Chengeta Wildlife has successfully trained 900 government rangers across 8 different countries since its inception. Training and mentoring are designed to reduce threats to a bare minimum: rangers are given procedures and protocols, tactics, and techniques designed to help them in any given scenario.
In Chengeta’s very early days. Rory Young, a guide and field ranger by profession, observed that new generations of rangers and scouts seemed to lack skills deemed essential in anti-poaching. The standards for tactical awareness and knowledge of bushcraft, those aspects which comprised the ranger’s toolkit, were lacking or were not being used to their full potential.
Thus, Chengeta was born, and so too was the organization’s emblematic and all-encompassing doctrine. A system of tactics, techniques, procedures, and strategies, a methodology and structure to help rangers in their mission: protecting the environment, empowering local populations and putting an end to poaching. We tend to associate rangers and conservation solely with the protection of wildlife and nature, but their role is grounded within a larger ecosystem, from which people cannot be removed. Whether official or informal, direct or indirect, community well-being is always be a part of a ranger’s job.
Back to basics
When Chengeta first got its start, few programs existed to teach scouts and rangers how to thrive in an unfamiliar environment, to travel safely, how to maintain good hygiene in the bush, to stay healthy, and avoid malaria, etc. Rory realized there were no procedures in place for using and maintaining equipment, from vehicles to weapons, little programming in the way of delivering first aid and perhaps most importantly of all, there was a limited understanding of application of the law or human rights.
“The main issue was the difference in the sudden escalation in levels of poaching, and the decline in the resources, personal, training dedicated to preventing environmental crime. Over the last decades, the training and resources available to rangers and parks had not evolved in tandem with the threats to parks and pressure from increased populations”, explained Rory.
These challenges are coupled with the legacy of fortress conservation practices, deeply rooted in colonial contexts, entire territories fenced off for the artificial, paradoxical creation of “pristine” landscapes. Social injustice in the name of nature protection has decidedly contributed to a shift in perceptions of local communities with regard to their relationship to their environment, often subject to evictions from their homes that were to become national parks. Rangers are employed by parks and reserves, to focus on what goes on inside the fence…but wildlife knows no boundaries, exiting primarily outside of reserves. Which is also where it’s getting wiped out the fastest.
Chengeta’s doctrine encompasses guidelines that are effective, quick to learn, affordable to implement, and always politically palatable. “How can I, and then others, immediately assist with gaps in knowledge? We began at a grassroots level, and then planned to see from there”, explained Rory. With the help of a colleague, Rory wrote a pragmatic, accessible manual encompassing a philosophy to be used by anyone. A handbook that fits in a pocket, to make sure rangers could “hit the ground straight away” and immediately put knowledge to use, without exuberant costs.
After early successes in Zimbabwe, the Malawian government asked for Chengeta’s services for national training. “Referring to the booklet we created, they said, ‘this makes sense to us, we really want this”, recalled Rory. During the three-year period of training, the number of national arrests tripled, attributed by the government to the effectiveness of the method. We must bear in mind, however, that anti-poaching and conservation efforts cannot simply be measured by arrests, and that community collaboration, perception, and empowerment are pivotal in long-term sustainable solutions.
Chengeta’s approach – its doctrine – rests upon 5 highly dynamic pillars and is continuously evolving. It’s designed to be adaptable to any context, any level of skill, any level of equipment. Harmonize. Analyze. Train. Mentor. Empower.
A holistic guide: the doctrine
Holistic. A word often used in vacuous ways, so let us bring it back to what it truly stands for. Holos, in Greek, means ‘everything’. And Chengeta really does address every facet, every level, every angle, in line with their first pillar of action: to Harmonize. A carefully chosen word, designed to reflect the ways in which Chengeta includes working with local governments, programs, donors, communities, how they work cohesively towards the same objective: socio-ecological wellbeing, handled at national and local levels. “We don’t take over, ever, but we support all these organizations in achieving goals. Once the knowledge, methodology and training are systemized, we leave”, says a member of the Chengeta Executive team.
