IN PROTECTING ENDANGERED SPECIES, ANTI-POACHING UNIT RANGERS MUST TAKE A FLEXIBLE, ADAPTABLE AND PRACTICAL APPROACH TO THEIR GEAR
By Kyt Lyn Walken and Andy Martin
The word “Ranger” originally meant “gamekeeper” and later “a man who polices an area.” More recently it has also been used to indicate military personnel and other professionals. Even more confusing, those who protect the environment on the ground are called Conservation Rangers, Park Wardens, Anti-Poaching Operators and several other names which cannot be translated into English.
We beg forgiveness of the readers as we may use these different terms referring to the same category—essentially a Ranger.
Anti-Poaching Units Mission
The mission of the APUs (Anti-Poaching Units) is to protect a specific area from wildlife traffickers and poachers. It may sound like an easy task to those living in the West, where poaching is mostly related to meat consumption and practiced by lightly-armed hunters, but in developing countries of Africa and Asia the market value of horns, tusks, scales, bones and paws from certain endangered species is a billion-dollar business attracting poor locals, in addition to international criminal organizations and terrorists.
We won’t discuss the details of this illicit trafficking and its social and economical ramifications. Instead, we will focus on the Rangers who fight a war against traffickers every day and the equipment they utilize to do their job.
Anti-Poaching Units’ Equipment Challenges
The world of tactical equipment is a maze of hyper-specialized products and accessories, most of it designed for certain environments and particular professional applications, such as military or private security. The gear hardly fits the needs of the Rangers who, for example, fight heavily armed poachers or terrorists in the Congolese Jungle.
Fortunately, some products respond almost perfectly to the needs of the rangers. Some of them are old webbings from 1970s or ’80s that have been abandoned by modern Armies but are still excellently suited for the APUs.
The multitude of situations and environments where these Rangers operate is one of the main obstacles to international standardization of equipment and operative procedures.
Access to certain products (especially tac-medical equipment) in most developing countries
is restricted by local availability and by budget limitations. Hence we must clarify that we’ll describe what we consider, in our decades of experience in the field, the ideal Ranger setup, not what is issued, which is extremely diverse as it depends on factors not directly associated with the tactical requirements.
Even more specifically, we’ll focus our attention on the Rangers who fight the most dangerous Poaching Syndicates or terrorist organizations in Central, East and South Africa.
Anti-Poaching Units’ Equipment
APUs perform several tasks, arguably the most critical is surveillance of areas sometimes as vast as states. Rangers usually patrol the area on foot, both because of the inaccessibility of some parts of the parks (lack of roads, marshlands, etc.) and because employing Rangers is a good way to reduce unemployment in the neighboring communities, which has a positive impact on the poaching level in the region.
Some parks are just a few square miles, others can reach a thousand. The equipment of the Rangers depends primarily on the duration of the surveillance patrols. Besides the logistical support required to sustain an APU for long periods, we can divide the setups into three main groups:
- Short Range Patrol (less than 24hrs): The kit is minimal, no sleeping equipment is required, at least a gallon of water (~4 liters) is carried.
- Medium Ranger Patrol (from 1 to 3 days): The kit includes sleeping equipment and a backpack to carry water filtration systems and food.
- Long Range Patrol (4 days or longer): A bigger backpack is required to carry extra food and clean clothes.
The longest we ever took part was 21 days in a row in the Rain Forests of the Congo.
The purpose of the surveillance is to find any signs of poaching—by traps or guns—and possibly intercept the criminals. When the suspect of a crime arises, the hunt begins. The poachers have usually left the “crime scene” before the Rangers arrive, so an APU must be fast in order to close the gap.
Speed is the key reason to keep the equipment of a Conservation Ranger light and essential. But there is also a second reason: the environment has a huge impact on human health. The Rangers of the APUs are perfectly aware of the medical risks they face every day in the bush. Besides the risk of endemic diseases and traumatic incidents, the most common threats come from dehydration and hypothermia—both of them related to the consumption of water.
