Kampala, Uganda — It is about 6am on a cool early morning when Sam Mwandha, the executive director of the Uganda Wildlife Authority flags off 18 teams comprising four members each from the tail-end of the Pakuba Airstrip runway in the northern sector of Murchison Falls National Park.
Each member of the team has a backpack weighing about 22kgs and they are about to walk briskly for 21km along a guarded route in the park up to the final point - the "Hippos Pool" - a flat spot on the banks of River Nile famous for attracting schools of hippopotami.
Murchison Falls National Park is renowned for its rich array of wildlife including lions, elephants, Jackson Hartebeest, and the Rothschild Giraffes. But it is also known for its sweltering temperatures. However, on Sept. 16, the rangers taking part in the challenge are spared the heat and they trudge behind convoys of mini-trucks and vans to the finishing point under an overcast sky.
They are participating in the Wildlife Ranger Challenge campaign. Launched in 2020 to fundraise and support the welfare of rangers affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, it has since raised over US$16 million (going to US$18 million this year) and connected hundreds of rangers from 24 African countries with many thousands of supporters from more than 90 countries around the world - uniting the global north and the global south in a common goal.
The Ugandan leg of the challenge or the Uganda Hub event organized by the Uganda Conservation Foundation (UCF) attracted teams from Kidepo National Park, Murchison Falls National Park, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Kibale National Park and other charity teams such as Kidepo Lionhearts, the Challenge for Charity team, community scouts, tour companies and other supporters' teams.
At the end of a grueling contest, it is the Kidepo Valley National Park team that crosses the finish line after about two-and-half-hours. They take home a shiny trophy and a cash prize of Shs 1 million.
They are followed by the Challenge for Charity team who finish the competition Shs 600,000 richer and the Murchison Falls National Park team gets the third spot and a cash prize. The Queen Elizabeth National Park team finishes fourth.
The teams participating in the the Uganda Hub event were part of hundreds of game rangers in close to 200 national parks around the continent who took part in this year's Wildlife Ranger Challenge to fundraise for the so-called foot soldiers of wildlife conservation across Africa.
Coordinated by African conservation charity; Tusk, Natural State, and the Game Rangers Association of Africa (GRAA), with the Scheinberg Relief Fund as the major donor, the multi-million-dollar fundraising initiative featured a series of fitness challenges between June and September, and culminated with a 21km half-marathon race on Sept. 16.
This year, for the first time, select teams converged in different locations in Kenya, Zambia, Rwanda, South Africa, and Uganda for regional 'hub events' - giving ranger teams the opportunity to compete directly with their regional counterparts. Thousands of rangers also took part virtually from their respective protected areas across the African continent. And around the world, a further 1,500 supporters participated.
Kidepo rangers win challenge
Silver Ekwiru, the team captain of the Kidepo Valley National Park team told The Independent it was their third consecutive time to participate in the competition. On each of the previous occasions, they had finished runner-up, he said.
"This year God gave us the victory and we became champions," Ekwiru who has done game ranger work for close to a decade told The Independent shortly after hoisting the trophy. He added: "If you are not fit, for sure, you cannot manage wildlife conservation; we have both poaching and wildlife trafficking which has now become a global challenge."
In fact, Ekwiru is among the thousands of game rangers who every day and night, put their lives on the line across Africa's harsh terrain to protect the planet's endangered species and ecosystems, and work for a better future for their communities, families, and neighbours.
They face myriad challenges including long hours, nights under the open skies, braving harsh weather, the threat of wild animal attacks, and inadequate salaries, sometimes without benefits or insurance. They tirelessly guard against poaching, illegal logging, and other activities that harm their environment.
And their roles are even evolving further. They are now also community scouts and wardens; educators teaching the next generation the value of conservation, health support workers helping local people find medical care, fire-fighters, invasive species controllers, and they can even work to stop new diseases like Covid-19 emerging from nature to harm people.
Andrew Campbell, the Chief Executive Officer at Game Rangers' Association of Africa told The Independent in an email that rangers also undertake wildlife monitoring and research, combat erosion, capture and relocate wildlife, and mitigate human wildlife conflict.
"No conservation action happens without rangers on the ground," he said. Yet they are mostly still seen only as armed men and women whose job is to protect wildlife, often at the expense of local people's need to harvest natural products to survive.
As the the Wildlife Ranger Challenge gains momentum, the initiative aims to become a movement amongst rangers and their colleagues across borders, driving global recognition and support along with improvements for the welfare of rangers in the field across Africa.
