Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Evaluating the attitudes of park rangers towards more community based methods of policing conservation in Uganda.

Many nations employ park rangers (or people with similar job titles) to defend endangered flora and fauna against the risks of poaching. In parts of Africa the high value associated with animal products such as Elephant Tusks and Rhinoceros Horns, combined with a lack of other economic prospects in many areas, has led to the increasing militarisation of front-line conservation workers such as Park Rangers, something which can be detrimental to more community based approaches, as heavily armed wildlife guards enforcing conservation laws can easily come into conflict with local communities. This has led conservation groups and academics in the field to consider how alternative methods of policing national parks and other such areas, though to date there has been little effort put into understanding how the rangers themselves see the situation.

In a paper published in the journal Orynx on 22 July 2019, William Moreto and Richard Charlton of the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Central Florida, present the results of a study in which front-line rangers at national parks in Uganda were surveyed about their attitudes towards traditional enforcement and alternative, non-enforcement strategies to reduce illegal activities in Ugandan protected areas.

Moreto and Charlton interviewed rangers at the Kibale, Lake Mburo and Queen Elizabeth national parks, the Uganda Wildlife Authority headquarters in Kampala and the Uganda Wildlife Education Center in Entebbe.The three national parks were chosen for their variation in physical size and topography, location and organisational size.

Location of the five study sites in Uganda. Moreto & Charlton (2019).

A total of 89 rangers were interviewed, including 73 involved in law enforcement, eight working in intelligence gathering and eight in community relations. Twenty three respondents were from Kibale National Park, twenty three from Lake Mburo National Park, twenty nine from Queen Elizabeth National Park, eight from the Uganda Wildlife Authority headquarters, and eight from Uganda Wildlife Education Center. 84% of the interviewees were male, 16% were female, and the sample represented 32% of the total staff at the sites visited.

Moreto and Charlton note that paramilitary training is the primary education method for wildlife rangers in Uganda, and that as this kind of training focuses primarily on activities within Park boundaries, it was not surprising that law enforcement respondents considered the Park to be their ‘office’. Most of the rangers surveyed viewed traditional law enforcement activities such as foot patrols as the primary strategy to address illegal activities in protected areas. In addition to their role in addressing illegal activities, patrols are also an integral aspect of ranger-based data collection, which results in important ecological and environmental data necessary for the successful management of protected areas.

Members of the Uganda Wildlife Authority with poachers arrested with snare traps. History Ranger of Park/Imgur.

As well as the traditional law enforcement strategies, the rangers interviewed identified three alternative, non-law enforcement approaches they believed were helpful in reducing illegal activities in protected areas, namely providing services and allowing community access to protected areas, educating the community on conservation, sharing information and interacting with community members and local leaders, and establishing tangible and sustainable alternatives to poaching. Many rangers highlighted the integral role that the community played in preventing and reducing illegal activities within and outside protected areas.

One major source of contention between communities and park authorities was negative interactions with wildlife, such as wild animals using crops, killing or transmitting diseases to livestock, or attacking and harming community members. Rangers described proactive measures they could take to prevent such interactions, for example the building of trenches to keep wildlife from entering community land. Such direct engagement with the community helps reinforce the public service element of the ranger profession.

Another strategy employed by the Uganda Wildlife Authority were memorandums of understanding with communities. These formal agreements enable local citizens to access Park resources (e.g. firewood) during specific time periods and at certain locations. Importantly, providing such access to facilitate funerals, weddings and other community events was described as helping to foster positive community relations. The rangers proposed that local community members should be given free access to enter and enjoy the protected areas, and believed that this was important to establish a sense of ownership and stewardship amongst the local community.

Members of a Uganda Wildlife Authority ranger unit with snares discovered in the Murchison Falls National Park. Gov.UK.

The interviewees were aware that although law enforcement rangers were primarily responsible for the management and monitoring of activities within Park boundaries, threats originated from outside the Park, and that protected area management and monitoring effectiveness was largely dependent on community perceptions of conservation. To foster positive attitudes towards conservation, the Uganda Wildlife Authority organised and participated in community sensitisation meetings. These meetings were led by the Community Conservation Department and provided the Authority with a venue to highlight local conservation efforts and the activities of the organisation.

These meetings were also seen as important from a tactical perspective. Most law enforcement rangers believed that traditional law enforcement strategies such as foot patrols, were insufficient to reduce poaching in protected areas and considered community sensitisation meetings beneficial in reducing illegal activities. Specifically community meetings were viewed as a mechanism for developing informal social control and guardianship. Rangers believed that by sensitising community members to the benefits of protected areas, villagers would be willing to intervene in potential illegal activities or provide useful information for ongoing investigations.

Community meetings also enable rangers to educate community members about Park rules and regulations, and the Uganda Wildlife Act. Rangers explained that community members were often not familiar with the laws and regulations governing the Park, which they attributed to high levels of illiteracy, and to the advanced age of some community members. Importantly, the meetings also enabled the Uganda Wildlife Authority and nearby communities to interact and to develop rapport.

A ranger in the Magahinga National Park in Uganda. Sal Roux/Wikimedia Commons.

Although such meetings were not always easy, they were important in bridging the gap between antagonistic parties. An important outcome of these meetings is not only a reduction of illegal activities, but an improvement in community–ranger relations, with community members developing trust in the rangers and perceiving them as legitimate agents.

Through such interactions, rangers may also become better informed about the concerns and issues from the community’s viewpoint, which further facilitates a community-driven, problem-solving policing model. For instance, several rangers described the need to understand the cultural values of communities living close to parks better. By expanding a Park’s value beyond its monetary worth, rangers believed that it would be possible to develop context-specific and culturally-sensitive non-law enforcement strategies. Finally, the rangers reflected on the importance of positively engaging with and obtaining acceptance from local community leaders.