In fact, potable water is a luxury in the wild, every drop counts and water management is a top priority for any Ranger patrolling remote areas. The more equipment carried by Rangers the more water they need due to perspiration and fatigue. This can turn into a spiral of carrying more water and hence weight. An experienced Ranger breaks this logic by avoiding any unnecessary piece of equipment. There is only one transmitter in the Ranger Team. It is up to the Team Leader, who carries it
Blisters are common when you walk for 12 hours a day under the sun. Stopping or being rescued is not an option, so good, comfortable footwear is mandatory. Sneakers wouldn’t last a week, while old, stiff and heavy military boots cause too many blisters. On the market, many durable and lightweight boots in Cordura offer good breathability and excellent comfort.
Short boots are usually preferred to reduce weight. Don’t forget the old saying “One pound on your feet equals five pounds on your back.” The exception are areas renowned for an extraordinary number of venomous snakes!
The old jungle boots used in Vietnam remind us of the importance of water draining holes, especially in a tropical forest. Where the bush is extremely thorny, thick leather boots with reinforced soles should be considered.
Ventilation is critical and loose is good. But not too loose since thorns rip almost everything. Hard shells (such as the old “Predator” from T.A.D. Gear) work great, softshells much less.
Layers are critical in winter since temperatures easily drop below zero at night in Southern Africa and rise massively during the day.
Any clothing should be extremely durable, fast drying, breathable and neutral in color (to prevent ticks and mosquito bites). Dark brown and green work very well in the jungle, while tan, khaki and light green work great during the dry seasons of Southern and Eastern Africa.
Glasses: Military-grade with extra ventilation (such as ESS, Oakley, …) are desirable. Since brownouts are uncommon, while fog and water are the rule, regular military frame sunglasses with interchangeable lenses (clear ones for Jungle and Night, darker during the day in the open) are usually preferred.
Gloves: Ventilated and thin for maximum sensitivity when tracking (such as Mechanix Vents); thicker gloves are chosen by medical personnel to speed the treatment when nitrile gloves are not available.
Belt: Simple Cordura belts are the best, they are extremely durable and their flexibility makes them excellent improvised tourniquets in case of massive bleedings.
Socks: Simple military cotton socks (such as those issued to the Italian or French army) keep feet dry and cool. Two pairs can be worn at the same time for extra protection.
Short Pants: Sometimes Rangers wear short trousers, but it’s surely a daring choice. They provide extra ventilation and were adopted by former South African soldiers.
Hat: Baseball caps are not a good choice as they do not protect from the unforgiving African sun, eager to burns the ears and neck. The old “boonie hat” is a good option in the jungle, while “bush hats” or bucket hats are perfect. They are more compact and are less likely to get stuck in the thorns.
Camouflage uniforms are restricted to military personnel in several African countries, such as Zambia, Eswatini and Zimbabwe. Therefore it’s not surprising that both local Rangers and foreign Ranger volunteers are usually dressed in plain colors instead.
In countries with terrorism or insurgency issues, camo uniforms identify either regular or irregular armies. In light of the associated risks, the adoption of neutral colors makes even more sense.
In terms of efficiency, camouflage uniforms are mostly intended for military personnel who must be able to set up ambushes and infiltrate behind enemy lines. But the primary activity of the APUs is surveillance, reducing the need for such uniforms. A mix of dark/light green and brown is more than enough to match the surrounding in most areas and every season.
The webbing system is a set of pouches where Rangers carry everything they need for quick access—water, magazines, maps, flashlight, first aid kit, binoculars … A sleeping bag, poncho, shovel and any other piece of equipment that does not require quick access is placed in the backpack.
The modularity concept was known well before M.O.L.L.E. (Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment) system was invented. Combining different pieces of equipment for a specific task has always been common to any soldier. Modularity is the key to providing the right amount of water and food, optimizing the space available and creating the “perfect setup” for a specific task.
Since it’s unthinkable to issue different webbing systems to each Ranger, the best solution is to have something compatible with different backpacks/hydration packs. As always, the webbing should offer some sort of ventilation and be lightweight, durable and made of quality Cordura, without being cumbersome.
Several products on the market match this description at affordable prices. Even if they are not M.O.L.L.E. compatible it doesn’t matter as they offer limited advantages to our Rangers. Plate carriers are not an option for the following reasons:
- No plate is designed to protect from the big game rifles (such as .375 H&H Magnum or .450 Nitro Express) often used by poachers to kill rhinos and elephants.
- Ballistic plates and armor inserts are rarely available in developing countries.
