Responsible travel

Published on July 9th, 2014 | by Oliver Pelling


Aks & elephant tusks: the life of a park ranger

Read time: a bit over 5 minutes

Park rangers protect the animals and environments that we, as travellers, love to visit. From Kenya and Tanzania to the likes of India, Laos, Costa Rica and beyond – these men and women are on the front line of conservation. But in 2013, more park rangers were killed on the job than policemen were killed in the line of duty in America. The majority of these deaths were homicides. Here’s part of the rangers’ story.

“These militia guys were pointing their AK-47s at us and potentially going to shoot us and take our gear,” says Sean Willmore nonchalantly between bites of his lunch. We’re sitting outside an average Japanese café located in an average Melbourne laneway, and Sean is eating what looks like a pretty average salmon sushi roll. But this is definitely not your average conversation. Sean, a seemingly regular Australian bloke in his early forties, is actually an ex-park ranger who now runs The Thin Green Line Foundation – a cause offering help and support to park rangers and their families. He’s also an award-winning conservationist and bravery medal holder. FYI.

More than 1000 park rangers have been killed on the job over the past 10 years. And that figure only represents the ones we know of – Sean speculates that the real number could be anywhere between 3-5000. Most these deaths have been at the hands of poachers or militia.

“Rather than saying we’ll protect the giraffe or protect the elephant, we’re protecting the people that protect all of it,” explains Sean.

The story Sean’s recounting took place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he was filming undercover for his 2007 documentary (also named The Thin Green Line). Working as a park ranger for 12 years meant Sean had the opportunity to share stories with many of his colleagues from all over the world. Often amazed by how incredible stories these stories were, he decided to set about capturing these stories on film. So he sold his car, remortgaged his house and travelled to over 23 countries in a year to do just that. And that’s how he wound up in the DRC with an AK-47 in his face.

“Some kids nearby were waving and smiling at us,” continues Sean. “I realised they must have thought I was a priest – the only foreigners you get in the Congo are either priests or mercenaries. So I went along with it. I moved over to them and began blessing the kids like a priest would.” Eventually the militia lowered their guns and moved along. And Sean, despite his relief, was “a little pissed off that the kids thought I was a priest rather than a mercenary”. Needless to say, he got over it pretty quickly.

The militia, says Sean, were some of the most terrifying he’d ever run into. “They must have done so much killing and raping, terrible things, that they just had this blank look in their eyes,” he recounts. “As if killing you wouldn’t even be a thing.” Two weeks after this encounter, Sean was able to leave this area of the DRC – an area where 180 park rangers have been killed over the past decade. In fact, on the day he arrived, Sean helped bury a ranger who had been not just killed, but tortured by poachers. “Those rangers are protecting animals against that militia every day of their lives,” he laments.

Gorilla - Virunga National Park

Park rangers and locals help remove the body of a silverback alpha male mountain gorilla, killed by poachers in Virunga National Park, Eastern Congo in July 2007. Two females were also killed. | Photo courtesy of Dawei Ding, Flickr

Upon completion of the film, Sean held premieres in 35 countries and had a total of over 15,000 people attend. But when he tried to donate the money he’d made from sales to a charity supporting the park rangers, he found there were no such charities. And so he set up The Thin Green Line Foundation. “We protect nature’s protectors,” explains Sean. “Rather than saying we’ll protect the giraffe or protect the elephant, we’re protecting the people that protect all of it.”

Park rangers are literally on the front line of conservation every single day. No matter who sets the policies or what the environmental lobbyists are saying – rangers are, in Sean’s words, “the thin green line between nature being destroyed and nature being protected. They’re the last line of defence. They’re where it counts.”

“…we’ve got 1000 more widows waiting for support. I’ve got tens of thousands of rangers waiting for equipment.”

Poaching is easily the biggest problem rangers face – with the issue getting worse and worse each year. Just last month, poachers killed Satao, one of the largest and most-loved Kenyan elephants in the world. The killing led to and outcry from environmentalists, who claimed that elephant poaching is “at least 10 times the official figures”. Wildlife conservation has knock-on effects too – in places like Kenya and Tanzania, nearly 20% of the economy is reliant on wildlife tourism. If the animals are wiped out, that’s one-fifth of the economy destroyed.

The work of rangers and The Thin Green Line is never over. But any support given to the charity can have an insurmountable impact. Even something as simple as a mosquito net (that costs as little as $5) can protect a ranger from contracting malaria up to eight times a year. And to date, the foundation has donated around 4000 nets.

Biglife rangers

The Biglife rangers of Kenya offer thanks for their latest delivery of gear c/o The Thin Green Line | Photo courtesy of Sean Willmore

“We just want as many people to support these guys as possible,” says Sean in earnest. The majority of the money goes to equipping rangers, educating communities and supporting widows and orphans of rangers who’ve lost their lives. “We’ve supported 100 widows and maybe 400 orphans. We’ve trained 200 rangers and equipped another 200. But we’ve got 1000 more widows waiting for support.”

And despite the uphill battle Sean and his foundation have ahead of them, he states that in its simplest form, it’s just about basic respect. “The Thin Green Line is just about saying, ‘Right, if you’re going to go out there and do the hardest job in conservation, we’ve got your back the whole way.”

Support The Thin Green Line at the 2014 Greenline Grooves gig at Melbourne town hall on Friday 1 August, featuring a kickass lineup including Gotye, Tex Perkins and Nicky Bomba. We’ve got FOUR VIP tickets up for grabs, head over here to get amongst it and enter. You’ll get to meet the artists, get your photo taken with them, and get a signed CD (remember CDs?). All proceeds go to The Thin Green Line.

Can’t make the gig? Don’t live in Australia? Head here to donate to The Thin Green Line directly.

Find out more about The Thin Green Line over on their official website and be sure to chuck ‘em a like on Facebook.

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About the Author

I once drove a tuk-tuk 1200km around Sri Lanka. I enjoy food of the Mexican and Japanese persuasion (and Korean. And most others). I'm from England but I live in Melbourne, where it feels like I'm on holiday all the time. And I'm Geckos digital editor, but don't come to me if you have any complaints about things you see on Tales. Unless the complaints are accompanied by tacos, in which case we can probably strike a deal

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