What you need to know:
- Wildlife rangers are pivotal in tourism and conservation. Their unparalleled efforts and roles should be lauded.
On the tranquil morning of September 16, the wilderness of Pakuba Airstrip came alive with an electric fervour, embracing Raymond Odong, a dedicated tour guide at Speke Uganda Holidays. Draped in his ranger uniform, a tribute to earth’s timeless hues, he stood firm at the runway’s threshold, his backpack laden with purpose.
In the ethereal glow of car headlights, an extraordinary assembly of 18 teams, each composed of at least four intrepid souls, united for a singular mission—the Wildlife Ranger Challenge. This event stood as an unparalleled celebration of global solidarity, support, and fundraising for the ranger profession.
Organising over 100 teams of rangers spanning the African continent, this challenge unfolded through a series of tests from June to September, culminating in a coordinated 21km race across their respective protected domains.
The rangers’ odyssey took them on a journey through the heart of Murchison Falls National Park. Their path meandered to the southwestern fringes of the park, culminating at the Delta Point—a remote lowland, where the majestic Victoria Nile gracefully merges into Lake Albert, the rangers’ place of respite, aptly named the “Hippos Pool”—a sanctuary where these colossal creatures thrived.
In the heart of this wilderness, the task at hand, estimated to consume three hours, not only challenged the rangers’ resilience but also immersed them in the awe-inspiring embrace of the park’s iconic wildlife.
Yet the journey preceding this pivotal moment had been nothing short of extraordinary for Odong. A day before, this seasoned ranger, boasting eight years of service at Lake Mburo National Park, embarked on a gruelling six-hour drive from the bustling city of Kampala to this remote destination.
In anticipation of the race day, ranger teams engaged in a rigorous series of mental and physical challenges at their respective duty stations. These included the wildlife ranger quiz, meticulously designed to probe the depths of their knowledge. Competitions in pushups and sit-ups were held, where participants strove to complete the most repetitions within a demanding two-minute timeframe. In addition, arduous jogging sessions were undertaken, shaping their stamina and fortitude for the impending challenge.
Upon arrival, Odong made an unusual request to one of the event organisers: he asked for a backpack. To the casual onlooker, it seemed like a routine inquiry until the weighty truth surfaced—this seemingly ordinary backpack bore the formidable burden of 22kg of beans. This unconventional choice in packing, just a day before the challenge, was a strategic preparation for the early morning that awaited them.
The wisdom behind commencing the challenge at the crack of dawn revealed itself in the unforgiving climate of Murchison Falls National Park. The previous afternoon, temperatures had soared to an average of around 31°C (88°F), only to cool down to a somewhat more bearable 20-19°C (68-66°F) at night. The scorching daytime heat that often engulfed the park could test even the sturdiest spirits. Thus, the decision to embark on the challenge at the early hour of 6am proved essential, sparing the challengers from the relentless midday sun and ensuring they wouldn’t be stranded at a distant point as sunset approached.
Furthermore, it was imperative for every ranger to carry a bottle of water, a vital lifeline in the scorching terrain.
“And please, rest assured, there will be water stations every five kilometres,” Michael Keigwin, the founder of the Uganda Conservation Foundation (UCF), reassured the eager challengers before they set off,” adding: “Remember, there will be support vehicles trailing behind you. If exhaustion sets in and you can’t continue, raise your hand, and our drivers will be there to rescue you.”
Conceived in response to the formidable challenges rangers faced during the Covid-19 pandemic, this initiative has become a rallying point for global solidarity and support. Spearheaded by renowned organisations, including the esteemed Tusk Trust of the United Kingdom, the campaign has amassed an impressive $16 million (Shs 59.4 billion ) and counting since its inception in 2020.
“Across Africa, governments that were running national parks lost all of their tourism revenue. So how do they feed their rangers, how do they fuel their cars, how do they make sure elephants aren’t eating crops, and poachers aren’t killing animals, after Covid?” Keigwin asked rhetorically.
“The tourism industry needed tourists to come back, animals to come back, so it was an enormous pressure on UWA (Uganda Wildlife Authority) but they had no money, they couldn’t help, after 95 percent of their revenue was gone,” Keigwin noted, justifying the rangers campaign.
Under the auspices of the UCF, the Uganda Hub event stood as a testament to the unyielding spirit of these dedicated guardians. Ranger teams from diverse national parks such as Kidepo, Queen Elizabeth, and Kibale joined hands with charitable entities like Volcano Safaris and Speke Uganda Holidays. Together, they embodied a shared vision that transcends borders and echoes across continents.