Conservation needs an interdisciplinary and durable approach, one that respects the complexity, involving dynamic, inter-relational human and ecological processes. Chengeta works as an organization bringing together anthropologists, tactical instructors, geospatial analysts, field rangers and security professionals – people with passion and compassion. “Our objective is to help protect those ecosystems as a whole, including both wildlife and people. That’s our pathos. But we need to make sure we do it right, by listening and practicing good ethics, collaborating with communities to empower and involve them in conservation dynamics. That’s our ethos. Lastly, we need to work with precision, supported by data, facts and a logic that not only supports anti-poaching but also protects the team, the wildlife, and the communities.” explained Rory.
And indeed, knowledge is power. Which is where Analysis comes in. Gaining an understanding of the terrain, as well as being able to pinpoint the different dynamics around each conservation mission are inherent complements to the Training and Mentoring pillars. To confidently send out rangers, solid information – and analysis thereof – is paramount. Because Chengeta prioritizes proactive work, data is essential to preventing poaching incidents. “Our geospatial analysts translate data in a way that allows us to interpret poaching, wildlife, and human trends. We need to make sure patrols are conducted with confidence, that we can pinpoint areas to keep an eye on, trends, clusters. If we go to these locations, do we have a high chance of finding what we’re looking for? And then, only then, do we switch from analysis to turning the information into a focused patrol”, explains a Chengeta staff member. Information and collaboration deeply support Chengeta’s philosophy, which includes avoiding confrontation at all costs.
Each area of operation is different because threats are different. But one of the most important aspects of the doctrine is to make sure the ranger is not a threat to themself, to make sure they can be operational in a given environment, and to know the terrain. “They spend their lives in the bush, and must know how to avoid getting eaten, because though threats can be environmental, we teach them how to limit them”, says Yoann Galéran, Specialist Trainer at Chengeta Wildlife. Some direct threats when out in the field include armed poachers, terrorist groups, rebels, militia – like in the Central African Republic (CAR). Rangers, as a local symbol of official authorities, are very often a target for those seeking to disrupt peace. The repeated attacks on Virunga National Park’s rangers are a tragically telling tale of such threats. And yet the risks don’t just come from the field- rangers all come from local villages, and so too do their families, which exposes them more than ever.
Threats to the lives of rangers and underlying structural factors of poverty, healthcare access, etc., which exacerbate poaching, often go hand in hand. Yet, even at the heart of every single one of these issues lie overlapping complexities that encompass power, survival, vulnerability. Ultimately, it’s about unraveling these complex situations, being able to listen, and most importantly, being compassionate. “We want to do something right, but what we do always has to be dynamic, otherwise actions quickly become stagnant and irrelevant,” said Rory.
What’s it like, being a ranger trained by Chengeta?
It’s 2013, the poaching situation in the Gourma region of Mali is dire, getting very much out of hand for the nomadic elephants, and the local communities, whose traditions are so interlinked with that of the elephants, had been asking for help. The organization in place at the time, intent on reinforcing the links between people and nature, started searching for anti-poaching trainers that could assist with training. Yet all the companies they contacted said the same thing – “We send in armed guards, intimidate poachers, and do excellent training, we’ll train them outside of the risk zones… “. Nothing about supporting the community. Until the organization came across an anti-poaching manual posted on the internet. “Rory was unique in being ready to do the training in the elephant range – most wanted to do it outside because of the risks. He insisted to go because training had to be adapted to that situation. Chengeta were the only ones who had said that maintaining and supporting community projects were essential if anti-poaching efforts were to succeed” said a team member.
The incredibly unique and difficult situation called for a radically different approach, the problem being that there were absolutely no resources or specialist skills on the ground. Rory took a team of 12 of the best forestiers – ecoguards – to train them in the Gourma, though eventually, it became apparent that the threat was far too high for the rangers, that it had become a matter of keeping them alive. Plan B was to turn to the military for help. “But that wasn‘t a viable solution, because you’re using the wrong tool to fix a problem. Instead, we decided to completely retrain the soldiers with anti-poaching in mind, lead them, structure them, and this resulted with a unique combined and independent unit of interdisciplinary backgrounds but trained and mentored from scratch”, explained Rory.
Soon enough, a dot on the map kept pulling them back – an area where poaching levels were incredibly high, and where “no one would go with anything less than a battalion. So of course, we needed to go there. But how?” recalled Rory. “It was crucial that we went in, simply even from a mindset perspective because we had to break that mental barrier that held back our anti-poaching efforts”. And so, they went, came back, and with new-found confidence. ”They go from being terrified of being blown-up, killed, wounded, to suddenly realizing they can move in their environment, that they’re the ones deciding where they’re going to be and when not the threat”. Confidence in their training, confidence in their abilities.