- Plate carriers are mostly designed for modern soldiers and security operators who spend most of their time on vehicles, not for long-range patrols in extreme conditions. For this reason, ventilation is limited and they almost have no compatibility with any patrol backpacks.
If we look back to the magical 1980s and ’90s, we’ll find two main interesting options:
- Waist webbing
- Chest webbing
Waist webbing includes all the combat belts that were so popular back in the day and which are still a valid solution when not spending much time on vehicles. Unfortunately, they are rarely compatible with modern LRP backpacks.
Chest webbing is a platform that leans on the shoulders, such as the ones developed for the Rhodesian and South African Armies in the 1970s and the popular “7 pockets chest rig” developed by Arktis for the British Army. After 40 years, Arkis is still manufactured. The extreme versatility, simplicity and durability of this model are the secrets to APUs’ adoption of the gear. The Arktis is compatible with almost any hydration pack or backpack and its pouches can accommodate all the tools required by a Ranger.
Anit-Poaching Unit Weapons
Operating for years in such extreme environments requires a degree of toughness in both the Ranger and his/her equipment. Many fancy products manufactured in the western world have no place there. Simplicity and ruggedness are everything that matters.
Not surprisingly, most APUs adopted old, battle-tested rifles such as the AK, FN FAL and G3, as well as shotguns. Since almost half of the victims amongst Rangers are due to wild animals, their rifles must be effective against both criminals and big game. Shooting an animal that is supposed to be protected is an extreme response in a self-defense situation, yet it happens and in such a situation the size of the bullet makes the difference. Small calibers (up to 5.56 NATO) lack the stopping power required to halt a charging animal, which explains why most Rangers carry 7.62X39mm or 7.62X51mm.
Rangers are usually issued only 2 or 3 magazines or a certain number of shotgun shells, but they are not intended for engaging in a firefight with poachers. Instead, they are meant for self-defense only. Fortunately, in most cases, it’s unlikely to find more than 3 armed poachers.
Old Weapons Platforms Vs New Weapons Platforms
When we compare rifles developed in the 1950s to modern ones, we should take into consideration the different military doctrines and their development.
On one side, NATO members developed and manufactured several different platforms, from G3 to FN FAL, from M-16 to SA-80. Most platforms were designed to function under specific conditions, for instance when operated by professional soldiers in their native country (defensive doctrine). More recently, several NATO Countries have adopted the M-4 and its variants as their standard rifle, a 5.56x45mm carbine much lighter than the older rifles made of metal and wood.
Countries that belonged to the Warsaw Pact adopted cheap, reliable AK-47 and SKS rifles. These simple rifles were originally designed for mass Armies, such as the Russian and Chinese. Not surprisingly, several African countries were flooded with these firearms during times of internal conflict. The reliability and simplicity of the AK in poorly trained hands proved its superiority against the competitors.
The world has changed, but after more than half a century, those weapons are still there, in Africa, used by soldiers, terrorists and Rangers alike. Sometimes they miss sights, a stock or handguards, but they are somehow still firing.
It’s not surprising that the Rangers are usually equipped with old rifles, but besides any financial considerations (with armories full of plenty of old rifles, why buy new expensive ones to equip the Rangers?), there are other reasons for not changing them.
The first is that the extreme modular capabilities of a modern platform cannot be exploited in countries where red-dot optics, mounts, batteries, spare parts and accessories are very hard to find. Secondly, modern platforms often require some level of maintenance and care, like the one provided by professional soldiers with a good cleaning kit. Rangers rarely have any military experience or good cleaning kits.
Finally, we can’t forget most modern rifles have a caliber unsuited for stopping animal charges and many of them require high-quality ammunition. The APUs are usually provided cheap military surplus ammo, either to contain the costs or because of limited availability.
Rangers are well aware of the risks connected to their job. A charging rhino or an infamous poacher could end their life at any moment. They are often scared of being wounded because they receive no professional medical training or proper medical equipment to help wounded Rangers.
The APUs operate in remote areas, far from any primary healthcare facility, such as hospitals, so the exfiltration of a patient can easily take several hours. In such a situation, basic first aid training and simple gauze found in a medikit are not enough. A Ranger should be equipped with a military-grade medical kit and be trained to stop any massive bleeding and stabilize the patient for longer than just a few “platinum minutes.”
On average, a wounded Ranger reaches the hospital in 8 hours from the incident. This explains why the medical training, despite being constantly neglected, is a top priority in Ranger training.
