Honoring the Brave Commitment of Park Rangers

Today — July 31 — is World Ranger Day, a time when we celebrate the heroism of the brave men and women who protect wildlife around the globe. The work of wildlife rangers and law enforcement personnel is not done in isolation. These professionals form a network of protection that is vital to the conservation of wildlife and plant species that are important to Americans and people of all nations. When wildlife crimes are discovered or prevented in our country or other countries, we all benefit. But sadly, just a few weeks ago, we were once again reminded of the human tragedy associated with this calling.

Democratic Republic of the Congo Rangers Faced Two Deadly Attacks

In the span of four days, ambush attacks in two separate protected areas, Okapi Wildlife Reserve (OWR) and Virunga National Park in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), took the lives of five park rangers and one porter. The six deceased men leave behind grief-stricken wives, children, extended families, friends, colleagues and an international community at loss for words.

First four women hired as rangers at Okapi Wildlife Reserve. Credit: Okapi Conservation Project.

The forests of eastern DRC — home to critically endangered mountain gorillas and Grauer’s gorillas, chimpanzees, forest elephants, okapis, African grey parrots, pangolins and countless other species of wildlife — are some of the most breathtaking and biodiverse areas on Earth. Sadly, they are also some of the most volatile. The mineral-rich lands of eastern DRC have been plagued by instability, widespread poverty, poor governance, corruption and ongoing conflict that has changed during the past 20 years from regional war to a series of tenacious insurgencies between rebel groups and local militias. Many fund their operations through illegal and unsustainable natural resource extraction, such as illegal mining and wildlife trafficking. During this time, the area has seen the deadliest conflict since World War II.

Yet amidst the dangers and risks, park rangers continue to put their lives on the line on a daily basis to protect the region’s spectacular forests and wildlife. The bravery and commitment they demonstrate every day is remarkable. And so are the results.

Photo: Okapi at Epulu, DRC. Credit: Kim Gjerstad / TL2 Project

A census conducted in 2010 showed that the critically endangered mountain gorillas living in the tri-national forest in and around the Virunga Mountains had increased by 26.3 percent during seven years, an average of 3.7 percent per year, despite ongoing crisis and conflict. Without the dedication of park rangers who continued to patrol the park during war and instability, often for little or no pay in life-threatening conditions, this success would have been unattainable.

Silverback mountain gorilla being groomed. Credit: Dirck Byler / USFWS

The sacrifice of these rangers is immense. Since the civil war started in 1996, more than 150 of Virunga’s rangers have been killed in the line of duty, many disappearing without a trace. Many others have been severely wounded protecting Virunga’s wildlife and local communities from armed militia.

Dudunyabo Machongani Célestin, a 30-year-old Virunga ranger since 2011, is the most recent addition to the list of fallen rangers. Captured during an ambush by Mai-Mai militia and subsequently killed by the attackers, he leaves behind a wife and two children under the age of 5.

At Okapi Wildlife Reserve, the attackers ambushed a large group that included rangers, porters and three independent journalists — two Dutch and one American reporter — and a Congolese interpreter. They killed four rangers of the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) and a porter. Through heroic search efforts, all but one of the remaining group were found. After being captured by the attackers, the last porter was eventually able to escape, making his way home nine days after the attack. It is still unclear who carried out the attack and why. Ironically, the three journalists were there to start working on a documentary about the threats facing this protected area and the heroic daily efforts of the male and female ICCN rangers to protect the forest and its wildlife.

Photo: Wildlife guard training in Epulu. Credit: Okapi Conservation Project

In both of these protected areas, risks are not new. Every day, rangers continue their important work despite hostile and dangerous conditions. Their heroism is not lost on us. We remain committed to supporting the rangers’ work and legacy, and the families and communities that supported them.

“Law enforcement officers represent a community around the world,” said Ed Grace, Acting Assistant Director of the Service’s Office of Law Enforcement. “The loss of a ranger, whether in the U.S. or across the globe, represents a devastating loss to all of us.”

To find out more and see how you can help the families of fallen rangers, please visit our Heroes of the Forest page.

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