Which brings us back to the key pillars. Analyze. Train. Mentor. For with solid training, precise analytics, strong yet compassionate leadership, comprehensive planning, and a profound, interdisciplinary understanding of a given situation, the chances of success are high. “The training part of our ethos is obviously essential, but more so to achieve our goal which is to eventually let them stand on their own two feet. Training happens in camp, then the mentoring phase is we go out, live and breathe life in the field alongside rangers. Mentoring is not about leading a group out, it’s about validating the training, bring in a light touch, and making sure the training is adapted to the terrain”, explains one team member.
Both the training and mentoring are inspired by interdisciplinarity: rangers are much more than just environmental protectors. As the crucial bridge between people and nature, they have a responsibility to be professional in their interactions with the local communities, they need to be skillful in all things ranging from weaponry, legal use of force, tracking, dealing with animals in the case of a live seizure. But also, and perhaps most importantly, human rights and the rule of law. “The ranger is a chameleon”, says Yoann.
Yoann specializes in tracking. In other words, a discipline that requires a profound understanding of the bush, the ability to look for and interpret anomalies, anticipating intruder movements, learning to recreate the story of what happened – or is ongoing – at the site of an incident. They become profilers as well as protectors.
The scouts are trained to collect information, to look for entry and exit points used by poachers, look for clues and data suggesting the presence of illegal activity. The data helps gain an understanding of the threat, to build a typical profile of the poacher (or poachers) to carefully mount an operation that will lead to an arrest. “If the target is an armed group, we have to be prepared for that. Above all, Chengeta’s objective is to protect the rangers”, explains Yoann. Each ranger has a unique personality, usually revealed in training, supporting their orientation towards specialized units that match their strengths, like the dog detection unit, local arrests unit, reconnaissance unit, etc.
The process begins with the recruitment of 20 new rangers from the community – “last time, we had about 250 applicants”, explains Yoann. New-comers are taught level 1 anti-poaching skills – the basics – and the ones already employed get a revision. Currently, the Dzanga-Sangha Protected Areas (DSPA), in the Central African Republic, one of Chengeta’s main areas of operation, employs about 100 rangers. A typical example of a training and mentoring pattern will be a month of training followed by 1-2 weeks of field mentorship, in groups of 20. These 1-2 weeks are crucial to assess and validate the training, as ultimately, the point is to support local ownership of conservation efforts and independence. “We don’t do the eco-guards’ work, but we support and enhance their skill and decision-making abilities wherever we can, we make sure they can work”, says Yoann.
Yet training is not just about anti-poaching and surviving in the forest or desert. That which is perhaps the most important, that which takes the longest to build – it is also the feeling identity, of pride in the uniform and in the work. Of recognition of the responsibilities that come with being a ranger. Gaining a comprehensive understanding of human rights, and the rule of law, therefore, represents a substantial part of the training and mentoring processes. ”We want them to be inspired by their work, to believe in it, to hold their head high, and to share their status amongst their peers, within communities. We want to uplift them, for them to be aware of the importance of their work. In many places of operation, the job was often overlooked and mocked. They can sometimes be considered by others as being those at the bottom of the chain, coming from villages with little to no level of education, and a status that doesn’t quite compare to other ‘armed’ forces, like the police or the military.” Rangers must ensure the law relating to the protection of natural spaces is applied, a status to be exceptionally proud of but that comes with many unofficial responsibilities. These stem from the expectations associated with their status of environmental protectors – community members will often call upon them for help in matters that are more linked to personal affairs rather than ecology. “In an area with 4 policemen, but 100 rangers, they’ll find themselves in a situation where they are perceived as substitutes to national forces, and there’s an expectation to deliver on that”, explains Yoann. Protectors, profilers, peacekeepers.
Rangers, Community, Conservation: it’s all linked
“We have to help. It drives me mad when we hear stories of military units driving through villages without even stopping. You stop, you greet the leadership, you show respect. Our core principle is that we can help wildlife without helping people, and so we make sure that we make contact with villagers and help them out the best we can,” affirmed Rory. In Mali, once the mixed unit had been trained, rangers provided medical assistance, assisting the medic of the unit to provide whatever help they could deliver to village in the area. ”You have to understand that it was an extremely dangerous journey for villagers who wanted to find a doctor. These villages are isolated, it takes days by camel to get to a place where they might be able to get on a bus. But that exposes them to criminals and extremists. We never went through a village without offering help. We had to”, recalled Rory.
