As the world acknowledges the many efforts under way locally, regionally and globally to promote human welfare and improve the human condition, it is perhaps important too to acknowledge the contributions of a different kind of humanitarian nature’s humanitarian. Nature’s humanitarians are focused on improving the condition and welfare of wildlife, and protecting the environments wherein species, including the human species, live.

These African men and women risk their lives to protect ecosystems that provide services on which urban and rural communities depend. They risk their lives to protect millions of jobs provided through Africa’s multibillion-dollar tourism industry. They protect people’s livelihoods and mitigate conflicts between people and wildlife.

I speak of the thousands of game rangers and scouts who traverse Africa’s forests, grasslands and other habitats 24 hours a day, seven days a week, keeping watch of the continent’s wildlife and preventing the wanton destruction of life-saving ecosystems. They risk their lives battling organized criminal cartels that profit from our wildlife, flora and fauna by smuggling it and its derivatives to markets in Asia, the Middle East and the United States. These are deep-rooted, seemingly impenetrable operations that are bigger and better funded than them, often emboldened by a culture of impunity in their respective countries around wildlife crime. The continent’s rich biodiversity continues to attract armed poachers and wily traffickers, and rangers are paying a heavy price as they defend Africa’s heritage.

Their “office jobs” are done in remote wilderness areas where communication is a serious challenge and resource support is limited. Very much like their counterparts who work determinedly in the traditional humanitarian space to give to those who have lost everything as a consequence of a natural or man-made disaster, these rangers work to protect the human species that are also at risk of losing everything – their access to water and food resources, their homes and their lives. Often they are the voice for nature.

A number of studies, books and news headlines suggest, with good reason, that our planet is now in the midst of a sixth mass extinction, all brought about by the hand of man. We’re currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Nowhere is the risk of extinction for many species more visible than in Africa. In Tanzania, according to a new elephant census, the elephant population has declined by more than 60% in the last five years, dropping from 136,000 in 2009 to 43,000 by 2014. And not just elephants but rangers too have perished. In Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, DRC, South Africa and other African nations, we have lost members of our conservation frontline.

Elephants, as well as other critical species, have been identified as ecosystem engineers, wherein they significantly modify, maintain or otherwise shape habitat. These engineers can have a large impact on the natural richness and diversity of an area, and, as a result, they are important for maintaining the health and stability of the environment from which we all benefit.

Meanwhile, forests and plants provide the oxygen we breathe, the food we eat and are thus the main ingredient for most life on Earth. They’re also the source of a majority of medicines in use today. However, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has determined in a recent evaluation of more than 300,000 species of plants that about 68% of these species are threatened with extinction.

While the world continues to debate, discuss and determine nature’s value, the rangers and scouts who patrol Africa’s wild lands continue in their role as nature’s humanitarian workers.

Community scouts trained by the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) in Southern Zambia’s Sekute community have confiscated the symbols and weapons of environmental destruction – ivory, illegal fishing nets, and assault rifles from poachers. Rangers in a remote area of the northern Democratic Republic of Congo, called the Lomako-Yokokala Faunal Reserve, are helping patrol and protect bonobos, one of Africa’s four great apes. At the same time, their conservation counterparts are building schools, helping implement sustainable land-use plans, and helping rural farmers get their produce to markets in Kinshasa. In southern Kenya and northern Tanzania, AWF is working in partnership with groups such as Big Life Foundation, Honeyguide Foundation and the PAMS Foundation to conduct anti-poaching patrols in the region’s vast landscapes. This type of ranger-based environmental protection includes communities across more than 30 sites in Africa, and we intend to expand this approach.

Rangers are the protectors of the environment. They risk their lives to deliver essential protection services to wildlife and the life-supporting ecosystems and thus inadvertently they protect the sustainability of our future. They too should be recognized for their contributions to the protection of our environments and the advancement of the human condition.

And so, as the world continues to celebrate and honour those who risk their lives to save the hapless and the downtrodden, let us all add to that list nature’s humanitarian workers who have also committed their lives to save our natural world.

Have you read?
How forensic intelligence helps combat the illegal wildlife trade
How drones keep elephants away from danger in Tanzania

Author: Dr. Philip Muruthi, Vice-President, Conservation Science, African Wildlife Foundation

Image: Keepers feed orphaned elephants with bottles of milk at the Daphne Sheldrick Wildlife Trust for Orphans within Nairobi National Park, near Kenya’s capital Nairobi April 21, 2012. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya.