Thursday 30 August 2018

Miss Ranger on the Frontline

Christlia Nguidzi is a park ranger on a conservation mission – and the only female on a team of 20 rough-and-tumble rangers. Single, 23 years old, 52 kilos, she rattles on about face-to-face encounters with hippos, gorillas, snakes and angry villagers. ‘Our training was tough! Paramilitary boot camp followed written exams about conservation laws and wildlife. I came in first place in target practice! Older, stronger men dropped out but I’m still here and proud to be making a contribution.’

She works in the Lac Tele Community Reserve which was created in 2001 to manage the area’s biodiversity-rich flooded savanna forest. I met Christlia at park headquarters in Epena while on mission to lend environmental governance support to the park’s community development team. 

The Reserve is located in the Republic of Congo just across the Lac Tumba Reserve in the Democratic Republic of Congo – the area constitutes the world’s largest peatland. The American environmental NGO Wildlife Conservation Society manages it in tandem with the Congolese agency for nature conservation (ACFAP).

Population density is low – less than three inhabitants per square kilometer – which facilitates conservation efforts. Local communities in the reserve draw their subsistence mainly from fishing, and depending on the season, from hunting and farming. Harvesting of non-timber forest products such as caterpillars and mushrooms contribute to diets in the lean months from July to September when fish is scare. Dugout canoes, fishing nets, woven-rattan traps and harpoons are the symbols of community life. Other than selling fish and bushmeat, economic activities are limited, so families survive largely outside of the cash economy.

Interviews with villagers in the reserve revealed a common litany. ‘How are we supposed to get money to pay our kids’ school fees if we don’t hunt and fish? The reserve managers promised development options but so far haven’t delivered anything.’ 

There is indeed a pattern of frustration that started with skepticism but has mutated into anger. WCS is promoting cacao production but villagers admit that between the painstaking growing of cacao and hunting, the economic choice is simple: ‘we only get 600CFA for a kilo of cacao whereas a duiker can fetch five times as much’.

A day in the life of a park ranger is physically and emotionally exhausting. ‘A patrol can last up to three weeks in the forest. I carry a gun and a heavy pack filled with cans of sardines and corned beef, my tent, GPS and satellite phone in case we have an emergency. We go days and days without washing up – and that’s no joke. It’s never happened to me but colleagues have met up with family members with guns and animals that are on our country’s protected species list. What are they supposed to do? Uphold their conservation mandate or get into trouble with the family?’ Tasks in this mandate according to Christlia are anti-poaching, wildlife tracking and stimulating community awareness.

There work is also dangerous. The 12 caliber shotgun is another symbol in these parts. ‘I was really scared the day we found a pygmy hunter with three elephant tusks and a gun. There are networks controlled by influential people in the big cities behind elephant poaching. Another day, angry villagers threw sticks and stones at us because we arrested a local poacher.’

Christlia has the support of her family in her commitment to work as a ranger. ‘My nieces think I’m doing something amazing and want to follow in my footsteps. I really hope they will succeed. We need more independent women to do this work so they won’t rely on their husbands.’

She is one of six children so her parents are grateful she can send some money at the end of the month. Her father is a school gym teacher and her mother sells fish and banana at the market in Impfondo. She says her earnings are low and complains that only five rangers have government contracts. ‘Most of us are paid by WSC. What’s going to happen to us when the project money dries up?’ But, she adds, with a smile: 'I'm content to carry on. God gives me the courage to do so, and anyway, I don’t really have a choice.’

Flooded savanna is the dominant ecosystem of the Lac Tele Community Reserve
Sign posts serve to showcase partner logos

Grill used to smoke fish

Fishing traps
Fishing camp near Bokatola
Harpoons are indicators of the presence of large fish
Dugout canoes are the main means of tranportation in these flooded grasslands

Solar panels help villagers charge cell phones and listen to the radio 
fishing trap

Park managers support local development structures
local visionnaries contribute to forest conservation in their own way
African bush plum is an important contribution to the local diet during the lean months