Recent news has been very bad for rangers working in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). 18 rangers were kidnapped in Kahuzi-Biega National Park in March, and news reports show that six rangers have been killed in Virunga National Park this week.
The DRC is now one of the most dangerous places in the world for rangers to work, with over 170 rangers killed in the past two decades, and more suffering attacks and injuries. The bravery they show, to continue to risk their lives to protect wildlife in the country is an inspiration.
It also points towards a fact that is sometimes overlooked in the wildlife documentaries we see on television. Nature documentaries show beautiful film of some of the most amazing locations and wildlife on earth and inspire millions of people’s passion for the natural world. They can also drive change; Blue Planet II is credited with increasing awareness of the damage caused by plastic in the oceans and mobilising action to avert it, massively increasing exposure to the problem, which has been often only on the edges of media coverage over the past decade.
But those programmes do not always tell the story of incredible work and dedication needed to protect the wildlife and ecosystems they show on film, making it easy to forget the brave men and women on the frontline of conservation. The people who suffer the most, such as the rangers in the DRC, are more often than not local people from the country. They do not get much attention from the international media, do not get paid large wages or get the best equipment, and sometimes even have to go without pay when money is tight for the wildlife agencies that employ them.
Fortunately, there are a large number of initiatives to raise the profile of local conservationists, within the media and within the conservation world. The BBC Planet Earth II series showed the work of the Barbados Sea Turtle Project to protect Hawksbill Turtles on the island, in a moving piece of film (which you can watch here).
The annual TUSK Awards also reward local heroes working on conservation in Africa. In 2016, for example, they recognised John Kahekwa – a hero of gorilla conservation in the DRC – and Manuel Sacaia – a ranger working to protect the Giant Sable antelope. Also, at King’s College London, the Marjan-Marsh Award recognises outstanding conservationists working in regions of armed conflict, helping to raise their profile and reward their work.
The Thin Green Line Foundation is dedicated to supporting rangers and their families, raising funds to support their work and welfare, and look after the widows and children of rangers killed on duty.
These organisations and awards play an important role in conservation, providing support and recognition for the work of the courageous men and women on the frontline of conservation. The more media coverage these conservation heroes can receive the better; they are often what stands between the survival or extinction of species.