The Rangers are also subject to endemic diseases and infections, in addition to bites and stings from venomous insects and snakes. The team medic of an APU is arguably the most important figure in the team, his/her knowledge can surely save many lives.
The motto of the Rangers is “The more you know, the less you need.” It finds application when they chose the equipment to carry, including the medical kit.
Army medics are often required to carry bulky first responder backpacks, plenty of devices and tools for any situation arising. This would compromise the speed and flexibility of a team of Rangers, reducing sensitively their tactical effectiveness. Therefore, the individual medical kit carried by the Rangers is very minimalistic and it responds only to the most urgent situations. All the life-saving tools are carried in the webbing system, while pills and other gear are in the backpack.
The IFAK can be carried in a separate pouch or in a specific pouch of the vest. For the whole team (the first responder always uses the patient’s kit), it is very essential:
- 1 or 2 Tourniquets
- 1 Emergency Bandage
- 1 or 2 Wound Clot, or Quickclot/Celox gauze
- 2 pairs of gloves
- 1 scissors
- 1 standard gauze
- 1 emergency blanket
- 1 small bottle of disinfectant (such as povidone iodine)
It may look over-minimalistic but remember the space is limited, this kit perfectly fits a pouch of a vest, while more equipment can be stored in the backpack.
One tourniquet is usually at very easy reach, sometimes outside the medical pouch itself.
Since IEDs are still not common in the war fought by rangers, multiple tourniquets are usually not necessary. In the jungle, the plastic CAT-TQs are preferred because they don’t rust, while metal ones, such as the SOF-T, are a valid option when carried outside any pouch, under a burning sun, for years.
The emergency or Israeli bandage is used in three cases:
- Nonmassive bleedings
- Protection of damaged skin and open wounds (to prevent infections)
Woundclot is an extremely lightweight product that can stop massive bleeding anywhere, even in organs: since it doesn’t require compression, like QuickClot or Celox, it’s ideal when treating multiple patients.
Gloves for self-protection, while scissors (optional) for cutting the clothes to reach wounds quickly are both handy. A small gauze is typically carried for its versatility and iodopovidone to prevent infections and septicemia are worthwhile additions. Finally, an emergency blanket is useful to prevent hypothermia in case of shock.
APU Survival Kit
The APUs are so familiar with the area they protect that survival situations are rare even in the largest parks, but “It’s Better To Have It And Not Need It, Than To Need It And Not Have It!”.
Once rescue is impossible, “survival mode” should dictate the top priorities: shelter, water, fire and food. Every situation and place is different, but usually water is the No. 1 priority for a Ranger, followed by fire if there are no other means of potabilization.
Shelter is the next priority, both for protection from the elements and from wild animals. Most predators become active at night and proper shelter and a fire could be our only allies against them.
Getting food is the last of our concerns. Termites and eggs, fruits and roots…there are dozens of opportunities for those who know the environment. But mistakes can be fatal, so feeding ourselves is without a question the least of the problems.
So, a Ranger survival kit includes a water filtration system or purification tablets and a fire-starting kit (lighter or Swedish Lighter). A knife is always carried, not just for survival, but also for self-defense and as an everyday-use tool.
But the strongest ally to find a way back to civilization is being good trackers, the first and most important single skill of all.
Tracking is a skill as ancient as humans and it requires nothing but a good balance of instinct and knowledge. Its modern tactical applications bring an invaluable tool against criminals and terrorists. Every Ranger is a proficient human and animal tracker, the first skill is primarily used to chase poachers or collect intelligence on their activities, the latter to find wounded animals.
A measuring tool is the most essential tool to any professional tracker. It can be a tape measure or a wooden stick with a carved scale (commonly called a tracking stick), which can be made in a matter of minutes when required.
When the tactical situation demands tracking at night or in conditions of low visibility, a flashlight, maybe with color filters, provides an extra source of light to casts shadows to highlight the footprints.
Unlike modern soldiers, Rangers aren’t provided any handguns, their only backup weapon is a knife or a panga (machete). No other piece of equipment is as vital as a good knife to a Ranger. It’s used to open cans, carve wood, defend from animal attacks and criminals, as a survival tool and much more.
