The lady defending South Sudan’s parks from conflict and poachers
Bibiana Martin can’t recall ever not living or working in the woods. Because her family could not afford to send her to school, the 32-year-old has been preserving South Sudan’s woods since she persuaded her grandpa to join the wildlife rangers when she was 12 years old.
“The officers told me, ‘You’re too young to be a ranger,’ but I refused to listen.” “I said if I’m not going to school, I don’t want to simply stay in the home,” Martin explains, waving her hands animatedly and smiling throughout the talk.
She enjoys her morning coffee close to a tiny fire at the ranger station on the outskirts of the Bangangai game reserve in southwest South Sudan, near the Central African Republic border. The post is unremarkable, simple, and far away. Several thatched houses surround the area, each with its own tiny garden where rangers raise vegetables. A few wooden benches and plastic chairs are arranged around the “kitchen,” which is actually just a tiny fire with a few pots where rangers take turns preparing rice and beans.
Martin is candid and, at times, wistful as she recalls her time with the rangers. She is one of just three female wildlife officers (out of 25) at this outpost, fighting to conserve South Sudan’s parks and animals in the aftermath of a protracted battle, despite a shortage of resources and an increased danger of poaching and forest damage.
Bangangai is around 170 square kilometers (65.6 square miles) in size and is one of 19 protected areas in South Sudan, 13 of which are game reserves and six of which are national parks, encompassing more than 13 percent of the land. While the reserve is home to chimps, bongos, and the African golden cat, among other wildlife, they may be difficult to locate. During the country’s five-year civil conflict, which killed almost 400,000 people and displaced millions between 2013 and 2018, many escaped or were slain in the parks, which were occupied by armed factions.
Last year, war engulfed this region of the nation, displacing 80,000 people and killing hundreds in combat between government and opposition-aligned militias in Tambura County.
The ranger station, on the other hand, is a fairly calm haven, and rangers here say they feel like they’re making a difference and attempting to reconstruct what was lost throughout the years of conflict.
Martin finishes her coffee, gets some water, and follows the rangers into the park, her rifle slung over her shoulder for the morning patrol. In the woodland, she looks to be bobbing rather than walking as she searches the ground and trees for animal tracks. When the rangers detect tracks, they come to a halt and record the GPS coordinates of where they were.
If the rangers are just going out for the day, the patrols may last a few hours, but they frequently last five to eight days, with the crew sleeping in tents in the forest.
They do everything on foot, with minimal access to automobiles or motorcycles.
They monitor the camera traps, which capture the animals – and warn poachers that they will be caught on video – and make sure signs are up, stopping anyone from murdering them.
Martin’s role also includes raising awareness in the local community about the need of protecting parks and not harming animals.
She also captures (or attempts to catch) poachers. Despite the fact that rangers were obliged to halt patrolling during the civil war, with Martin staying at the Tambura headquarters throughout that period, she claims she has detained roughly 12 individuals for poaching over the years, even if many were allowed to go with just a warning.
As a child, Martin’s aim was to attend school. He was born in Tambura, around 150 kilometers from Bangangai. She would go to the market happily, buying pencils and notebooks, but when she arrived at the class, she was booted out, informed her parents hadn’t paid her tuition and she couldn’t attend, she claims.
“I don’t feel good about not going to school,” Martin adds. “If I had, we might be conversing in English,” she quips in Azande, her native tongue. But it didn’t stop her from trying to make something of herself. Her grandpa was a forest ranger, and she grew up with him. So, at the age of 12, Martin also joined the rangers, working in the Tambura town office.
She started off working for free, coming in early to clean, make tea, and learn about discipline and respect for oneself and others, as well as the significance of following the law. Martin claims she worked for three years without pay, surviving by making alcohol and selling tea at the market on the side.
She then went through ranger training, and when she reached 15, Martin was given a rifle – she recalls that it was lawless at the time, with the south and north of one nation (Sudan) still at odds – and began patrolling in tiny villages and outposts near Tambura’s parks.
She also got her first monthly salary, around $300 at the time, at the age of 15, which she describes as one of her most memorable experiences, making up for the anguish she felt over not being able to attend school. “My parents couldn’t afford my school fees, but God provided a way for me to work with the rangers.”
Martin spent the following five years working his way through the ranks at numerous outposts in Western Equatoria. She smiles and points to the patch on her right sleeve, which shows her promotion to the second lieutenant in 2011, the same year South Sudan declared independence.
Martin sought a fresh challenge when South Sudan’s 2013-2018 civil conflict ended and asked to move to the wildlife reserve where she now lives with her daughter, Victoria, one of three.
She claims the two reside in a tiny hut with a vegetable garden out front, which Martin spends a lot of time tending to when he’s not patrolling. While she does not let Victoria accompany her on patrol, she does allow her to assist around the station by bringing water and tending to the garden. Martin patrols the reserve on foot with other rangers several times a month, frequently camping in a tent in the park for up to a week. When she goes away, she leaves her daughter in the outpost with other rangers.
