poaching, civil war and now oil extraction. © Brent Stirton/Edit by Getty Images
Earlier this year, six rangers in Virunga National Park – one of the last refuges of the endangered mountain gorilla – were ambushed and killed by armed assailants, the second such deadly attack in the park within the past year. The region where mountain gorillas live – a World Heritage Site in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – has been plagued by instability for decades, as rebel groups fight the government – and each other; the groups are also connected to hunting for bushmeat, illegal fishing and logging, and poaching, especially of elephants, to fund their activities.
Since its inception, the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) and park authorities in surrounding countries – DRC, Rwanda and Uganda – have been forced to operate against a backdrop of violent conflict, human tragedy and economic hardship. “The rangers of Virunga National Park are the bravest of men and women,” said Flora and Fauna International’s Director of Operations for Africa, Alison Mollon. Based in Virunga from 2011-2014, she has seen the devastating effects of the conflict first hand. “The conservation world is privileged to have them on our side because they knowingly put their lives on the line every day when they go to work,” she says, emphatically. “How fortunate we are that we don’t have to make that daily decision.”
Fortunate indeed. In the past ten years, 1,000 rangers have been killed, many of them murdered by commercial poachers. One of the organisations working to empower and protect them is Thin Green Line, founded by Sean Willmore after the former park ranger attended an International Ranger Federation conference in 2003. “’I met rangers who had bullet holes and machete scars across their bodies. These guys had put themselves on the frontline of conservation work and they’ve been fired upon and stabbed for it,” he told the Ecologist in 2010. Willmore decided to film the experiences of rangers around the globe.
What he came back with was The Thin Green Line, a documentary that has now been seen by thousands, inspiring the former Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger to declare July 31st California State Park Ranger Day. “Some of these guys are working in places where there are commercial poachers with AK47s and where civil wars are taking place,’ Willmore told the Ecologist. “They do this to protect the world’s endangered plants and animals for all of us.” The story of John Makambo, featured in the film, is a case in point. Tasked with protecting 300 of the world’s 700 remaining mountain gorillas in Uganda, he has been shot at by rebels and attacked by poachers with machetes.
After returning, Willmore set up Thin Green Line Foundation (Protecting Nature’s Protectors), to support rangers and their families in their work. A single Ranger trained in anti-poaching, intelligence gathering, tracking, first aid and community engagement techniques is more likely to apprehend poachers safely, survive wild animal encounters, prevent the killing of target species and return home to their family. The Foundation makes sure rangers are skilled up to the hilt – while, working with International Anti-Poaching Foundation and Ranger Campus Foundation, the LEAD Ranger programme fosters leadership to enable highly skilled Rangers to pass on their knowledge to new generations.
“Some of these guys are working in places where there are commercial poachers with AK47s and where civil wars are taking place,’ Sean Willmore.
It’s in this way that the groups create a network of conservation support around some of the world’s most threatened eco-systems. Just as key, via the Fallen Ranger Fund, Willmore’s organisation provides financial lifelines to the families of Rangers who die or are killed in the line of duty. More often than not, the families, bereft of their main wage earner, are left with nothing. When no other support is available, The Thin Green Line aims to provide long term sustainable benefits to families and communities, paying school fees and helping with the set up of small business ventures.
In a short film, Willmore remembers the words of one widow: “My husband was brutally murdered for protecting wildlife; that was hard enough. But then my kids were ripped out of school because we had no support. For a mother to know they’re destined for poverty, that their whole life will be poverty and their kids’ lives will be poverty, as a result of my husband, this ranger, being killed … That was total darkness. You’ve come here to give this support, the support you say comes from many people around the world and it’s like a beam of light into the darkness. And in that beam of light, I plant a seed of hope for my family. Thin Green Line says to these guys, we’ve got your back,” says Willmore. “And if something happens to you, we’ll look after your family too.’”
As with so many, the pandemic has dealt a bitter blow to fundraising – and to efforts to curb poaching. With more than 16 million people relying on tourism in Africa alone, the lack of income from foreign visitors has decimated livelihoods. Rangers have been laid off and funding for conservation programmes reduced, leading to a surge in illegal activities around the world. Wildlife poaching and illegal logging, fishing and mining are putting decades of conservation work at risk, killing animals and ultimately threatening our futures. As the UN prepares to launch its Decade of Ecosystem Restoration, in which the planet’s astonishing wildlife occupies such crucial but still unrecognised roles, the work of rangers must be recognised – and the rangers themselves supported. Protecting the natural world should not be a matter of life and death, and yet, for so many, that’s exactly what it is. Dr Jane Goodall is a passionate ambassador for Thin Green Line, each year uploading a message of support for World Rangers Day. “People worldwide want our endangered species protected, but who is going to protect these guys?’ points out Willmore. ‘These people are truly on the frontline of conservation work. They are my true heroes.”
The assassinations of Mother Nature’s guardians, Mongabay.
Willmore’s interview with Jane Goodall, on janegoodall.org