There are so many knife models on the market that it’s hard to say which ones would serve the Rangers best. Since self-defense is a top priority, something with a long blade and good penetration potential would be perfect to reach the vital organs of a wild animal. Since chopping wood is not a priority, the knife can have a balanced weight distribution.
When possible, a primary knife is carried for self-defense and a pocketknife as a utility tool.
Multitools are less common in the bush, but pliers come in handy when removing snares (cheap metal wire traps commonly used by poachers).
Both on patrol and in survival situations, potable water is the most critical resource. On short patrols, a Ranger usually carries from 2 to 10 liters depending on the climate and the expected activity.
Medium and long-range Patrols require either some logistical support or a potabilization system.
The amount of water required by the mission influence the setup more than anything else. Two 1-quarter (1 liter) military canteens can be easily stored in the side pockets of a chest rig, 3 or even 5 extra liters could be carried in a bladder on the back, while several extra canteens could be added to a combat belt or in the backpack.
Any combination of the components listed above provides a modular solution than has nothing to envy to more modern alternatives, allowing to carry the exact quantity of water required.
The duration of the patrol and the logistical support provided by the HQ, usually in the form of supply points, are the main factors when selecting a backpack for the mission.
For a short-range patrol (less than 24 hours) a backpack is not required, even if a very small one allows extra water or special equipment such as binoculars, camo nets or night vision devices.
A backpack big enough to accommodate a sleeping bag, poncho, food rations, fire kit and/or a water potabilization system is required for medium-range patrols. Such backpacks are often called 72-hour bags and size around 50 liters.
Longer Patrols demand at least a 90-liter military backpack, big enough to store larger quantities of food and clean clothes. The old military rucksacks are not the most comfortable when heavily loaded, but the market offers several options that distribute the weight in better ways. External pockets are used to store smaller objects. During the rainy season or in the jungle, a nylon backpack cover helps at keeping the inside dry.
Tents are often too bulky and heavy to carry, so Rangers often prefer lighter solutions such as poncho tents, bivy bags or hammocks (especially in the jungle, to keep the body distant from the soaked soil).
Sleeping bags are rarely carried in the rain forests of the Gulf of Guinea, both because the temperatures rarely drop at night and because it is extremely challenging to keep them dry in such an environment.
In southern Africa, freezing temperatures in winter are not uncommon at night, requiring a good, four-season sleeping bag.
Mattresses are not often carried. Inflatable ones are completely useless in the thorny bushes of southern Africa. Hammocks are more common and comfortable in the jungle, sparing any need for them.
VHF/UHF dual-band radios are one of the most common communication devices, but there are areas where satellite comms are the only options (such as in the jungle).
The channel between the APU and the HQ should always be open and in general, a transmitter is only carried by the team leader.
Light Systems And Night Vision
Flashlights are important not just for tracking in low light conditions, but also to perform car searches and checking the surroundings at night when the eyes of predators shine brightly.
The forest is very active at night, vipers and spiders, scorpions and bigger predators hunt. Unfortunately, humans don’t have night vision capability, which technically exposes them to the risk of becoming prey. Flashlights and night vision devices (NVDs) can balance this natural disadvantage.
NVDs are rarely issued to the APUs. They are very expensive and there are always more urgent materials to buy instead. Besides, spares and replacing parts are sometimes very hard to get in Africa.
From Congo DRC to Eswatini: hunting poachers and removing snares
As stated above, the equipment carried by Rangers depend on the environment and the duration of the task, but bigger parks often have several teams assigned to different tasks. While a team is providing fence control, another is looking for snares, and others might guard the gates or remain on standby as QRTs (Quick Response Teams) in case of emergency.
A team that is assigned to a specific task, temporarily or permanently, is equipment accordingly to the specific needs. An APU performing access control won’t carry most of the equipment mentioned in this article.
Ranger equipment reflects the actual operational needs and the limited options available. The APUs make do and it’s extremely interesting to see how much can be achieved by a few motivated and trained individuals in this industry. Their successes are too often ignored by the media, favoring VIPs speeches and political meetings. If many endangered species have not disappeared yet, it is only thanks to those who risk their lives every day to fight an unequal war against poachers and terrorists. It is a war we are all losing for lack of real political and economic support. Hundreds of Rangers die every year while performing their duties in the protection of wildlife. All our support should go to them, not just with words, but with deeds.
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