ABC (Australia)

Australian fire experts have teamed up with African wildlife rangers to fight fire with fire in the battle with poachers and criminals.

Key points:

  • Poachers in Africa use fire as a weapon to fight off rangers, while criminals illegally burn habitat to sell charcoal as cooking fuel
  • Australian bushfire experts have travelled to Kenya to work with wildlife rangers
  • Rangers were taught strategies such as using buffer zones, prescribed burns and firebreaks to combat illegal fires

In parts of central and east Africa, poachers have been increasingly ‘weaponising’ fire to fight off rangers and create a barrier so that they can access wildlife.

Criminals illegally burn habitat for charcoal to sell in communities as fuel for cooking and other uses.

The Stockholm Environment Institute estimates about 80 per cent of urban households in sub-Saharan Africa use charcoal as their main source of cooking energy.

Members of a New South Wales-based company, Fireground Leadership and Training, travelled to Kenya to work with 16 senior rangers from across Africa as part of the LEAD Ranger program — an international initiative to upskill existing and upcoming rangers.

Founder of Fireground David Hitchcock and his team taught the rangers strategies such as using buffer zones, prescribed burns and firebreaks to help pre-empt criminal activity.

“[It’s] how they can combat the fires that are coming from the poachers and how they can still focus on keeping wildlife protected, because that’s what their passion is,” Mr Hitchcock said.

Mr Hitchcock said fires lit by poachers and criminals also affected the tourism industry and business ventures, such as carbon credit initiatives between wildlife sanctuaries and overseas companies.

“Burning the vegetation reduces their carbon offset in that reserve, so they get a loss of income,” he said.

“That loss of income, community-based or private, can be quite significant.”

Protecting wildlife and habitat from fire

Trainer Boris Vos said ranger education about fires had generally been focused on the immediate response, rather than preventative measures.

He said preventative fire management had been included in the LEAD Ranger training program for the first time this year to combat the growing trend to weaponise fire and the effects of climate change.

“Developing these capabilities within the broader ranger operations in Africa and even beyond I think is a priority, it’s an important one,” Mr Vos said.

He said there were a lot of “lightbulb moments” among rangers at the training course at Voi near Mombasa last month.

Mr Vos said some had never had fire management training before despite being in the job for 20 years.

“If you look at procedures and safety [across Africa], there is a lot to be gained on this side of the pond and that’s where a lot of the experience from the Australian bush firefighters is coming into its own.

“It means more habitat protected, it means less wildlife killed by fires, it means less community threatened by bushfires and I think all of those things are good outcomes.”

‘It will save lives’

Mr Hitchcock, who recently returned to his home in Dorrigo west of Coffs Harbour in New South Wales, said he would keep in touch with the rangers via social media to help them pass on their skills to their colleagues.

Before embarking on the trip, Mr Hitchcock said he did not realise how fire training could be used as a tool to also better protect rangers at work.

The International Ranger Foundation estimated 149 rangers lost their lives on duty across the globe in the past year due to hazards such as fires, floods and dangerous animals, or because they stood up to poachers.

“If it saves just one life, to us that’s a big positive. But we’re sure that this will save more lives and make people safer and more aware of their environments,” Mr Hitchcock said.

Topics: environmental-managementenvironment-educationconservationwildfiredorrigo-2453kenya