This holistic anti-poaching effort proved to be incredibly successful, with a dramatic decrease in elephant poaching. Naturally, the project had full community support. An attitudes survey was led at the time to understand perceptions of how local people saw the anti-poaching unit, and on the whole, it transpired they were very not only very thankful to have it there but wanted it to be bigger. The rangers – known as foresters – were perceived as supporting security and stability, and so the community was incredibly supportive of their work. This aligns with one of the key principles associated with successful community-based conservation programs in increasing well-being emerging in research looking at the effectiveness of such programs. Security as a perceived benefit of conservation was perhaps one of the most important factors in what was considered a positive outcome of the projects.
In the DSPA, however, the initial rapport with the communities was complicated. It took a combination of slow conservation and engagement work. “There were stories of rangers abusing both of their power and the community members in central Africa, of being corrupt. It was really complicated. When I arrived, it was difficult to overcome the communication issues, the perceptions, between ranger and community”. Learning to work with the community is an integral part of the training of eco-guards. At first, for protection – of everyone – because one of the first things they’re taught is how to liaise with the villagers and human rights. Rangers are from the community, they have a status there, and are in a prime position to talk about poaching, why it is a problem, why they work to prevent poaching, and ultimately how conservation can help with local wellbeing. And let us not forget that many are often ex-poachers that know the system well. “When we’re out in the forest, for the mentoring, it’s something we talk about all the time with the rangers, we get to understand what they feel and we get to communicate the importance of liaising with communities”, said Yoann. It takes time to listen, and the community programs supported by Chengeta in CAR have helped understand perceptions and communicate conservation in a way that signals a desire to collaborate, rather than impose measures. A holistic synergy that has deeply shifted attitudes towards conservation, in the process creating a communities blueprint.
The organization’s metrics for success are not primarily looking at the number of people arrested. “Instead, we ask, is there less criminal activity? Is there more peace, love, happiness? Or is there any anger and resentment, and if so, what can we do about it?” smiled Rory. And so, we have covered the last of Chengeta’s 5 pillars. Empower. Humans will always be a part of the ecosystem, “we can’t just ignore them, pretend they’re not there,” asserts a team member, passionately “even if someone poaches, they’re still a human, who eats, drinks, usually move through communities. We can send an anti-poaching unit in, solve the issue for today but not necessarily for tomorrow”. Including communities in the conservation process, supporting local wellbeing, and handing them the tools to look after their ecosystem, as it should be, helps align people and nature’s prerogatives.
Empower. Holistic. Doctrine. Community-based conservation. Words and concepts thrown around today as buzzwords, perhaps in the hopes of sounding efficient, professional, and credible. But pragmatism is measured by success and practical, tangible action, and Chengeta’s reputation amongst communities, rangers, governments, and partner organizations alike speaks for itself.
With an approach that continuously seeks to bridge the chasm between people and their representation of ecosystems, to reconnect people and nature, Chengeta epitomizes the determination and vision that we need as we consider our own relationships with nature.
- We HARMONIZE all efforts with local governments, partners and programs
- We EMPOWER communities to support efforts countering illegal wildlife trade
- We ANALYZE and investigate all existing information and data to understand the holistic situation
- We TRAIN and develop local wildlife protection capacity
- We MENTOR and support anti-poaching operations
Tragically, our co-founder Rory Young was killed in 2021. Rory was leading a wildlife protection patrol in Arly National Park, Burkina Faso on 26th April 2021 when they were attacked by terrorists, resulting in his death and that of two Spanish journalists: David Berian and Roberto Fraille, who were capturing his efforts to protect wildlife, and injuries to our Burkinabé partners in the mission.
Chengeta Wildlife endures with Rory’s vision and mission at the forefront of our work, ensuring his legacy to train rangers protect wildlife and empower communities continues.
Today, and every day, we show our gratitude to those who gave and who give everything to protect some of the most rare and beautiful places on this Earth.
Read our tribute to Rory here
As we strive forward to continue Chengeta’s vital work, please consider supporting us with a donation here
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