Rangers work in high stress environments, risking harm from both poachers and wild animals and facing community pressures. SANParks’s Project Embrace looks to empower them for the anti-poaching long haul.
As the world celebrates World Rhino Day, and discusses the ongoing challenge of poaching, Wild Africa Fund and SANParks widen the conversation to include the people behind the rhinos – the rangers that give their lives to protect our natural heritage.
Escalating from 2008, the current poaching crisis reached its height between 2013-2017 when over 1,000 rhinos a year were poached in South Africa. Rangers hired as conservationists were suddenly para-military operators, ceaselessly fighting a heavily armed and ruthless foe. Alongside long hours, absences from family and the dangers of wild animals, they often faced threats and/or attempted bribery from organised criminals and the trauma of losing their charges to brutal killing in this long-drawn-out conflict.
The unrelenting emotional and mental strain prompted Major General Johan Jooste, then SANParks head of special projects, to request assistance from the voluntary Honorary Rangers, who in 2017 developed Project Embrace. Initially running in Kruger and now in 13 parks with a future view to expand, the project involves 40+ Honorary Rangers, from psychologists to social workers, pastors, nursing professionals and doctors, and has benefitted 1700+ SANParks staff. They build rangers’ emotional and mental resilience, empowering them with life skills, helping them deal with trauma and stress, and building communication and trust within teams. Each park and group of rangers is individually assessed for their needs, and a program is put together in response.
“Project Embrace is a really important outlet for our rangers,” Cathy Dreyer, Head Ranger at Kruger National Park says. “It allows them to talk about the challenges and risks that come with their roles and gives them better tools to be a ranger in modern day South Africa.”
Other elements of a more progressive and holistic approach being taken in Kruger include financial management services, debt management training, a benchmarking process on salaries and bonuses, and legal training for better understanding of their rights and responsibilities.
“Our rangers are our biggest asset – they deserve all the support and appreciation that we can give them. Day after day, relentlessly, and in all difficult situations, they continue,” Elize Smith, who leads Project Embrace, explains. “We are hearing back that they apply the skills they learn here to help them cope, and that morale in their teams is improving.”
In the Kruger, Project Embrace is proving pivotal in rebuilding team trust following the arrest of rangers, who were providing information to rhino poachers. The majority of rangers, dedicated to their roles, have been negatively affected and demoralised by these arrests and fear of possible corruption within their ranks. Project Embrace provides a space to process these concerns.
In addition, a comprehensive “Integrity Management Plan” consisting of 27 projects has been initiated. Polygraph or lie detector testing, which will be implemented on a voluntary basis for all rangers towards the end of 2023, has been successful in reducing poaching in the private sector and helps to ensure that rangers can count on their colleagues. Together, the hope is that these initiatives will improve ranger morale and resilience to corruption, empowering them to do their critical work with mental, emotional, and financial support.
Kruger is also implementing new technologies, like the automatic number plate recognition system, and is getting the support it needs from the courts with recent serious sentencing. They’re also scaling up their satellite hound unit and intensively dehorning rhino as a deterrent to poachers.
“We can’t slack on anything,” Cathy says. “We can’t let the momentum die down; we have to maintain and ramp up what is in place.”
“Kudos to SANParks for improving and modernizing its operations in these ways, which will greatly strengthen their ability to safeguard rhinos. Together with its priority of recruiting more women as rangers, these actions are essential in protecting South Africa’s amazing wildlife heritage and the multi-billion-rand wildlife tourism industry, which provides so many jobs. The public can show their support by visiting the parks and always reporting wildlife crime.”
– Peter Knights, CEO and co-founder of Wild Africa Fund