Remember our Rangers on the World Ranger Day. My opinion piece for Kuensel (July 27, 2019 )

Fig 1
Rangers on duty above 4800 meters of elevation

Did you know that Bhutan is home to 11,248 species (as of 2017) within all biodiversity taxa according to the “Biodiversity Statistics of Bhutan 2017”; and “National Forest Inventory Report – Volume I” estimated 816 million trees growing in Bhutan. Did you know that, estimated, 103 tigers (The National Tiger Survey of Bhutan 2014-2015) and 96 snow leopards (National Snow Leopard Survey of Bhutan 2014-2016) share our landscapes. Thanks to our visionary conservation policies meticulously crafted by our far-sighted leadership: our beloved monarchs who made this possible. With good conservation policies guided by visionary leaders in place, we needed a group of dedicated men and women to achieve these ‘numbers’. The answer – Our Rangers.

The International Ranger Federation (IRF) defines a ranger as, the person involved in the practical protection and preservation of all aspects of wild areas, historical and cultural sites. IRF is an organization that supports the work of rangers as the key protectors of parks and conservation. So, ranger here refers to all conservationists we have in Bhutan.

Rangers around the globe work by carrying the hope that their efforts are helping to contribute to the protection of species, habitats, and resources for the enrichment of future generations. Our hardworking rangers devote their lives to protecting our natural resources and cultural heritage and, in some areas, these brave men and women regularly encounter well-resourced groups of poachers, equipped with the latest weapons. Want to hear more stories? Talk to our rangers who spend their time devoted to conservation.

Ranger Day

The first World Ranger Day was observed on July 31, 2007, on the 15th anniversary of the founding day of the IRF. Now, July 31 each year is observed as the World Ranger Day. It is the day to thank our rangers for the dedication and commitment shown on a daily basis for their tireless efforts to protect wildlife and fight wildlife crime!

With ever-increasing connected world we live in, it is widely acknowledged that the challenges and risks rangers face have increased significantly in recent years. The involvement of organized crime groups in the illegal killing of and illicit trafficking in wildlife has heightened the risks that rangers face. Thus, World Ranger Day is a day to remember the many rangers who have been injured or killed in the line of duty while protecting our environment and to commend the critical work rangers do to protect the world’s natural and cultural treasures.

Wildlife Trade and Rangers

Here’s how grave the illegal trade of wild animals and their parts is in the world. The Guardian on July 10, 2019, covered a story about the third Interpol mission: “Operation Thunderball”, undertaken in 109 countries. According to the Guardian, the Operation Thunderball seized many wildlife and among the animals seized were 23 primates, 30 big cats, more than 4,300 birds, nearly 1,500 live reptiles and close to 10,000 turtles and tortoises. The operation was also successful in confiscating 440 elephant tusks and an additional 545kg of ivory. Hold on!

Just as recent as 23 July 2019, BBC ran a story titled “Singapore seizes elephant ivory and pangolin scales worth $48m haul”. According to BBC, Singaporean authorities estimated that the, latest, seized tusks of 8.8 tonnes might have come from nearly 300 elephants and pangolin scales of 11.9 tonnes from about 2000 pangolins. Singapore alone seized a total of 37.5 tonnes of pangolin scales since April 2019. Similarly, stories on seized animal parts coming from Cambodia, Hongkong, Thailand and other countries aren’t encouraging too.

The ‘number’ speaks for itself about the paramount work our rangers need to achieve to minimize animal trade and torture of wild animals.

On the other side, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) released a report titled “Life on the frontline 2018”, which was the outcome of the largest ever survey on ranger employment conditions and welfare. The report revealed that one in fifteen wildlife rangers surveyed across Asia and Central Africa had broken a bone on the job during the same timeframe and one in eight sustained another type of serious injury within the last 12 months of the survey. The survey also revealed that 82 percent of rangers in Africa and 63 percent of rangers in Asia had faced a life-threatening situation in the line of duty. From Bhutan, 54 rangers participated in the survey.

