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COP15: Maintaining the planet’s life support systems

As commitments are made at the UN’s biodiversity summit, rangers and other protected area personnel will require a more significant investment

By Mike Appleton on December 14, 2022   duration

Rewilding Chile wildlife ranger, Arcilio Sepúlveda. (Photo by Jan Vincent Kleine)
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I have had the good fortune in my work to visit protected areas all over the world. The spectacular and memorable wildlife and landscapes of these areas are normally the main focus of websites and magazine articles. But equally memorable for me are the people who work in parks and protected areas, maybe because I started my conservation career as a wildlife warden and countryside ranger in the UK.

The extraordinary dedication, long hours, low pay and constant need for improvisation and problem solving I witness in parks all over the world have made a deep impression. I remember the female mahouts in Aceh, Indonesia, patrolling on the back of elephants in the forest; watching an unarmed ranger in Turkmenistan apprehending and disarming without hesitation a man who was shooting at flamingos; an eye-opening walk in the forest with an Indigenous ranger guide in Brunei; a ranger from Kenya telling me how scared she got before patrols; an alliance of Indigenous and Afro descendent communities defending their forest in Nicaragua; being rescued after falling into a ravine by a ranger in Montserrat; and sharing a simple meal with rangers and researchers high in the Carpathian forests of Ukraine. And, of course, the hundreds of participants I have met in training events, workshops and consultations, representing their areas, talking of their work, sharing their ideas and patiently responding to my endless questions.

Mike explores the Philippine's Mindoro Island with rangers. (Photo by Andrew Tilker)

Without the dedication and extraordinary efforts of these people and many more, the lofty ambitions and commitments coming out of COP15 this week will never be fulfilled. Yet they receive comparatively little attention, and until recently we have known remarkably little about them. A new survey, led by Re:wild, has revealed that just 550,000 people work in terrestrial protected areas worldwide, 286,000 of them as rangers.

This may seem a lot, but it is very few considering that they protect and manage 15% of the world’s land. By way of comparison, 20 million people are employed globally protecting private property! And more people work at golf courses and country clubs in the United States alone, than there are rangers in the world. We also now know that many of these people are underpaid, underequipped, undertrained, and required to work in dangerous unpredictable environments. They are vulnerable to harm, and also to doing harm.

Photo by Forrest Hogg/WCS

A major motivation for my attendance at COP 15 therefore is to highlight the need to invest in the people whose day-to-day work and lives are devoted to caring for the planet. While we argue about the fine details of text, haggle over priorities and percentages, draw and redraw lines of maps, and try to figure out how to pay for it all, we rely on these people to carry on doing what they do so well. We need to make sure that a major part of the resources raised are invested in people: park staff, rangers, community members, Indigenous peoples, volunteers and many other environmental defenders.

Rangers paddling down a river at night in search of Javan Rhino in Ujung Kulon National Park, Java (Photo by Robin Moore, Re:wild).

COP 15 is now likely to commit to effective and equitable management of 30% of the planet, twice the current land area and many times more the marine area. Re:wild is campaigning as part of the Universal Ranger Support Alliance (URSA) for proper recognition and working conditions for rangers of all types, from patrol teams, to visitor guides, to wildlife monitors, to community and Indigenous defenders. We want to help them get what they are asking for built into the agreements in Montreal: professional standards, proper pay and contracts, decent work and security.

MIke at a PA management planning training course with people from Antigua and Barbuda and from Anguilla.

So while more than 10,000 decisionmakers, experts and campaigners (myself included) gather in Montreal to agree how to sustain the planet’s life support systems, spare a thought for the half million or so whose job is to do that every day. And the many more who are needed to join them.

About the author

Mike Appleton

Mike Appleton is Re:wild's director of protected area management. He focuses on applied, area-based conservation, building on scientific findings to achieve conservation results on the ground.

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