“It is a big movement to raise money and make sure the welfare of boys and girls on the frontline are well taken care of—those rangers take enormous risks,” said Keigwin.
A ranger’s tale
Odong, who seemed aloof, opened up to disclose details to Saturday Monitor. With a blend of weariness and determination etched on his face, he shared the intricacies of a ranger’s life.
“Picture this—you’re here, drenched in sweat after patrol, and your loved one calls in need of money or a meeting. When you can’t comply, it sparks conflict,” he mused, his words encapsulating the challenges faced by these guardians of the wild.
Married since 2016 to a nurse, Odong’s story resonates with rangers worldwide. He recounted a poignant incident when duty tore him away from a precious moment of respite for his wife.
“She hadn’t had a day off in six months. On her one day of rest, they summoned me for an emergency patrol to save an animal,” he shared, shedding light on the sacrifices made by these unsung heroes.
In the face of adversity, rangers stand firm in their commitment to duty, showcasing unparalleled dedication and resilience. Valensi Tumukize, a ranger from Queen Elizabeth National Park, emphasised the significance of running with the challenging 22kg bag.
“It symbolises hard work and teamwork—did you notice how team members were exchanging bags, some heavier than others?” he remarked, responding to our reporter, who was also partaking in the race.
In the face of adversity, our reporter observed Odong, his face etched with determination and exhaustion. Suggesting he take refuge in a trailing vehicle, our reporter’s offer was met with resolute refusal.
“If I were to quit now,” Odong stated firmly, “I would not only fail the animals we protect, but also disappoint my wife, who places her belief in me, and let down my entire team.” For him, surrender was tantamount to lacking the courage needed to carry a teammate in times of danger, an inability to bear their load, and ultimately becoming a weak link for the team, unable to transport essential protective gear and sustenance.
Reflecting on his recruitment in 2015, Odong shared, “I remember there was an emergency back then. When I joined, we underwent three and a half months of rigorous training. It was essentially military training that, under normal circumstances, should have spanned a minimum of six months.”
With unwavering conviction, he added, “UWA serves as a bastion for Uganda’s army. But, the more years you spend doing these things, the more you adjust. When you become a ranger, the ties between you and the outside world could be severed. Similar to the military, the training reshapes you mentally and physically, isolating you from life beyond those rigorous routines. When you emerge, you have a transformed personality—your capacity to reason and decide becomes assertive because you’re trained to be so. Rebuilding relationships outside the realm of a ranger becomes a necessary challenge.”
Amidst this determined exchange, a stern voice pierced the air as the driver barked, “I see no one behind, hop onto the car! I’ll take you to the teams up ahead.” Ignoring the plea, Odong shook his head firmly, his resolve unwavering. The driver, attempting to persuade him, pointed to a ranger who had given in to a ride just 12km into the challenge, dubbing him a “deserter.”
With the driver falling back, the vehicle trailed behind, leaving Odong and our reporter to navigate a long stretch of heavy sandy road flanked by savanna grass. Ahead, a distinct silhouette marked the ground, a big cat’s footprint.
“A lion was here,” Odong informed our reporter, who inquired about their safety in case of an encounter.
Coincidentally, the air was pierced with gunfire as some rangers fired warning shots into the sky, shouting, and “Watch out, a buffalo on the loose!”
After a stern silence, Odong continued: “You can’t defend yourself against a lion, but your reaction can buy you precious seconds, and perhaps someone can rescue you. When a lion attacks, maintain eye contact. Don’t run—it will outrun you. Don’t turn your back—that signals fear, and predators pounce on fear. By holding eye contact, you’re asserting your territory. It doesn’t guarantee safety, but it can delay an attack.”
Valensi, adding to the shared knowledge, emphasised the importance of understanding animal behaviour.
“UWA trains rangers in conservation techniques and animal behaviour. It matters a lot how you maintain individual distance and contact distance with an animal—contact distance being the gap between a human and an animal,” he offered.
In a sombre reflection, Valensi recalled a tragic incident.
“I lost a colleague in 2020 when a buffalo attacked us, claiming my friend’s life. A similar incident occurred when an elephant kicked a UPDF soldier.”
Faced with financial limitations after his Senior Six, Odong found himself diverted from his initial ambitions of pursuing a career in media or law. Instead, the role of a ranger became his calling, a choice he embraced wholeheartedly.
