Riziki Salim has been a forest ranger for almost 20 years, working in the vast Kwale County.
When she was recruited after finishing training in secretarial studies at the National Youth Service (NYS), she knew there were challenges, but not of the magnitude she has encountered.
“When I was hired, I was taken to the Kwale Forest Station. I was happy to take care of the forests,” said Salim, one of the four rangers the Nation spoke to recently in commemoration of World Ranger Day, which is being marked today.
But there were times when they would be woken up in the middle of the night to respond to alerts of people cutting down trees.
“Most of the times the vehicle could not access the location deep in the forest in good time. Sometimes we would find that some trees had already been cut down. Other times the culprits would run and leave the trees which we have to carry to an accessible location for the vehicle to pick.”
Salim, who has since been transferred to the Mrima Forest Station, where she is in-charge, is among the rangers being remembered today for their work to protect forests and wild animals.
Kenya relies on Kenya Forest Service (KFS) and Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) rangers to protect animals and forests from human encroachment and destruction.
The day is celebrated globally on July 31 to commemorate rangers killed or injured in the line of duty as well as celebrate the profession generally.
Nine forest rangers have died in the last one year, according to KFS. Most of them were hacked to death by illegal loggers facing arrest. Some 25 rangers were also injured on duty, according to KFS. One of them was a ranger in Lamu, whose leg was mauled by a crocodile at a water pond near a camp.
Rangers go through intense experiences in the wild, which is their workplace as they protect 2.5 million hectares of public forests. The increase in Kenya’s forest cover from 5.99 per cent in 2018 to 8.83 per cent currently is mainly attributed to the efforts of rangers.
The work of a forest ranger is not for the faint-hearted. On some nights, acting on tip offs from locals, they camp outside in the cold waiting for trespassers who come to cut trees illegally.
The field is male-dominated but women too are making their mark, though their number is small.
“The biggest problem I faced when I started was that there were only two ladies at our station. But my colleague was transferred to Mombasa, leaving just me for five years. The number has increased since then,” said Salim.
Corporal Mwanakame Mwinyi has also been in the service for almost 20 years. She is a wife and a mother of two teenagers. Having worked in three counties, she has a greater understanding of the different forests.
“The workload depends on the forest you work in. There were very few to almost no incidents when I worked at Karura Forest. However, residents of Kwale, Kilifi and Mombasa counties rely on the forests to make a living. They cut wood for charcoal and building houses,” she said.
Some residents see rangers as threats instead of allies. Mwanakame said locals believe that rangers block them from being able to provide for their families. That is why some of them put up a fight when they are found illegally cutting down trees, resulting in injuries or even death.
“It is thus important for us to involve the community in conservation efforts so that they can start seeing the purpose of our work, which is not to harm them but rather to protect the forests so that they can help us in the long run,” she said.
The KFS has formed community forest associations that support and offer alternative income streams that are good for the environment, such as beekeeping, crab farming, carbon trading, fishing, ecotourism and selling seedlings.
“You have to be fit to do this job. Be ready to run, climb and carry. It’s almost like being in the army,” she said.
Even if there are more men than women, Mwanakame said that they are treated fairly.
“I remember that there were times when I would get exhausted in the forest and the men would treat me like their sister and help me until we finished the work,” she said. After seven years of hard work and commitment, Corporal Mwanajuma Mwalimu was promoted a month ago. She dreams of becoming a regional commandant, the highest rank in a region. There are 10 regional forest conservation areas in Kenya.
As a young mother, work-life balance became an issue, especially with an infant.
“When you give birth, life becomes more difficult. You would breastfeed your child in the morning then head out for patrols. Most of the time, depending on what you find in the forest, you can come back late, which would affect the baby’s feeding times,” she said.
She also experienced gender discrimination. She would confront men caught in illegal activities in forests but they did not respect her authority.
Pauline Shoka, another ranger, shared similar experiences, but her marriage suffered because of the nature of her work.
“There are issues that come up in a marriage while doing this job. I might have to stay out very late during patrols or ambushes but it is important to have an understanding and supportive spouse,” she said.
Rangers are trained for three months before being deployed. They carry guns to protect themselves and others if they come across hostile groups such as terrorists, who are sometimes spotted in places like the Boni forest.
Digital technology has made it easier for rangers as they patrol in unexplored territories. A pilot programme called Survey 123 is being used to report any incidents to stations for real-time response.
“A few weeks ago, we received an alert at the Kwale station that there was charcoal burning in Chirimani. We followed the alert through a navigation tool called Maps.Me, which led us to that area, where we destroyed the charcoal,” said Corporal Mohammed Mwalim.
Satellites can detect areas that are either degrading or increasing in canopy cover in 10 days. An alert is then sent to the station so that rangers can be deployed to investigate the reason for the negative or positive incidents.
The app pins the location of a ranger and shows how much ground they have covered. This is supervised from the KFS headquarters in Karura.
President Uhuru Kenyatta recently announced the new goal of achieving 30 per cent tree cover by 2050, meaning the workload of rangers has increased. The last recruitment was in 2016, when 293 rangers were enlisted.
A single forest ranger protects about 1,045 hectares day and night against the recommended 400 hectares when motorised.