The plight of Game rangers
Taking part in the Wildlife Ranger Challenge is supposed to show the non-ranger participants what it means to be a ranger in Africa, even if it is for just one day.
Game rangers often work in extremely hazardous conditions and environments with little or no safeguard. A 2019 global survey of the working conditions of rangers found 89% of rangers interviewed across Africa face a life-threatening situation, 40% are not covered by health insurance, 50% have no life insurance, and 60% have no long-term disability insurance.
The same survey noted how the average monthly salary of a ranger is less than half that of most police officers. Despite this, rangers must play a pivotal role if the global conservation targets to effectively protect 30% of the planet's land and oceans by 2030 (the '30x30' target in the Global Biodiversity Framework) is to be met.
Shortly after the challenge in Murchison Falls National Park, Sam Mwandha, the Executive Director of UWA told The Independent that besides raising funds, the challenge is important for testing resilience and building teams. "The rangers had to carry the 22kg weight on their backs and walk for 21km as a challenge to test their resilience but also see how well they can work as a team but also help raise funds for conservation."
"The speed at which you needed to arrive at the finish line, depended upon the slowest member of the team. It was important to encourage the slowest member to pull-up, move faster and arrive earlier. This is the same thing that rangers go through as they go about performing their daily work. We are part of a team that can work together."
"Rangers often go on patrol; they will go chase wildlife back into the park from people's gardens and that requires them to be resilient; not to give up easily because if they do then they cannot deliver," said Mwandha.
Harnessing spirit of collaboration
For the first time ever, this year, four regional races were hosted with teams from different areas gathering to test themselves against their colleagues.
"As the campaign enters its fourth year, we're inspired to see such exponential growth in collaboration, competition and goodwill amongst our protected area partners, and are grateful for the extraordinary philanthropic support provided by the Scheinberg Relief Fund, EJF Philanthropies and San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance," said Charlie Mayhew, the Chief Executive Officer at Tusk.
"This promises to build camaraderie and foster a sense of collaboration and togetherness amongst ranger teams as they run together in solidarity. It is inspiring to see the passion, tenacity and teamwork on display as rangers unite for a common cause across the continent," added Andrew Campbell, the Chief Executive Officer at the Game Rangers' Association of Africa (GRAA).
Sarah Watson, the Director of Programmes at Tusk told The Independent that her organization intends to continue, together with GRAA as well as other sponsors and participating organisations, to capitalise on the momentum of this first of its kind pan-African event. Our objective is to keep increasing support for the ranger workforce.
"In addition to improved training, rangers require better pay, working conditions, and safety nets for their families and dependents in case they lose their lives in the line of duty," she told The Independent.
"The Challenge aims to comprehensively enhance ranger welfare, including the development of a ranger insurance product. These incentives will make the profession more attractive and accelerate progress towards global conservation goals."
Beyond raising money
Campbell also told The Independent that the initiative's objective is to raise funds to support rangers in the field and enable them to effectively carry out their work and build important camaraderie amongst the thousands of rangers who are involved.
"A motivated, connected and well supported ranger corps will assist us in achieving the global biodiversity targets which are important for the health of our planet and its people," Campbell said.
In a follow-up email, he noted that incentives do not always have to be financial. They can be a pat on the back, opportunities for professional development, or recognition and reward through promotion.
"It is important to remember that an effective ranger team is built on the core foundations of solid integrity and good leadership.
"If those are in place you need the right equipment and a sustained and impactful ranger training programme. You need to look after your ranger team and ensure their well-being by supporting them. Motivation and discipline are the other two key factors to consider," he told The Independent.
Michael Keigwin, the Executive Director of the Uganda Conservation Federation told The Independent on the sidelines of the challenge that the money raised from the Wildlife Ranger Challenge in Uganda will go directly to the welfare of the rangers on the ground.
"This one event alone already has raised US$20,000 but I can guarantee that will become US$50,000 or even US$ 100,000," he said, "We need to replace patrol boats, we need to fix cars and we need to get radio equipment, boots and rain coats for the rangers."
Esme Stewart, the Project Assistant at Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust, one of the local sponsors of the Ugandan event told The Independent that the rangers are an important part of national parks in Uganda.
"They are the guys on the ground who make sure that the wildlife that everyone is coming to see is safe. We hope that filters to the rest of the world," she said. "We have joined them today to have a feel of what they do but this was just one episode. They do this on a daily basis."