“Being a ranger gives you purpose. When you understand the significance of conserving wildlife, every sight of animals playing in the fields brings immense joy,” he shared, his enthusiasm palpable in his words.
Amidst challenges, Odong remained resolute, expressing his determination to continue his journey.
“I’ve witnessed others leave, but I chose a legal resignation, leaving a door open for my return, which I plan to do after advancing in my studies. I don’t think I am done with this life. You can see that I’m having fun,” Odong said, his voice carrying a sense of fulfilment, even past the 13km mark.
In this vivid narrative, Valensi’s story seamlessly intertwines with Odong’s and others, adding depth to their shared purpose.
“When I was young, my love for animals was unshakable. However, circumstances intervened after my Senior Four, hindering my educational pursuits. Undeterred, I enrolled in the Katwe Wildlife Institute in Kasese, where I earned a certificate,” Valensi recounted, his journey marked by determination.
“I am happy that I’m conserving for generations,” Valensi continued, his voice brimming with conviction. “I know my grandchildren will see elephants because I’m conserving them. Whenever I arrest a poacher, I have saved some animals, and they are reproducing.”
Valensi, a devoted father of three, vividly recalled a defining moment from a critical 2021 patrol mission he led. His team’s bravery shone as they recovered a gun from poachers, earning high recognition from management.
“Recovering a gun is not easy, it is fire against fire. Fortunately, I didn’t lose anyone in my team, nor did anyone get injured during that recovery,” he shared, the memory etched in his mind as a testament to their courage.
Silver Ekwiru from Kidepo sheds a chilling event.
“Recovering a gun is not a matter of negotiations like ‘hand in the gun and you’ll be spared.’ No,” he asserts firmly, “it is a matter of life and death. Shoot me, I shoot you. Seeing me first is your advantage; me seeing you first is my advantage.”
Kidepo, Ekwiru reveals, stands as one of Uganda’s hotspots for gun-related poaching. “I can assure you that every quarter we recover at least three guns.”
In the eyes of Captain Kulu Kirya Haruna, the officer in-charge of security at Murchison Falls Conservation area, the issue of poaching is far from simple; it’s a tangled web involving influential figures.
“The complexity lies in the involvement of influential collars,” he states, emphasising the mystery of how poachers acquire guns and bullets.
For him, if it were solely a community-driven effort, poachers would likely appear on a quarterly basis due to the difficulty in acquiring arms. However, the reality is starkly different.
“They tend to come weekly,” he observes, shaking his head in disbelief. “Even when you disarm them, they return in the following few days.”
Acknowledging the constant peril they face, this two-time gun recoverer sombrely admits: “We face death every day, but all the measures we take in the field are geared towards protecting our lives first. Because you cannot do anything while dead, that’s why we are highly trained in numerous safety procedures.”
In the struggle against poaching, Ekwiru paints a stark picture, lamenting: “Primarily from local communities, the local man often fails to recognise the value of an animal. To them, it’s a crude comparison between human and animal lives,” reducing the majestic creatures to mere meat.
“The profound implications of poaching stretch beyond the immediate threat to wildlife, it strikes at the very core of Uganda’s identity. The loss of these majestic creatures not only endangers biodiversity, but also jeopardises vital revenue streams and employment opportunities,” Emmanuel Makwasi, a sales manager in Kampala, offered, adding: “In the delicate balance between human needs and nature’s wonders, the cost of exploitation is immeasurable. Uganda’s status as the Pearl of Africa hangs in the balance.”
Makwasi’s perspective resonates deeply. He proceeds to note: “Rangers, in this delicate dance between preserving the wild and sustaining a nation, their efforts stand as a beacon of hope, symbolising the resilience of both nature and humanity, as you limit your scope to them guarding animals; I see unsung heroes who are holding Uganda’s international image as well as balancing its financial security.”
Continuing his revelation, Ekwiru delves deeper into his perspective. “I think it is after joining the system that you understand the expansion of animal value.”
Yet, amid this understanding, he is deeply concerned about the insidious underbelly of the wildlife trade— trafficking of wildlife products.
“These products have attracted high demand on the international market,” he begins, his tone grave. “Foreigners have come here to buy these products expensively, and it is saddening how Uganda is marked as the easiest exit route for such a vice.”
‘An organised crime’
Captain Kulu vividly recalls a disturbing incident when they impounded a vehicle laden with over a tonne of game meat destined for Kampala. During interrogation, the suspects callously revealed: “We capture any animal, whether Uganda kobs, monkeys, and others. After all, we are not the consumers.” He revealed that the major market for game meat is Gulu and Kampala cities.
