In the last decade, more than 1,000 park rangers have died across the globe while battling wildlife poaching. Even though atrocities related to the illegal animal trade make headlines nearly daily, we occasionally overlook the human victims and heroes within those stories.
So today, in honor of the seventh annual World Ranger Day, I’d like to introduce you to Sidonie Asseme, a 36-year-old mother who fights for forest elephants and gorillas every day in Nki National Park in southeastern Cameroon.
But here’s the thing about Asseme: she’s not a celebrity wildlife crusader. You’ll likely never see her on a book tour or watch her go toe-to-toe with Jon Stewart. She doesn’t tweet either. Asseme lives in Messok, a small logging town where the roads are unpaved and there is no electricity or potable water. And sometimes, when there’s also no food, the people there have to choose between eating bush meat and going hungry. This is what Asseme and her fellow rangers, who she calls “eco-guards,” are up against.
Cameroon does not forbid the consumption of bush meat, but there are laws against hunting certain species—such as Cross River gorillas, the world’s most endangered great ape and a dwindling population of forest elephants. Unfortunately, the villagers aren’t always aware of these restrictions—or worse, too hungry to abide by them. Furthermore, poaching for profit has escalated in recent years. Last year, a mounted band of poachers from Sudan and Chad crossed into Cameroon’s Bouba N’Djida National Park and massacred 200 elephants—about half the park’s population. This March, a similar slaughter left nearly 40 elephants dead.
To combat this surge in violence, eco-guards in Nki National Park may spend weeks in the forest investigating and tracking poachers, seizing animal products, and dismantling wire snares. In her seven years on the job, Asseme has personally arrested and detained 15 poachers. But sometimes, due to inconsistencies in the local judicial system, she makes an arrest only to see the same poacher walk down the street a few weeks later.
The people Asseme tracks through forest are not always like the stereotypical bad guys we see in film, those shadowy criminals armed to the teeth and evil as Hell. In 2008, she arrested 8 boys between 15- and 18-years-old caught carrying 8,800 pounds of bush meat. “They kept weeping,” she told the World Wildlife Fund in an interview, saying they resorted to poaching because their parents could not raise money to pay for their school needs.
The boys’ words did not fall on deaf ears. Asseme is raising five children herself—two of her own in addition to three nieces and nephews. But she has a job to do, and she’s not always going up against sniffling children.
When poachers get out of jail, they sometimes publically threaten Asseme’s life. She’s also been attacked and beaten. Once a group of villagers cornered her team in a house and threatened to burn them alive because the rangers were pursuing an anti-poaching operation. And in 2011, one of her colleagues was assassinated in nearby Lobeke National Park. That’s the incident that really scares her.
“Poachers are getting bolder and are making use of automatic rifles,” she told me. “They no longer hesitate to open fire on eco-guards upon the least provocation.”
The same year her colleague was gunned down, the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife procured 100 guns to arm their rangers. The Ministry of Defense, however, stepped in with concerns that the eco-guards weren’t trained well enough to carry weapons. Since 2011, the government has upped the military training requirements for the eco-guards from 45 days to four full months. But two years later, the rangers remain unarmed and defenseless against their adversaries.
I asked her how she finds the courage to keep heading into the bush to confront dangerous poachers. “I have taken an oath to protect the forest and its wildlife. To me this is a vocation not just a simple job. I must not allow myself to be intimidated or else we give poachers a leeway to continue decimating wildlife,” she says. “My children surprisingly say they will like to be eco-guards when they leave school.”
All over the globe, people like Sidonie Asseme risk their lives, working long hours in brutal conditions for the sake of endangered species and habitats. They soldier on in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles—like hunger and organized crime—with meager budgets and resources. And if you’re wondering how you can help without quitting your job and moving to Cameroon, your support of wildlife initiatives will always be welcome here, here, and here.
Many thanks to Sarah Fogel at the WWF for “introducing” me to Sidonie Asseme. Not to mention translating my questions into French and beaming them to Cameroon.
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