If I may cite some examples of threat our rangers face – in recent years, we lost a ranger during the National Forest Inventory after falling off the cliff and we lost another due to high altitude sickness during the snow leopard survey. A ranger lost his eye while guarding the community against elephant attacks. A ranger was thrown a stone by a poacher causing serious injury to his head. There are many such stories, which slip by, however, our dedicated men and women are never deterred to protect our natural and cultural heritage to ensure we leave something for our children.

My Childhood Experience

Well, this may not have been necessary, but, the experience had a profound impact on me. So it warrants a place in here and there is a handful of us who were exposed to such an experience, for, we grew-up with men and women dressed in green and khaki uniform.

Having grown up in-between the two national parks: Royal Manas National Park in Bhutan and Manas Tiger Reserve in India, I can clearly recall the frequent sound of gun-shots, which were generally followed by news of some rangers, whom I knew, getting killed. As a young boy, I was exposed to frequent news of rangers’ patrol cars getting caught in the land mines; rangers gored by water buffalos; rangers getting swept while crossing streams and many more. Surely a difficult job, but as a young boy, I was always re-assured by the rangers on the satisfaction they derived from their job. Oh! The place where I spent my childhood is Mathanguri, which now stands abandoned.

For Our Rangers

Today, many have changed and many developmental activities have taken place. What has not changed is the anti-poaching activities which our rangers have to pursue and this, unfortunately, has become frequent with increasing illegal trade of wildlife and animal parts. For example, our rangers organize SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool) patrolling almost 20 times in a month and those rangers working in the southern part of the country undertake synchronized patrolling with rangers from India. Synchronized patrolling is conducted once in two months to promote the cross-border anti-poaching program and to, possibly, curb timber smuggling and wildlife trade. According to a story that came in on March 18, 2019, synchronized patrolling has significantly improved cooperation between rangers from two countries, and also helped in improving the security for both humans and wildlife. The security improved as this initiative has been successful in driving out the insurgencies from the forests.

Fig 2
Rangers during tiger monitoring survey and SMART patrol (southern Bhutan) – Photo: Singye Wangmo, RMNP

Our rangers spend a little over three months above 4500 meters during cordyceps collection season to ensure Bhutanese collectors reap the benefits of our own resources. Our rangers frequently comb our thick tropical jungles of the south, frequently coming in conflict with, often out-numbered with latest weapon, poachers and illegal timber traders. Our rangers comb our mid-hills, year-round, removing animal traps set by poachers. Our rangers spend many sleepless nights to ensure that Bhutan does not become the highway for red sanders smuggling trade. Many rangers see their families as little as once a year, causing immense stress to personal relationships. That’s who our rangers are and these dedicated men and women are also often attacked by poachers.

As pressures on nature grow, the survival of endangered animals like elephants, tigers and critically endangered birds like white-bellied heron, and their habitats depends in great part on these men and women. Illegal logging and a violent poaching crisis are at an all-time high. The work of rangers has never been more critical. But challenges for these rangers are enormous and far-ranging as it comes as little or no surprise that they risk facing life-threatening situations due to the very nature of their job.

Today, our world stands at a crossroads, with so many of its most emblematic places and biodiversity in immense threat. Thus, on World Ranger Day 2019, let’s all take a moment to remember all rangers, known and unknown, who have paid the ultimate price during the past years. Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on the sacrifice that these rangers make. Let’s pause to honour the fallen rangers and their colleagues who still bravely undertake their role in the field. Last, but obviously not the least, let’s not forget their families who equally make sacrifices. Our rangers indeed are the un-sung heroes, working hard to keep the ‘lungs’ of the earth breathing.

Let us salute their sacrifice on this World Ranger Day 2019.

Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Letro, Sr. Forestry Officer, NCD, DoFPS, MoAF for reviewing the initial draft of this opinion.


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