Rangers described the need for tangible alternatives to poaching, which need to be sustainable and require direct input from the local community. They also expressed frustration with external agencies and organisations offering quick fixes with little consideration for long-term impacts. Although external support was welcomed, respondents believed that success ultimately rests in local solutions.

One suggested strategy was to employ community members in park organisations. Although some rangers were hesitant about this approach because of the potential for corruption, others considered it to be a useful strategy because staff originating from nearby communities may be able to develop genuine community trust more easily. In addition to establishing a sense of ownership and stewardship of protected areas, respondents also believed that by providing alternatives, including employment opportunities, poaching could be reduced.

Rangers in the Kibale National Park. Jane Goodall Institute.

Moreto and Charlton asked for rangers’ opinions on the effectiveness of traditional strategies in reducing illegal activities in protected areas, and whether they believed that the criminal justice system is effective in deterring offenders. Although most rangers viewed law enforcement strategies
to be effective in reducing illegal activities, they considered the criminal justice system to be largely ineffective in deterring potential offenders. These findings appear paradoxical, but upon further enquiry we found that most respondents felt that it was other aspects of the criminal justice system, rather than the rangers’ work, that were problematic, including 'weak laws' and 'corrupt courts'.

Despite the perceived deterrent value of traditional law enforcement strategies, respondents pointed to several limiting factors, such as the inability to monitor the protected areas adequately because of their size, access difficulties and restricted availability of resources.

When asked about the effectiveness of alternative, non-law enforcement approaches to safeguard protected areas, participants viewed such activities to be largely effective. Although their operational mandate centred on monitoring within protected areas, law enforcement rangers recognised that illegal activities stemmed from problems outside park boundaries, and understood that traditional law enforcement strategies fail to address underlying problems, such as poverty and population growth, which put increasing pressure on protected areas.

Uganda Wildlife Authority rangers. Morgan Mbabazi/The East African.

Rangers also highlighted several challenges that limit the effectiveness of alternative, non-law enforcement strategies, including the bureaucratic nature of memorandums of understanding and the fact that it is difficult for community members to access park headquarters and request support. Continued negative interactions with wildlife also led to sustained difficulties between rangers and community members. Communities were not compensated for losses, and damage caused by wildlife was viewed as particularly problematic for lower-income and impoverished communities living near protected areas.

The distribution of park revenue was also identified as a potential problem. Specifically, interviewees reported that funds distributed at the district level could be considerably reduced by the time they reached individual villages. Some rangers attributed this to corruption amongst politicians who took money rather than giving it to the community, so that the communities do not directly see tangible benefits from the parks.

It was widely believed that community members still feared rangers or did not trust them. This was exacerbated when local leaders were not involved as mediators between the two parties. Furthermore, where access was difficult or community members were unwilling to participate, conservation meetings were poorly attended and ineffective. 

Uganda Wildlife Authority rangers in the Queen Elizabeth National Park. Amy Pickard/US Air Force.

Rangers who believed that patrols were more effective than community meetings attributed this to the deterrent nature of such patrols, and that regardless of community meetings, there would always be individuals engaged in illegal activities. Study participants further explained that patrols provide vital information for protected area management (i.e. wildlife population counts) and thus are effective beyond their anti-poaching function.

Conversely, rangers who believed that community meetings were more effective than patrols proposed that meetings not only educated citizens on the parks' benefits, but also fostered lines of communication. Rangers also referenced the limitations associated with the reactionary nature of patrol activities and stated that apprehending suspects only after they had poached was still problematic. Although arrests can be viewed as a measure of success from a legal and tactical standpoint, the fact that a poaching incident still occurred was considered a failure from a conservation standpoint.

Taking into account the complexity of issues within and beyond park boundaries, several interviewees considered both patrols and community meetings necessary to address wildlife crime. From this perspective, respondents pointed to the complementary nature of these strategies and highlighted how each approach can be helpful in addressing specific communities and individuals.

A park ranger in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in southwest Uganda. Sal Roux/Wikipedia.

Thirty six of the rangers interviewed expressed a need for training programs that were not in military skills, including training in ecology, community-based conservation, human rights, law enforcement and policing, technology, and criminal intelligence. Although rangers recognised the importance of military training for their operations, they also expressed their desire for professional development that broadened their capabilities. Forty four rangers commented on the need for law enforcement rangers to be explicitly trained in community-oriented conservation approaches, and thirty one rangers commented on the potentially detrimental nature of viewing community sensitisation solely
within the purview of the Community Conservation Department and neglecting the role of law enforcement in fostering community relations.

The findings of the study suggest that rangers are more than enforcers of protected area laws and regulations and are willing to engage in activities associated with a community-oriented, problem-solving policing model. This receptivity to alternative, non-enforcement strategies bodes well for ranger capacity-building. The study supports the push towards a more community-focused, problem-solving policing approach in a conservation context and emphasises the view that rangers are vested stakeholders, rather than passive staff.

In addition, their research points to the need for a paradigm shift from wildlife law enforcement to wildlife policing in Uganda, to properly account for the breadth of rangers’ responsibilities. Viewing rangers as a policing body broadens the scope of front-line personnel to account for and entrench non-enforcement activities. Although law enforcement and policing are often viewed as synonymous, they are not the same. Policing encompasses a wide range of activities and is largely viewed as a social service. Wildlife law enforcement should be viewed the same way. A focus on policing rather than anti-poaching facilitates the opportunity to reassess current training procedures, emphasising broad-scope police training rather than relying primarily on paramilitary training. The potential for supplementary policing training based on a community-oriented, problem- solving model, and one that also includes courses on human rights and ecology, appears to be welcomed by the individuals who would receive such capacity building opportunities.

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