Being a ranger isn’t just a job; it’s a calling. Every day, these men work tirelessly to protect our natural world and forge a better future for wildlife.
For more than two decades, SWT rangers have been at the vanguard of conservation, tackling the most pressing threats facing Kenya’s wildlife. What started as a single Tsavo-based Anti-Poaching Team in 1999 has grown into a comprehensive force protecting habitats across the country, working in partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service. We now operate 22 fully mobile Anti-Poaching Teams.
In honour of World Ranger Day, we explore: What does it mean to be a ranger?
It means being a frontline defender of Kenya’s wildlife.
Being a ranger is a difficult, dangerous job. It entails long days, night operations, challenging conditions, and threatening encounters with both man and beast. Responding to intelligence and identifying telltale signs of illegal activity, they are the advance charge of field-level conservation.
Rangers are the best of boots on the ground: SWT/KWS Anti-Poaching Teams conduct most of their work on foot, while our Aerial Unit is on stand-by to support operations and deploy teams to remote destinations. In the course of a single year, they will patrol more than 55,000 kilometres on foot.
It means catching wildlife offenders in their tracks.
Rangers work like a well-oiled machine to apprehend perpetrators. Ground teams move in to cut off escape routes and confiscate any weapons or paraphernalia left behind, while armed KWS rangers make the arrest. In 2021, our Anti-Poaching Teams supported the arrest of 318 perpetrators for a variety of offences.
It means having unparalleled wilderness skills.
A combination of intensive training and innate ability, rangers have unparalleled bush prowess. Each new recruit undergoes a three-month intensive training course at the KWS Manyani Training Academy before being deployed to the field. Where most would only see vegetation, they are able to discern subtle disturbances in the ground, broken branches, and cleverly disguised snares. Last year alone, SWT/KWS Anti-Poaching Teams confiscated 9,377 snares and seized 120 weapons, destroying what could have otherwise claimed untold lives.
It means working alongside talented four-legged ‘rangers.’
In 2016, we launched our Canine Unit in partnership with the KWS. This specialised team has emerged as an incredible complement to our other anti-poaching efforts. Their mere presence is a deterrent; would-be poachers know that nothing gets past the dogs. They can follow a perpetrator for more than 15 kilometres, through extremely rugged wilderness. (For reference, a typical police dog tracks for about 1 kilometre.) On several occasions, the Canine Unit has tracked down a perpetrator to their very front door!
It means responding to all manner of field emergencies.
Working in the field is unpredictable by nature. With their local knowledge and specialised skill sets, rangers can rise to the challenge. They are often called upon to provide additional field support, tackling everything from veterinary treatments to orphan rescues to firefighting efforts. They approach these missions with the same dedication that they apply to tracking down poachers.
Anti-Poaching Teams are vital to the success of our Mobile Veterinary Units, tracking wild patients for hours until the veterinarian arrives and monitoring them afterwards in case follow-up treatment is needed. They are equally pivotal to rescue operations, keeping eyes on the young orphan until the transport team arrives. With human-wildlife conflict on the rise, rangers are the first port of call to push back animals who have wandered onto community lands. By mitigating these encounters, they save countless wild lives each year, and equally, protect local communities and their livelihoods. They have developed a strong rapport with local communities, which has long-term conservation benefits.
It means protecting Kenya’s most vulnerable habitats.
19 SWT/KWS Anti-Poaching Teams patrol within the greater Tsavo Conservation Area, collectively securing Kenya’s largest national park and the surrounding wilderness. In 2014, we expanded our presence to Meru National Park, which provides sanctuary to a critically important population of black and white rhinos. Under the direction of Mara Elephant Project, we also fund two teams based in the Mau Forest, an important water catchment area in the Rift Valley. We also empower KWS Rapid Response Units in Tsavo, Mount Kenya, and Mount Elgon, the western conservation area.
Our Anti-Poaching Teams are ever-evolving, adapting to meet the threats of today and get ahead of those on the horizon. Together with KWS, these teams played a pivotal role in subduing the ivory poaching crisis in their areas of operation. Continuing the positive trend of last year, there were zero reported rhino poaching cases in Kenya. As new threats come to the forefront, our Anti-Poaching Teams employ that same proactive approach to tackle them head-on. Today and every day, we honour the brave, dedicated rangers who make our conservation work possible.
Support Our Field Conservation Work
Interview with a SWT Ranger:
Benjamin Kasaine, Ithumba Anti-Poaching Team Leader
How long have you been working for Sheldrick Wildlife Trust?
I started working for the Trust in 2009. I began as a night watchman at the Umani Springs Eco Lodge, a job I held for many years. In 2014, I was promoted to an anti-poaching ranger. I attended the paramilitary course at Manyani, where I spent three months training. My first posting was with the Kenze Anti-Poaching Team, then I was transferred to Ithumba in 2018.
Where do you call home?
I am a Samburu from northern Kenya. I grew up in a small town, remote and surrounded by lots of wildlife.
Were you interested in wildlife conservation as a child?
Yes, very much. I am lucky to have the opportunity to work doing something I love. This opportunity is one of a kind. I have passion for what I do — this is my dream come true.
What is a normal day like for the anti-poaching ranger?
We don’t have patrol times; we work different times of the day and night, depending on what is needed. For instance, today we woke up around 5 o’clock. We had planned a patrol based on poaching intelligence and were able to confiscate 112 small game snares this afternoon. We usually move to areas where we see illegal activities, following the problem.
You work closely with the Aerial Unit, don’t you?
Yes, we work together very closely. Without the Aerial Unit, it would be very difficult to do our jobs. They are able to patrol areas that would be hard to reach by foot. For instance, yesterday, the SWT helicopter was able to take us to a hot zone 25 kilometres away which yielded positive results.
Of course, you also work with the Canine Unit.
Yes, we were just working with the Canine Unit. We patrol along community boundaries, because the dogs act as an amazing deterrent to any perpetrators. When they see the dogs, they do not cross the park fence. The dogs also help us track in difficult and challenging terrain and have assisted us in this difficult work enormously.
Benjamin, your team has been named 'SWT Team of the Year,' an award given to the top-performing Anti-Poaching Team each year.
Yes, every day we are doing our best possible job, so at the end of the year we can arrive as the best team. This incentive creates healthy competition among the teams and their team leaders, and I am very proud to say my team has won this recognition.
You have worked in the field for a long time now. Have you seen any changes to illegal activities in that time?
It is improving, but the challenges are always changing. Snaring is a big problem now, targeting the bushmeat species. This is not only for subsistence purposes, but often commercial. At the height of Coronavirus, we confiscated 2,000 snares in two days. Life was difficult, but wildlife and vegetation was the one to pay.
Snaring is a very big problem, but you must always remain vigilant about ivory poaching. Can you share more about this threat?
Ivory poachers are a whole different league from bushmeat poachers. In March, we arrested two ivory poachers. They were on bicycles, and we tracked them for about four hours through the park. Eventually, we went in for an ambush. One guy had a knife, which he tried to use on me. We managed to arrest him, although not before he cut my arm.
These guys were so smart — they had three poisoned arrows, but just the head without the shaft, so they could travel light and search for elephants. This also means when you arrest them, they don’t have the incriminating evidence on them.
What do people back home think about your job?
They love hearing about it. They don't think it can be real, me standing here, just in front of a wild elephant. [This interview took place at the Ithumba stockades, as a number of wild elephants filtered through.] By sharing my stories, we are telling our families and friends about another side of wildlife.
What is your favourite part of the job?
Working in this beautiful, huge, challenging park, doing important work every day.