While conducting my dissertation research in 2012, I remember speaking to a law enforcement ranger during my first week in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda. Assuming I was a biologist or an ecologist, he presumed I needed an escort or guide to conduct research within the protected area. When I informed him that I was actually there to study law enforcement rangers, he remarked, “Nobody studies law enforcement!” (He became even more confused when I said I was a criminologist.) His reaction demonstrated that although rangers were familiar with researchers coming into the protected area, the rangers themselves were generally not the topic of interest.

Ranger on patrol in Uganda.

Questions as to how rangers and related enforcement personnel tasked with the monitoring of protected areas are trained and what tactics they use have received considerable attention. This is partially because of the paramilitary training prevalent in some countries, as well as policies that emphasize heavy-handed tactics, such as both formal and informal shoot-to-kill policies, which have raised concerns surrounding due process and human rights. Such worries are warranted and underline the need to discuss what constitutes effective, efficient and ethical ways to manage and monitor protected areas.

Rangers in file formation during a patrol in Ugandan forest.

But law enforcement rangers are rarely the subject of scientific enquiry, at least not to the same extent as other topics within conservation science, criminology and criminal justice. I am not referring to research discussing or assessing enforcement tactics, strategies, or rangers’ effectiveness in deterring, apprehending and investigating suspects; there are a number of studies examining or identifying ways to develop better patrol activities. I am referring to the people themselves. Recent commentaries and critiques on the increasingly militarized nature of frontline enforcement in some countries have justifiably pointed out the potential counter-productive and harmful consequences of relying solely on such approaches. However, much of this commentary does not attempt to explicitly understand the experiences and perceptions of those directly involved.

Rangers patrolling in a savannah landscape in Uganda.

As such discussions are likely to continue, it is important not to over-generalize the ‘ranger’ profession, which could result in misinformation and stigma. Not all rangers are paramilitary trained, nor are all rangers armed. There is considerable variation in equipment, salary, job security, housing, and promotional opportunities available to rangers throughout the world. The threats present within and outside protected areas that rangers are responsible for also vary widely. Although some rangers feel a genuine passion for conservation and nature, others have chosen this profession simply because they need financial stability and alternative options are limited. These differences can also affect rangers’ vulnerability to fraudulent malpractice: some rangers are corrupt, while others are not.

Ranger accommodation in an outpost in Uganda.

Understanding rangers’ attitudes and experiences can provide insight into the socio-ecological environment that surrounds them, as well as the organizational and occupational culture that may dictate their daily lives. All of these factors can influence their behaviours and decision-making, as well as their morale and commitment to the job. Not surprisingly, these factors will also influence how rangers interact with local communities, which in turn shapes the communities’ views on the legitimacy of local conservation policy and practice, and of the criminal justice system. Interactions between rangers and local people will thus influence the communities’ understanding of, and willingness to comply with, protected area rules and regulations.

Confiscated wire snares stored in an evidence room in Uganda.

To achieve lasting success, conservationists need to identify approaches to effectively develop and sustain community involvement and a sense of stewardship for protected areas. Such strategies typically fall under the remit of community-based conservation or natural resource management, and are at times perceived to be incompatible with the enforcement-based management models that rangers are usually associated with.

Ranger resting during a patrol in Uganda. The ranger had to bring a plastic water bottle because he did not have a canteen at the time.

However, community engagement and law enforcement do not have to be separate concepts. As my co-author and I propose in our article based on fieldwork I conducted in Uganda in 2014, expanding the role of rangers beyond militarized law enforcement inside protected areas to incorporate a community-oriented, problem-solving policing approach may help strengthen community engagement. Notably, the rangers I interviewed appeared to recognize the value in this expanded role. Ranger buy-in to a paradigm shift from enforcement to policing is vital, and understanding their attitudes towards such change informs the likelihood of adoption or resistance. It is important to note that the emphasis here is a change in the actual function of rangers, not merely a modification in terminology. Although we use the term ‘policing’ in the article, we recognize that ‘policing’ as a label may carry a negative connotation in settings where local police are viewed to be corrupt or unfair, and policymakers should be cognizant of this and utilize context-appropriate terminology.

Rangers examining a suspected poacher camp in Uganda.

Rangers are frontline representatives of conservation and criminal justice policy. They are not simply a tool for conservation, and should be viewed as active stakeholders. It is time they are treated as such, and it is time we study them as a crucial component of the human dimensions of conservation science.

All photos: William Moreto.

The article Rangers can’t be with every elephant: assessing rangers’ perceptions of a community, problem-solving policing model for protected areas is available in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.

William Moreto is an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Central Florida. Trained as a criminologist and criminal justice scholar, he brings an interdisciplinary perspective to the study of wildlife crime and wildlife law enforcement. His research centers on applying environmental criminology and crime prevention concepts to wildlife crime, in addition to examining wildlife law enforcement from a policing perspective. He has performed fieldwork with rangers in Kenya, Nepal, Uganda, and the Philippines.