Warden Emmanuel Koech is a wildlife ranger for the Kenya Wildlife Service. Over the course of his career has worked in six different national parks across Kenya, where he spends much of his time monitoring wildlife habitats and tracking down poachers. AFKtravel.com recently had the chance to talk with him about his favorite parks, close encounters with poachers and lions, and how he was inspired as a child to protect wildlife.
1. Tell me a little about your background and what inspired you to become a wildlife ranger.
I was born and brought up in Elgeiyo Marakwet County along Elgeiyo escarpment, overlooking Rimoi National Reserve. During my youth, we could visit the reserve which had a lot of elephants and other game. The neighbors of this reserve are both pastoralists and farmers’ communities. Most of the farming was done along the Kerio River where elephants also drink water from and in the process, destroy the crops, especially maize.
When the farms were invaded by these elephants, they could leave behind a massive destruction which would make the community very angry. Locals could mobilize and attack the elephants. The results were not pleasing since people and elephants would both get injured or killed. This made me think how I could help to avoid this scenario.
When I went to high school, I realized that my dream would come true when I learned that there was a wildlife club in the school. I joined the club immediately as a member and after two years, I was elected its chairman. I used my position as the chair to sensitize my fellow youth to the importance of protecting wildlife. When I completed my high school education, I looked for another platform to be at the forefront of conserving wildlife.
One evening while at Gilgil (National Youth Service College), I learned that Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) was recruiting rangers at a neighboring town of Nakuru. I made my mind to take up the offer to join KWS. The following day, very early in the morning, I went for the recruitment at which I was successful, and eventually proceeded to Manyani Field Training School (MFTS) for paramilitary training. On completion I was posted to Nairobi National Park, and the rest is history.
2. What sort of training was required to be a wildlife ranger and how difficult was it?
To be a KWS ranger, you must meet the recruitment standards, and then undergo a very rigorous paramilitary training which prepares a recruit to face difficult working conditions out in the field. It is an elaborate program pegged on the academy’s motto of “Train Hard, Fight Easy.”
3. Give me an idea of a typical “day in the life” of a ranger.
A ranger’s day starts before 6:00am. For a ranger attached to the Wildlife Protection Department, the first activity of the day is the “team up” parade. Ordinarily, the commander will be updated on the health status of his men and state of tools and equipment for work. Then, the commander will issue deployments depending on the report we get about poachers. Movements to the operation area will be dictated by the quality of the intelligence report. They may require the team to be away from station for days and sometimes weeks at a time. Depending on the mission, the commander will arrange for adequate supplies of rations, water, and other necessary requirements.
4. What would you say are the best and hardest parts of your job?
The best part of my job as a ranger is when we track down poachers and attack them without any casualties on our side. The hardest part of it is when we have a report of poachers, and after pursuing them, their tracks can no longer be found. It is hard because until we find them, there will be no coming back to the camp even if it takes a month.
5. Do you have a favorite place to guide (if you’ve worked more than one park/reserve)?
I have worked in more than six national parks and since I love nature, the best place to guide someone to visit is Kora National Park. It is described as the last wilderness in Kenya, although all KWS parks are great tourist destinations.
6. What is the most suspenseful moment you’ve had on the job?
The most suspenseful moment that I have encountered on the job was in the year 2000 when I was working in the South Turkana National Reserve. One day, we received a report about a poached elephant and our commander assembled us and briefed us on the report and what was to be done. We immediately left the camp for the crime scene.
On approaching the site, we got out of our vehicle and advanced towards the scene with caution. On the ground, we found one elephant carcass with its tusks missing. The poachers had just left. We quickly followed their fresh foot marks. We walked for about 15 km and finally got to a main road, they had just been picked by a vehicle. I was on edge anticipating any possible predicament.
7. Tell me some more interesting things about your time as a wildlife ranger.
Way back in 1993, when I was working at Nairobi National Park, I was informed by the community warden that there was a report on lions which had strayed out of the park to and preying on livestock. As normal, I immediately went to the armory and picked a suitable weapon for the intended task.
We departed the office for the mission area at around 0900 hours and when we got there, the owner of the livestock was waiting for us. He showed us the carcass of a cow that had been killed by the lion and where they thought the lion was at that time. We were unable to locate the culprit lion even after combing the area for about three hours. Just when we were about to give up, one community member proposed that we use tracker dogs to track the lion in the thicket. Sure enough, the lion roared inside the bush and we called in the vet team for sedating and relocating it back to the national park.
After the vet moved in and darted the lion, we began our approach. We moved closer while in the vehicle to scare it away but the lion didn’t move. At one point we thought it was dead. The vet darted it, but the lion still didn’t move. We decided to come out of the vehicle and approach it on foot. In a split second, the lion roared and jumped over the vehicle and ran away with the dart still on him. We gave it a chase for a while, then the drugs took control and it fell down. We narrowly escaped death that day.
8. What sort of changes have you noticed over the course of your career, in terms of the wildlife and visitors to Kenya?
I have noticed that the population of wildlife is decreasing because of human population pressure. Hitherto wildlife habitats are decreasing day by day, hence calls are needed for urgent measures. In terms of visitors to national parks, the numbers have increased with the noticeable increase of tourists from the Far East market.
9. What kind of impact (emotional or logistical) has the poaching crisis had on you, and how do you adapt?
Emotional. It is very difficult when a fellow ranger is injured or killed by poachers. This always affects the team members and sometimes affects their performance.
Logistical. Following poachers requires a lot of resources (men, rations, water, transport), these have impacted the performance of the protection teams that are now overstretched by the demand to respond to emergencies everywhere.