Receiving the 2021 Tusk Wildlife Ranger Award from the Duke of Cambridge at the Tusk Conservation Awards last night was an honour I hardly thought was imaginable. I felt incredibly proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with fellow conservationists and be recognised internationally for the work we do, which so often goes unnoticed.
With generous funding from the award’s official sponsor – The Nick Maughan Foundation – we are now able to expand our efforts in Nigeria. Building on past successes at Yankari Game Reserve, I hope to continue tackling poaching and human-wildlife conflict to rebuild our elephant population here.
Indeed, Yankari Game Reserve is home to one of the largest surviving elephant populations in West Africa. Yet still, only 100-150 elephants here remain. This follows a wider decline in elephant numbers across the continent. In 1800, there may have been up to 26 million elephants in Africa alone. Today, there are just 415,000.
As humans increasingly expand into forest areas, fragmenting the natural habitats of elephants and disrupting their access to resources, the landscapes used by humans and elephants overlap. With the two groups brought into increasing contact, coexistence proves a delicate struggle and instances of human-wildlife conflict multiply.
For years, elephants have been killed by farmers trying to save their crops from elephants foraging in the night or by poachers allowed access to help guard the fields. But as climate change narrows the corridors of elephant habitats, and competition over space and resources increase, human-wildlife conflict has sadly intensified.
Failing to attend to this issue will have devastating consequences for both local communities and elephants themselves. As Dr Hugo Jackman from the Elephant Protection Initiative explains, ‘If existing conflicts are not resolved, and future conflicts not avoided, the prospect of Africa’s elephants thriving across their range in 2030 and beyond are bleak.’
It is not just human-wildlife conflict that is causing elephant populations to fall. In fact, decades of heavy poaching have also driven the species to the brink of extinction, with as many as 20,000 African elephants hunted for their ivory each year.
In countries such as Mozambique, elephants have endured such rampant ivory poaching that an increased number have come to be born tuskless, leading scientists to believe the species was effectively genetically engineered by extreme pressures caused by human activity.
Due to the severity of the threat to elephants today, savannah elephants and forest elephants are now classified as endangered and critically endangered, respectively.
Nonetheless, there is cause for optimism.
Following concerted efforts at Yankari Game Reserve, myself and my colleagues managed to reduce poaching to a rare anomaly. Previously, as many as 20 elephants were killed in the reserve by poachers each year. Yet by 2020, only one elephant carcass with signs of gunshot wounds was found, with the perpetrator quickly arrested. And in the five years beforehand, no elephants were killed by poachers.
To deliver these results, I advocated for the wider use of technology, such as GPS tracking devices, to enable rangers to closely monitor elephant herds in real time and issue alerts whenever elephants strayed outside of the reserve or came into danger.
Working with my fellow rangers, I also implemented an elephant guardian programme to decrease instances of elephant-human conflict. The guardians act as an additional early warning system to alert rangers whenever there is a risk of damage to crops.
Clearly, great strides have already been made. But I know we can go one step further. Securing long-term community support for conservation projects, and transforming attitudes towards rangers, will be crucial to safeguarding elephant populations in the years to come.
Working to achieve this, I coordinate school visits alongside the Wildlife Conservation Society to introduce children to the wildlife living on their doorstep. I hope that through sharing my joy of local wildlife, I can inspire the next generation to take up the mantle of conservationism.
Working as a wildlife ranger is often a thankless job – one that is risky, poorly paid, and involves long periods away from home. But I hope that winning the Tusk Wildlife Ranger Award this week will inspire others to see that protecting wildlife is priceless.
By Suleiman Saidu, 2021 Tusk Wildlife Ranger Award recipient