Poaching is, in fact, an organised crime, as Captain Kulu pointed out, “Can you imagine these community poachers have poaching associations?” he said, incredulously. “When one poacher is arrested and charged with some tens of millions of money, they fundraise at a fast time frame and bail their colleague out.”
To the UWA captain, this demoralising cycle highlights the challenges faced by law enforcement, making it disheartening to arrest a poacher one day and encounter them in the field the next day, guns blazing in confrontation.
In a candid reflection, Keigwin highlights the stark socioeconomic realities driving poaching: “The locals, about 80 percent under 25, lack education and skills, leaving them unemployed and struggling for survival. They get into drugs, fights or impregnate a girl. These call for urgent money. Many turn to poaching as a desperate means to make ends meet, often getting entangled in drugs, relationships, or other issues that require money.”
He emphasises the importance of rehabilitation, stating, “Instead of imprisoning them, we offer training opportunities, providing them with a chance to reform. Remarkably, some transform into dedicated rangers through this process.”
Keigwin’s concern for the environment is palpable, especially regarding the staggering loss of wildlife.
As he gestures towards the ‘Hippos Pool,’ he solemnly states, “Poaching has ravaged our wildlife; we’ve lost over 50 percent of our hippos. This place, where we stand, is the ‘Hippos Pool.’’
People invest significant sums to experience this beauty, fostering employment and security. Poaching jeopardises this invaluable treasure, threatening our nation’s prosperity.”
Standing before 5.5 tonnes of wheel traps, Captain Kulu laments, “The situation has become so dire that we have come to a point where we can’t fully trust the boys at the frontline.
We are sometimes compelled to seize their phones and send them for patrol with Earth Ranger radio calls—our internal communication system—just to ensure we minimise the capabilities of any rogue elements.”
The wheel traps before Captain Kulu, some still bearing kobs’ bones, served as chilling evidence of the devastating impact on wildlife. “
These traps are deadly to animals,” he explained, his voice filled with dismay. “Kobs have smaller limbs compared to buffalos and hippos, so these powerful wheel traps often amputate them, leaving them maimed and vulnerable.”
Holding a wheel trap in his hands, he offered that its small size belies a viciousness. “As small as it looks, it will take about five strong men to reopen it because the metals used are robust—rail slippers and heavy truck springs.”
Disposing of the wheel traps safely requires melting them down, but even this process raises concerns. Each trap costs Shs300,000, making it a lucrative business for any rogue element.
“These metals are very expensive. If someone manages to steal just ten of them, they could earn Shs3 million from the locals,” he revealed. “Even the process of disposing of them calls for extreme caution due to the high value of these materials.”
Captain Kulu acknowledges the security concerns, recognising the tremendous efforts of the rangers. “We cannot fail to see the great work these rangers have done, some even losing their limbs to these very traps. Imagine if a trap is laid under a hole and camouflaged on top with grass, then it rains. The chances are higher that you won’t see the marks for precaution.”
Despite the risks and accidents, Keigwin emphasised that the US and UK serve as invaluable capacity-building partners. They continuously enhance ranger training with highly sophisticated measures, instructing rangers on everything from strategic movement during patrols to ensuring they remain below the poachers’ radar.
After the gruelling and awe-inspiring contest, the Kidepo Valley National Park team emerged triumphant, crossing the finish line after two-and-a-half hours of relentless determination. Ekwiru, the captain of his ranger team, proudly clutched the gleaming trophy and shared in the Shs1 million cash prize.
“This singular event has already raised $20,000, but I have no doubt it will reach 50 or even a hundred thousand dollars,” Keigwin underscored the significance of the wildlife challenge, adding, ”Tourism stands as our largest GDP earner and yet it possesses the capacity to double, if not triple. With a current workforce of a million people, it could easily employ two or even three million — a lucrative investment for our country’s future.”
For Ekwiru, the Challenge serves as a litmus test for their abilities. “If you’re not fit, I swear you cannot manage conservation work. It’s an event we cannot afford to miss. Here, you get to reunite with old friends you trained with but were deployed in different camps.”
In a heartfelt appeal, Esme Stewart, a project assistant at Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust, emphasised the importance of rangers to the tourism sector.
“Their dedicated work needs global recognition. There isn’t enough awareness about their everyday challenges and efforts in this demanding world,” she said.