SEAN WILLMORE

Smith Journal - - Opinion -

For­mer Ranger and Founder of The Thin Green Line F oun­da­tion

I’d been work­ing as a wildlife ranger in Aus­tralia for years when I at­tended an in­ter­na­tional ranger con­fer­ence and got a se­vere re­al­ity check. A bunch of us were sit­ting around a fire, shar­ing beers and trad­ing tales, when one ranger from Malawi pulled back his hair and showed a ma­chete wound he’d re­ceived at the hands of a poacher. Then a guy from the Congo rolled up his sleeve to re­veal a bul­let hole. The fol­low­ing day that same ranger gave a pre­sen­ta­tion that in­cluded a group photo of around 30 rangers. About four or five of their heads were cir­cled. I fig­ured that these rangers had died do­ing their job, but he ex­plained that those were the rangers who were still alive. About 180 rangers had been killed in that one na­tional park in the past

15 years. That just floored me.

The next year I sold my house and car and spent 12 months trav­el­ling the world meet­ing rangers. I saw first­hand how the role of the ranger isn’t given much re­spect in a lot of coun­tries. As a re­sult, many rangers aren’t kit­ted out with ad­e­quate equip­ment to do their jobs safely. I’ve met rangers who’ve headed out on pa­trol for a month at a time with­out wet-weather gear, mos­quito nets or ap­pro­pri­ate footwear. If they were in­jured there’d be no com­pen­sa­tion. If they died their fam­i­lies would be on their own.

I wanted to make a film that would raise money for their cause and aware­ness of their sit­u­a­tion. I even­tu­ally raised about $ 9,000, but when I then went to do­nate the money I re­alised there wasn’t a char­ity I could give it to. If I was go­ing to help rangers and the fam­i­lies of those who’d fallen, I was go­ing to have to set one up my­self. I founded the Thin Green Line Foun­da­tion three years later.

Ap­prox­i­mately a thou­sand rangers have died on the job in the past 10 years. Of these, around 70 per cent have died at the hands of poach­ers. The Thin Green Line works to en­sure those rangers out in the field are able to do their job as safely as pos­si­ble. We get them gear that will see them through and train them in proper anti-poach­ing and pa­trol tech­niques. Whether a ranger has been mur­dered, killed by an an­i­mal, per­ished in a fire or suf­fered a heart at­tack, we work to sup­port their fam­ily. It’s about ex­tend­ing them re­spect. While many of us will head out on holiday hop­ing to see wildlife, few of us con­sider those whose work en­sures there re­mains wildlife to see.

We learn, on av­er­age, of three ranger deaths per week. The work takes an emo­tional toll – I’ve lost good friends. You learn to dis­so­ci­ate, but ev­ery now and then a story re­ally hits you. Most re­cently, this was the story of Ranger Afram. He was a Pak­istani ranger get­ting paid about $ 20 a month to pro­tect the com­mu­nity for­est. He was out on pa­trol one day when he came across some tim­ber poach­ers. When he told them to leave, the poach­ers of­fered him a month’s salary to turn a blind eye. He de­clined that, and so they upped their of­fer to two months’ salary. Then three months. Then six. They of­fered a guy who lived in a tent with his fam­ily half a year’s wage just to walk away.

When he de­clined that the men shot and then de­cap­i­tated him.

Read­ing about Ranger Akram re­duced me to tears. Per­son­ally, I wish that he had walked away. But I do have to re­spect his de­ci­sion and his in­tegrity. Here was a guy who would not walk away, and that’s be­cause he was proud of what he did.

Ev­ery ranger I’ve ever met has a sense that they stand for some­thing big­ger than them­selves. And they do. Rangers look af­ter en­tire ecosys­tems. They look af­ter life. Per­son­ally, I can’t think of a more hon­ourable pro­fes­sion.

“WHILE MANY OF US WILL GO ON HOLIDAY HOP­ING TO SEE WILDLIFE, FEW CON­SIDER THOSE WHOSE WORK EN­SURES THERE RE­MAINS WILDLIFE TO SEE.”

• Wil­son’s Promon­tory Na­tional Park, Vic­to­ria, Aus­tralia, where Wil­more was a ranger for many years. • The Thin Green Line is head­quar­tered in South Mel­bourne, Aus­tralia.

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