Martin married when he was 18 years old, but they divorced 11 years later. She claims she does not want to remarry and is single-mindedly focused on making a livelihood so her children will have the chances she never had. She caresses Victoria’s face and says she has no desire to remarry. Her other two girls reside with her family in Yambio town, where they go to school. Martin intends to send Victoria to school as soon as possible. “My ambition is to construct a concrete home on my own property for my children, to dig a well for them, and to send them to school,” she adds.
Life on the ranger post is difficult since it is isolated and secluded. There is no power, no transportation, and no eateries. Martin travels four hours each way, nine kilometers to the closest town with phone service, many times a week if she wishes to contact work at headquarters or friends and family. Despite this, the seasoned ranger is unfazed, having grown used to adversity. “There was no [phone] network during the [civil] war, so you had to write letters and hand-deliver them, which might take up to a week,” she explains.
Martin, one of the few women at the position, claims she puts the guys in their place, particularly if they’ve had too much to drink, by showing them films of themselves when they’re intoxicated and forcing them to apologize if they’ve been nasty. Her enthusiasm offers comedic relief for the squad as she bobs through the forest during patrols, and she is well appreciated among her peers.
Martin raised awareness with around 3,000 individuals while he was not patrolling. She organized groups of community and religious leaders and delivered presentations about why it’s necessary to conserve parks and not harm animals, always driven by a desire to aid future generations.
However, making a life in South Sudan is difficult. Rangers earn less than $100 per month – paid by the government – yet may sometimes spend half a year without getting a wage. Martin claims she can’t even recall how much money she’s due; the last time she was paid was a year and a half ago.
She survives on the $5 per day she earns while patrolling, which she receives from the UK-based Fauna & Flora Foreign (FFI), the country’s sole international conservation organization, which also provides stipends for patrols, trains rangers, and assists with logistics such as bringing in food.
Climate change has had a severe impact on South Sudan. The nation has been devastated by floods for three years, affecting around 850,000 people and killing hundreds of thousands of animals. Nonetheless, the government invests little in conservation.
Only around 100 rangers, with one vehicle and no walkie-talkies, are tasked with preserving the woods and animals of Western Equatoria state, part of which is without a phone network.
While protecting the woods is not a top priority for the war-torn country — less than 1% of the national budget, or $5.8 million, was allotted to wildlife conservation in the 2019-2020 budget – environmentalists say it is critical.
“South Sudan has the potential to become a continental powerhouse in wildlife conservation,” says Benoit Morkel, the FFI’s South Sudan national representative. Of course, with so many other development crises, conservation may not be at the forefront of people’s concerns, but improved management of these great parks and natural resources would considerably help to achieve sustainable development and climate resilience. And, given South Sudan’s socio-economic situation and the climatic issue, the moment has come to act.
It was too risky for rangers to police the parks during the civil war. However, rangers like Martin have returned in the hopes of making it more livable for animals and raising community awareness about the significance of conserving the area and safeguarding wildlife.
Martin and the others are happy with what they’ve accomplished, claiming that they’ve lately observed more animals in the park, implying that some are returning or aren’t leaving and are being poached as a result of their efforts.
Nonetheless, the obstacles and risks remain. According to residents and environmentalists, there has been an upsurge in poaching outside the parks’ protected regions since the country’s shaky peace settlement was struck more than three and a half years ago, since the drop in infighting has made it easier for individuals to travel freely and kill animals.
While poaching has decreased in the parks since the rangers returned, it has increased in non-protected forest areas. According to rangers and community members near the park, a lack of employment is also a motivator for killing animals because people are desperate for money. People were afraid to move around during the war, but now gunshots can be heard in the forests, and locals tell Al Jazeera that there is a lot more “bushmeat” sold in the market than in previous years.
Rangers claim they are ill-equipped to monitor the vast areas surrounding the parks because they lack communication equipment and transportation. South Sudan’s administration told Al Jazeera that it is doing all possible to safeguard the parks and animals, but that limited resources make it difficult to visit places and apprehend poachers. “We don’t have binoculars or governmental backing; we lack transportation, communication, or cameras,” says Joseph Mathew Waure, head warden of Bangangai. Last September, rangers apprehended one poacher and detained him on their base because they lacked the necessary transportation to transfer him to town. However, after a month, he is said to have fled back to Congo.
Continued conflict, like the unrest in Tambura County that displaced 80,000 people last year, also caused issues in maintaining the parks, forcing one ranger station in Southern National Park to shut down.
Despite the difficulties, Martin says she will battle on, not just to safeguard the parks, but also in the hope that her work would encourage women in South Sudan to take control of their lives.
She stands boldly in the middle of the ranger station, speaking aggressively in front of her mostly male coworkers.
“My advice to young South Sudanese women is to not be lazy; undertake whatever form of employment you need to start your life,” she adds. “It may help you send your children to school, particularly girls.” Don’t allow them to squander their time or remain at home. “
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