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This article appears in Volume 23: The Adventure Issue.
Ask anyone in Kenya about the single most important issue in conservation and you’re likely to get a plethora of answers varying from charity funding to building more fences to stopping the demand for animal products. However one key factor has been achieving remarkable success – the presence of rangers. These men keep tabs on the animals, deter would-be poachers and provide a much-needed link between game conservancies and the surrounding communities.
We had travelled to the Borana Conservancy, a 32,000-acre conservation area in northern Kenya, to discover how its 101 locally employed rangers are at the core of protection efforts for rhinos, elephants and the nine other endangered species that inhabit these plains. At up to £70,000 per kilogram, elephant tusks and rhino horns still represent too tempting a target for many Kenyans. Consequently, the rangers at Borana are always on edge. Their job is one of life and death on a daily basis.
We stay at Borana Lodge, where in addition to seeing the Big Five guests can support conservation efforts financially – all profits from the lodge are invested back into the conservancy – and practically by getting involved in activities such as a day with Borana’s mobile clinic, tracking rhino on foot with the scouting team and following the armed anti-poaching unit on their evening deployments.
Opting for the latter, we‘re struck by the rangers’ quietness and conscientiousness as they line up in front of their captain for the evening briefing. Often this begins with a sobering list of the names of rangers who have been shot across the country followed by any impending threats and disturbances reported by the community. They are then told the locations of the 28 rhinos on the reserve to which they will be paired for overnight protection. Weapons are checked and loaded and we ride with two of the rangers to a far-off corner of the conservancy, sharing a brief moment before the sun sets and they are left in the dark among the lions and hyenas.
Like so many of the most successful natural partnerships in Africa, the relationship between the rangers and the conservancy is symbiotic. The rangers protect the animals and work with the communities directly bordering Borana (through which poachers must enter). Likewise, many of the rangers’ children attend schools set up and funded by the conservancy and their families are treated by the Borana mobile clinic. This healthy ecosystem is vital to prevent the conservancy from becoming isolated, out of touch and vulnerable.
On our second day the deployment of the team is interrupted by an emergency in a local village. All the rangers have Kenya Police reservist status and are often called upon to settle local disputes encompassing subjects as diverse as theft, domestic violence and livestock rustling. Michael Dyer, whose family owns and runs Borana, tells me, “The rangers often find themselves working harder on the boundaries of the conservancy than they do inside. A lot of Borana’s anti-poaching efforts rely on intel from communities and the rangers spend a lot of time and effort forging a close relationship. They are a beacon of stability and take huge pride in their work on both sides of the fence.”
Towards the end of our stay the men become more at ease in our presence. They giggle as Claudia tries to take some final portraits, the sun streaming through the dusty windows as the jeeps bounce along – it isn’t easy to keep the camera steady and we can tell they find it amusing. After dropping the men off we turn the vans around and look to wave goodbye, but they have already evaporated into the bush.
Driving back through the dark we can’t help but worry for their safety. Very few poachers, if confronted, would be taken into custody without first turning their weapons on their captors. Under such circumstances the African bush becomes a war zone. Our only reassurance comes in the remarkable fact that Borana has not had a poaching incident in the last four years – a record that the rangers are very proud of because they know that only their continued vigilance allows it to be so.
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