In the snowy wilds of Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan, one of the world’s most mountainous regions and an area of significant interest for snow leopard (Panthera uncia) conservation, solitary wildlife rangers patrol vast areas on horseback. While public perception of the role of wildlife rangers is dominated by the ‘Ivory Wars’ discourse, rangers actually work all around the world, in a variety of challenging environments. They are involved in some of the most critical tasks for preserving biodiversity, from attempts to tackle the globally prevalent illegal wildlife trade (far more diverse than ivory alone), to management of the world’s protected areas, which serve as the cornerstones of conservation.
The role of rangers is broad in definition and operation. WWF, which has conducted some of the only extensive research into their work, considers the term ‘ranger’ to cover a variety of functions, from anti-poaching officers, to forest guards and wildlife wardens. Yet despite their importance, we know remarkably little about the work of these individuals outside of Africa and the USA. The gaps in our knowledge are extensive. Local and national governments often don’t even have an accurate count of the number or distribution of rangers, let alone detailed data on their roles, operation and requirements.
These can be in areas which are high priority sites for conservation, presenting a significant challenge to the effective targeting of support to achieve conservation outcomes. In the worst cases, the wrong sort of support may even be detrimental; a militarised approach, for example, could risk inflaming underlying tensions and further destabilise already fragile status quos. NGOs, national and international governments who provide support for wildlife rangers in the form of equipment or funding, often do so without detailed evidence of the roles performed by rangers at a given site, or information on what is most needed. The main issue is that in wildlife protection there is no guarantee of one-size-fits-all.
In 2017, I founded Rangers Without Borders with Peter Coals, a former anti-poaching officer, now based at the University of Oxford. Our aim was to help improve understanding of the work of wildlife rangers worldwide, so that we could provide tailored, location-specific advice. One of the areas where we thought this was most needed was Central Asia, a region where biodiversity is expected to come under increased pressure in the 21st century, but where almost no work in this field into the function of rangers has been conducted. We expanded our study region to include Eastern Europe, creating a large transect from the border of western China and Kyrgyzstan, to Poland and Lithuania in Europe. We then brought together a team of 11 researchers, photographers and filmmakers, to study and document the work of wildlife rangers across this area.
HERDERS AND RANGERS
Sarychat-Ertash State Nature Reserve is a vast protected area along Kyrgyzstan’s eastern border with China and a site thought to be significant for priority species such as the snow leopard. Usually off-limits to even Kyrgyz visitors – the reserve is within a military border zone between the two countries – we had been granted special permission to study the work of rangers there.
What we found was a system completely different to the highly structured and often militarised model seen in southern Africa. Instead, a system of community rangers, drawn largely from a small settlement alongside the reserve and the only human presence apart from the occasional military outpost, was a recognition of the role that local communities play in the conservation of biodiversity. In one of the most striking examples of ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’, individuals who admitted to having poached snow leopards during the turmoil of the Soviet Union’s collapse, were now rangers tasked with helping conserve these rare cats.
While the system was hugely effective in giving the local community a stake in the conservation of charismatic species, our work also uncovered several worrying trends. Rangers were expected to provide their own uniforms, vehicles or horses, even their own boots. With pay low, ranger duties were conducted alongside personal economic activities, particularly livestock herding. Perhaps inevitably, ranger patrols tended to correlate strongly with the location of livestock grazing sites. There were serious discrepancies between species that rangers suspected were being illegally harvested and those they actually confiscated, suggesting either that the opportunistic ranger patrols were ineffective at catching poachers, or that rangers underestimate the extent and importance of the illegal harvesting of certain rare species, notably endangered plants.
The lack of formal training for rangers limited their versatility, particularly for specialist and technical roles, and reduces the potential benefits of international support for their work, which often favours high-tech and equipment-based approaches. This is important because Kyrgyzstan is a major recipient of international finance for conservation, funding expensive equipment at sites where ranger salaries remain extremely low and training in basic skills, highly limited.
At one Ramsar Site (an international designation of protected wetland areas), we encountered rangers who were using six expensive camera traps to capture images of the site’s main lake. The rangers explained that because they were not able to identify the birds that lived on the lake, the images were taken in order to send to scientific specialists in the capital, Bishkek, to produce a rough list of species present.
However, the data produced by this approach is of very limited scientific value. Instead, providing biological identification training to the site’s rangers would allow an individual with new skills to perform the same task, while freeing up resources or allowing the reallocation of camera traps for more valuable application, such as studies on the surrounding snow leopard population.
Part of the difficulty with providing training is that there is no national ranger organisation across the country and so there is little co-ordination of the limited training provided to rangers. Successful development of a national ranger organisation is therefore a priority, while the provision of tailored training in subjects like biological identification and patrol planning should be a core part of any international support for rangers in Kyrgyzstan, in order to ensure that funding is effective and cost-efficient.
RANGERS ACROSS BORDERS
One of the major trends we had seen in Central Asia was the tendency for rangers to work alongside international borders, but to have little or no contact with rangers of other protected areas, either in the neighbouring country or even within their own. Trans-boundary co-operation matters for rangers because a disproportionate share of the world’s protected areas lie on international borders; borders that rangers are limited by, but wildlife rarely respects. In the most worrying cases, a species that regularly crosses international borders may be moving from a protected regime to one where it is exploited, either legally or illegally. Arriving in the Caucasus, a rare global biodiversity hotspot outside of the tropics and therefore a site of great significance for global conservation, we were interested to see how this would play out in a region known for its fragmented geopolitics.
Remarkably, the signs were encouraging. The operation of rangers between different states was notably varied, but was becoming increasingly professionalised across the region as a whole, even if salaries remained low and training irregular. While co-operation was still relatively unusual, some nascent trans-boundary programmes involving rangers had been developed between countries in the region that enjoy better diplomatic relations.
One example, the Javakheti-Lake Arpi trans-boundary protected areas, lay either side of the border between Georgia and Armenia, covering an area that provides important habitat for both resident and migratory birds. Reintroduction of the goitered gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa) to Vashlovani National Park, Georgia, in 2013, was one of a series of reintroductions in collaboration with protected areas in neighbouring Azerbaijan. Vital was the role of the Caucasus Nature Fund (CNF), a German non-profit which provides financial support to conservation projects, often with a trans-boundary nature to them, across the Caucasus region. These projects provided a rare opportunity for rangers from different countries to come together to discuss conservation challenges and learn collaboratively from each other’s experiences.
Białowieża Forest is regarded as being one of the most important protected areas in Europe. Stretching from Poland into Belarus, it is widely considered the continent’s largest expanse of protected old growth forest, providing habitat for a core population of European bison (Bison bonasus) that survived near-global extinction of the species in the 20th century. With the geopolitical challenges faced by rangers here thrown into sharp relief by recent events, the forest would form a focus point of our work in Eastern Europe.
We had decided to concentrate on the Polish side of the forest due to the difficulty of securing permits for potentially sensitive research in Belarus. The role of rangers here was highly professionalised and was supported by a range of specialists, as well as scientific research institutes. It was also the first time that female rangers were present at any of our study sites.
However, the forest’s position as a flash-point between Poland and the EU, following Warsaw’s decision in 2017 to increase logging there on the pretext of halting a bark beetle infestation, along with Brussels’ subsequent use of heavy fines to ensure compliance with EU law covering the forest’s protection, divided ranger forces as bitterly as it divided local communities. The divisions created pose a risk to the effective working of the system of rangers and scientists that Białowieża has otherwise enjoyed and with fears that logging may resume, those divisions are unlikely to heal soon.
As we finished our last interviews in Białowieża Forest and prepared to return to Warsaw, it became clear that, though the first round of expeditions may have been over, now would come the greater challenge of converting academic findings into practical, data-driven recommendations for conservation organisations and governments on how to best provide targeted support for wildlife rangers across our study countries.
The eventual aim is to be able to design training packages that can be delivered in each location, specific to the needs of the region or individual site. Then there are the regional neighbours of our study countries – such as Kyrgyzstan’s neighbours of Tajikistan and Kazakhstan – which remain largely unstudied. The work has only just begun.
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