A Journey Into the Rarely Seen World of Kenya's Wildlife Conservation Rangers

The men and women on the front lines of wildlife conservation in Africa inhabit a world few outsiders truly understand. These brave rangers spend weeks at a time on foot patrols away from their families. living with only the most basic of comforts and facing threats from poachers and the very animals they have dedicated their lives to protecting.

Earlier this year, Intrepid Travel launched a first of its kind journey to Kenya bringing travelers into the rarely seen world of wildlife conservation rangers. Co-hosted by the non-profit The Thin Green Line Organization, the remarkable seven-day experience, Kenya: Wildlife Rangers Expedition, allowed a small group of travelers to spend a week on the front lines, immersed in the work of the Big Life Foundation and its rangers.

The fascinating journey included foot patrols with rangers, nights sitting around a campfire with Maasai elders, and days exploring unique preserves created on Maasai conservation land. And while endangered animals were the underlying theme of the trip, in the end, it was a journey that told an unforgettable human story about the people selflessly dedicating their lives to an effort, and a cause, that benefits all of humanity. Here’s a closer look.

The grassroots Thin Green Line Foundation is the only global non-profit organization dedicated to ranger advocacy and to providing rangers with the training, equipment and critical care they need in the field. Its founder, Sean Willmore, is beloved by rangers and treated like a cross between a hero and a rock star wherever he goes. And for good reason, Willmore’s dedication to the rangers is both moving and inspiring.

“There is a lack of respect from the world for rangers,” said Willmore, who took part in the recent inaugural rangers trip, opening doors for trip participants to the world of wildlife rangers and serving as something of an ambassador for the journey. “We want wildlife to be protected but many people do not look beyond that to see that this year alone 149 rangers gave their lives in the line of duty, and over 1000 rangers have died in the last 10 years. The time rangers have away from family, often only seeing them a few days a year, the injuries, the illness and the sacrifice they make needs to be understood and respected.”

With Willmore leading the way during our visit, we came to truly grasp the sacrifices and the courage of wildlife conservation rangers.

Among those who have long been following conservation efforts in Africa, the Big Life Foundation is legendary for its good works. Founded in 2010 by photographer Nick Brandt, conservationist Richard Bonham, and entrepreneur Tom Hill, Big Life has dramatically reduced poaching in East Africa. It does so by working tirelessly to protect some 1.6 million acres of wilderness in the Amboseli-Tsavo-Kilimanjaro ecosystem.

As part of Intrepid’s groundbreaking new trip, Big Life for the first time ever opened its doors to tourists. We were invited into the offices of the organization leaders and spent time with rangers in the field, providing a fascinating and eye-opening look at the realities of wildlife conservation.

Big Life's success over the years in reducing poaching is due in large part to its’ partnership with the local Maasai and its unwavering support for the surrounding community. Since its inception, Big Life has expanded to employ hundreds of local Maasai rangers. It also supports the Maasai through scholarship programs, funding local teachers' salaries and compensating herders and farmers when livestock or crops are raided by the animals Big Life works to protect.

“For Big Life to secure the future of wildlife, we work very hard to deliver benefits to the local community including sponsoring academically bright students to go to school,” Big Life’s Samar Ntalamia tells us during our first afternoon the foundation’s headquarters, five hours outside of Nairobi. More than 260 students have been sponsored by Big Life Foundation, including for the first time this year a Ph.D. student. “All of these students talk to their friends and family and tell them that they were given a shot at life by Big Life Foundation and through wildlife conservation,” says Ntalamia.

In many countries, wildlife conservation includes cruel culling and trophy hunting programs. Most recently Botswana has begun issuing elephant hunting licenses again for the first time since 2014. Big Life Foundation, however, has proven that it's possible to employ another, more humane approach. As we learned over the course of a week, Big Life's model of engaging the community in its efforts, while also supporting the community on multiple levels and obtaining agreements from Masaai to set aside community-owned lands for wildlife conservation, has proven incredibly successful.

“Communities outside of parks have to participate in conservation,” explains Daniel Ole Sambu, Big Life’s director of conservation. “Community protection is working without animals being hunted. That’s the only future now, community conservancies."

Perhaps the most moving part of our journey was the time spent talking with the rangers on the front lines, many of whom are fresh-faced, young and eager. Their smiles have a warmth that completely envelops and disarms you and their eyes convey goodness of spirit that is palpable.

It is the conversations with these men and women that I will remember for years to come, their passion for protecting wildlife, their love of nature and their sense of duty. “This job…you do it in your heart,” says 28-year-old Big Life Foundation ranger Daniel Kutata. “You do it not because you want to make money but because of the animals. It is my calling. The animals are like my brothers or sisters. They are part of me. When they hurt, I feel it is my flesh is getting hurt.”

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