Can community rangers help tackle illegal wildlife trade?

Around the world, Indigenous Peoples and local communities are tackling wildlife crime including through working for, or establishing their own, community ranger or patrol programmes. But how effective are community-based rangers at reducing illegal wildlife trade?

Olivia Wilson-Holt's picture
Olivia Wilson-Holt is a consultant researcher in IIED’s biodiversity team
12 April 2021
Four men pose with their backpacks on the floor

Kerinci Seblat National Park Tiger Patrol Conservation Unit personnel at Ipuh river in Indonesia (Photo: copyright Kerinci Seblat National Park/Fauna & Flora International)

Last month, IIED and the IUCN Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group (SULi) hosted a webinar as part of its Learning and Action Platform for Communities Against Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) initiative (LeAP).

The LeAP ’People not Poaching’ web portal showcases examples of community-based approaches to tackling IWT. The webinar focused on one of these approaches – community ranger or patrol programmes – exploring case studies from Asia and Africa, followed by a panel discussion on how best to support and manage these programmes.

The range of community rangers

The People not Poaching portal includes over 20 examples of Indigenous Peoples and local community (IPLC) members employed or volunteering as rangers, scouts or game guards in anti-poaching initiatives. The different roles fall into four broad categories:

  1. Community rangers working in partnership with formal law enforcement agencies
  2. Community-led patrols, such as self-formed monitoring or intelligence networks
  3. Initiatives that seek to retrain ex-poachers as rangers, and
  4. All-women community ranger groups.

This training of women-based community forest rangers serves as a role model that will hopefully change the behaviours of illegal activities in the conservation area and protect the wildlife, as well as inspire new livelihood alternatives – Ir Sustyo Iriyono MSi, director of forest protections, Indonesia

Each of these categories takes a different approach. For example, community rangers might be incentivised by a salary, or non-monetary rewards such as training and skills development. But they may be equally motivated by a desire to protect their land and resources.

Some rangers are targeted for selection based on their gender, while others are picked because of their poaching history – not only do they need an alternative to poaching but also, pragmatically, they often already have excellent animal tracking skills.

Supporting local needs, building community trust

The webinar showed how different types of community rangers operate in different contexts. But when asked what makes a successful initiative, the answer was the same: success comes when approaches are embedded in wider community engagement activities that respect rights and local customs, are participatory and protective, and build trust.

For example, in Cambodia, the self-formed Prey Lang Community Network conducts voluntary patrols to protect the Prey Lang forest from illegal logging. This bottom-up approach has won prestigious environmental awards but is now under threat from a corrupt and unsupportive government.

Their experience shows that to get results you must address local needs and develop trusting relationships – but also shows the challenges of working under prohibitive conditions.

Elsewhere, healthy relations between government authorities and local people have provided the necessary conditions to reduce IWT. In Indonesia’s Kerinci Seblat National Park, a project led by Fauna & Flora International supports patrol teams comprising three community rangers and one national park ranger.

These close-knit teams draw on the distinct skills of each member – the national park ranger acts as an official ‘law enforcer’ while the community rangers use their tracking skills and close relationship with local villagers to collect intelligence on illegal activities.

A community ranger’s activities, which often includes collecting intelligence and acting as an informant, can be dangerous, and lead to ostracism by friends and family. Community rangers need protection – but who is responsible for this?

What support do community rangers need?

All panellists agreed that any implementing agency should prioritise the safety and wellbeing of community rangers. At Namibia’s Save the Rhino Trust, community rangers are protected by armed officers when on patrol.

And in Indonesia’s Bogani Nani Wartabone National Park, female forest rangers are supported by armed male colleagues who are employed by the park.

But while community rangers face the same threats as the rest of their patrol team and need protection, they must also be trained and provided with equipment, so they can protect themselves.

It is equally important that any national park rangers receive human rights training – this is a key factor in selecting the winner of Tusk’s Wildlife Ranger Award and an issue that has surfaced recently regarding abusive law enforcement practices towards local communities.

It’s a complex relationship and national park rangers often don’t work in ideal situations themselves.

So how to move forward? The webinar discussed looking beyond communities as simply being the ‘eyes and ears’ of law enforcement and stop considering community rangers as an inexpensive way to patrol. Instead, communities must be full and active partners in conservation so that wildlife becomes a benefit, rather than a cost.

In Namibia, villagers choose to report on poaching activities because they have been given rights and ownership over wildlife. Here, intelligence starts with the communities because trust has been developed over many years via a supportive Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) programme.

Immediate next steps call for standard operating procedures, such as global training standards for community rangers. But since success depends so clearly on local support, anti-poaching projects should start by prioritising local needs, supporting community voices in decision making and – above all – building trusting relationships.

The LeAP project is supported by the UK government’s Illegal Wildlife Challenge Fund. With thanks to the webinar’s speakers and panellists.