Deep in the heart of Africa, a dedicated group of rangers patrol the Chinko nature reserve. In baking equatorial heat, they are weighed down with body armour and camouflage fatigues. Beads of sweat run down their faces; mosquitos whine. The men keep watch over a vast patchwork of savanna and rainforest in the Central African Republic – a country mired in civil strife and one of the many frontlines of a poaching war that spans the continent and reaches across the globe.
Chinko’s rangers are the guardians of an ecosystem that is home to a rich variety of species. These include buffalos, chimpanzees, forest elephants, leopards, lions and the icon of this park, the giant eland – an imposing antelope.
With no permanent human settlement, the land around the Chinko river basin offers one of the largest intact wildernesses in central Africa. But these rangers face an array of dangers: poachers, rebel militants, cattle herders, diamond miners. All of these intruders are well-armed and determined to rip out the resources from this remote sanctuary.
Day-to-day, Chinko is managed by David Simpson, a 30-year-old from North Yorkshire.
Poaching and cattle migrations would present enough of a conservation headache. But the struggle to protect Chinko is made even harder by a brutal armed conflict that has engulfed the country for years. War broke out in 2013 when a predominantly-Muslim rebel coalition known as the Séléka overthrew the government and committed widespread atrocities.
An alliance of mostly Christian militias known as the anti-balaka carried out vicious reprisals, with subsequent clashes killing thousands. After a brief lull, the Séléka splintered into rival groups, with violence uprooting hundreds of thousands of people. Last year, fighting brought the country’s humanitarian crisis to Chinko. Militants attacked a nearby town and forced more than 300 civilians into the reserve; Chinko’s employees have offered them food and shelter, and, more recently, helped them return home.
Last year, the organisation says its rangers removed more than 48,000 snares and traps, confiscated almost 50 tonnes of bushmeat and helped secure 282 convictions. “Rangers are the frontline defence against the intense and ever-present risk of poaching in Africa’s critical conservation areas,” said African Parks CEO, Peter Fearnhead. “Their efforts are building a future in which people and wildlife can benefit from stable and ecologically functioning landscapes.”
Each dry season, armed nomads lead thousands of cows from Chad and Sudan towards grasslands further south, poaching wildlife on the side and lighting massive wildfires.
In recent years, cattle swarmed through the park. But outreach campaigns, ranger patrols and the occasional shoot-out have pushed out these herders and their mass of cows, creating an environment for wildlife to thrive once more. In this, one of the most anarchic and marginalised areas on Earth, Chinko’s rangers are the region’s sole security force.
Such threats are by no means confined only to Chinko. In wildlife reserves across the world, rangers put their lives on the line daily to protect our shared natural heritage from poachers whose brutal trade is fuelled by the insatiable demand for bushmeat, ivory, animal skin and traditional medicine.
July 31 each year is World Ranger day– an occasion that commemorates the rangers killed or injured in the field. The day also celebrates the work of these courageous men and women who protect the planet’s endangered species and natural treasures, often at great personal sacrifice, far from their families.