People who purchase illegally trafficked animal products are often aware they shouldn’t have bought that ivory bracelet or crocodile purse, but they rarely know the whole story of how that illegal product ends up on the shelf. An important part of this story is park rangers and wildlife guardians around the world who spend their lives protecting animals, ecosystems, and biodiversity, often at a high cost.
To mark #WorldWildlifeDay we hosted an event to honor front line defenders of wildlife and their families. These heroes stand between an enormous criminal apparatus and the wildlife they have sworn to protect. At our event, we heard stories of rangers and their families threatened, followed home, shot at, and even killed in the course of their work. We put a spotlight on their stories to bring awareness to the challenges and dangers they face.
The numbers of lives lost and communities damaged by wildlife trafficking is heart wrenching. Over 1,000 park rangers have reportedly died in the line of duty over the past 10 years, and it is thought that the number of unreported deaths may be two to three times higher. Two weeks ago, the Guardian reported the story of a ranger gunned down in Zambia’s West Petauke game management area while tracking poachers. He is survived by a wife and seven children who will never see their father again or have the economic security of his income. Many other communities have lost loved ones and breadwinners to similar fates, and live with the instability and insecurity caused by transnational criminal organizations that engage in wildlife trafficking.
The illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife products is the fourth largest transnational crime in the world. It erodes the economic potential of communities by feeding corruption and undermining their social fabric, threatening their very security and damaging fragile ecosystems, thereby preventing investment in legitimate and sustainable economic opportunities, such as ecotourism.
The solutions are not easy or clear but, as we saw at our event, there is reason to hope. By supplying better equipment, supporting families of rangers, educating communities, and using new technology, progress has been made in some areas to halt or decrease poaching. Governments all over the world are working to combat this devastating trade by confronting both the demand and supply side of the equation, including through efforts to ban domestic trade of ivory to help preserve elephant populations.
There is a strong and growing global momentum to protect wildlife before it is too late. As we work towards large scale reform and changes, it is imperative that we also remember and celebrate the individuals on the front lines and their families, as well as the courage of the communities that are standing up to wildlife trafficking. They are a critical part of the solution and an inspiration to us all.
About the Author: Judith Garber serves as Acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.
Editor's Note: This entry is also published on Medium.com/StateDept.