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Bangangai, South Sudan – Bibiana Martin can hardly remember a time when she didn’t live or work in the bush. The 32-year-old has been protecting South Sudan’s forests since she begged her grandfather to join the wildlife rangers at age 12, because her family could not afford to send her to school.
“The officers said, ‘You’re too young; you can’t be a ranger’, but I refused to listen. I said if I’m not going to school I don’t want to just sit in the house,” says Martin, waving her hands animatedly as she speaks, laughing much of the way through the conversation.
She sips her morning coffee next to a small fire at the ranger outpost on the edge of the Bangangai game reserve in southwest South Sudan, near the border with the Central African Republic. The post is non-descript, basic and remote. Several thatched huts line the area, each with a small garden adjacent to it where rangers grow vegetables. A few wooden benches and some plastic chairs are situated around the “kitchen” – really a small fire with some pots, where rangers take turns cooking meals of rice and beans.
Martin is open and at times nostalgic as she recounts her early years with the rangers. As one of just three female wildlife officers – out of 25 – at this outpost, she fights to protect South Sudan’s parks and animals in the wake of prolonged conflict, amid a lack of resources and an increasing risk of poaching and forest degradation.
Bangangai is approximately 170sq km (65.6sq miles) in size and is one of 19 protected areas in South Sudan – 13 game reserves and six national parks – covering more than 13 percent of the terrain. While the reserve is home to chimpanzees, bongo and the African golden cat, among other animals, they are often hard to find. Many fled or were killed during the country’s five-year-long civil war – which killed nearly 400,000 people and displaced millions between 2013 and 2018 – when the parks were inhabited by armed groups.
This part of the country was also overrun by conflict last year – some 80,000 people were displaced and hundreds killed from fighting between government and opposition-aligned militias in Tambura county. In contrast, the ranger post is a somewhat peaceful oasis, and rangers here say they feel like they are making a difference and trying to rebuild what was lost during the years of fighting.
Slinging her gun around her shoulder for the morning patrol, Martin finishes her coffee, grabs some water and follows the rangers into the park. Playful in the forest, she appears more like she’s bobbing than walking as she checks the ground and trees for traces of animals. Every time the rangers see footprints, they stop and record the GPS location of where it was.
The patrols can take a few hours if the rangers are just going out for the day, but usually, they last between five to eight days with the team sleeping in tents in the forest.
Everything they do is on foot with little access to vehicles or motorbikes.
In addition to tracking animals, they monitor the camera traps, which record the animals – and warn poachers that they will be caught on camera – and make sure signs are up, deterring people from killing them.
As part of her job, Martin also raises awareness with the surrounding community, speaking to them about the importance of preserving parks and not killing animals. She also catches poachers – or tries to. Despite rangers being forced to stop patrolling during the civil war years – with Martin remaining at the headquarters in Tambura during that time – across the years she has apprehended about 12 people for poaching, she says, even though many are let off with just a warning.
‘If I don’t work for it now, no one else will’
Born in Tambura, which is about 150km from Bangangai, as a girl Martin’s dream was to go to school. She would excitedly buy pens and notebooks at the market but when she’d show up to class she was kicked out, told her parents hadn’t paid her fees and she couldn’t attend, she says.
“I don’t feel good not having gone to school,” says Martin. “If I had, we could be communicating in English,” she jokes in her local language Azande. But that didn’t stop her from wanting to do something with her life. Her grandfather, who she grew up with, was a forest ranger. So at 12, Martin joined the rangers too, working at the office in Tambura town.
At first, she worked there for free, going into the office early to clean, make tea and learn about discipline and respect for oneself and others, as well as the importance of abiding by the law. Martin worked for three years without pay, supporting herself by brewing alcohol and selling tea at the market on the side, she says.
She then attended ranger training, and when she turned 15, Martin was given a gun – she remarks that it was lawless at the time, with the south and north still one country (Sudan) in conflict – and started patrolling in small towns and outposts near parks surrounding Tambura.
At 15, she also earned her first monthly paycheck, approximately $300 at the time, one of her most memorable moments, making up for the sadness she felt at not being able to go to school, she says. “My parents couldn’t pay for my school fees, but God made it possible to work with the rangers.”
For the next few years, Martin worked at various outposts in Western Equatoria moving up the ranks. Beaming, she points to the patch on her right sleeve, showing her promotion to second lieutenant that she earned in 2011, also the year South Sudan gained its independence.
After South Sudan’s 2013-2018 civil war officially ended, Martin wanted a new challenge and requested to come to the game reserve where she now lives with her daughter, Victoria, one of three.
The two live in a small hut with a vegetable garden out front that Martin spends a lot of time tending to when not patrolling, she says. While she doesn’t let Victoria come on patrol with her, she lets her help around the post, fetching water and helping with the garden. Several times a month, Martin patrols the reserve on foot with other rangers, often sleeping in a tent in the park for up to a week. She leaves her daughter at the outpost with other rangers when she’s away.
Martin married at 18, but divorced 11 years later. Caressing Victoria’s cheek, she says she has no desire to remarry, as is single-mindedly focused on earning a living so her children can have the opportunities she never did. Her two other daughters live with relatives in Yambio town, where they attend school. Martin plans to send Victoria to school soon. “My dream is to build a concrete house for my children on my own land and dig a well for them and send them to school,” she says.
Isolated and remote, life on the ranger post is not easy. There is no electricity, transport or any restaurants. Nine kilometres to the nearest town and phone coverage, Martin walks four hours, each way, several times a week if she wants to call work at headquarters or friends and family. Yet the veteran ranger is hardly phased, being used to hardship. “During the [civil] war there was no [phone] network, you would have to write letters and hand deliver them, which could take up to a week,” she says.
As one of few women at the post, Martin puts the men in their place, especially if they have had too much to drink, showing them videos of themselves when they get drunk and forcing them to apologise if they’ve been rude, she says. Well respected among her peers, her energy provides comic relief for the team as she bobs through the forest during patrols.
When not patrolling, Martin raised awareness with some 3,000 people. She gathered community and religious leaders in groups and gave talks about why it’s important to protect the parks and not kill animals, always motivated by a desire to help future generations.
“If I don’t work for it now, no one else will,” she says.
Yet it is hard to make a living in South Sudan. Pay for public servants is meagre; rangers make less than $100 a month – paid by the government – but can often go half a year without receiving a salary. Martin says she cannot even keep track of how much money she’s owed; the last time she remembers being paid was a year and a half ago. She relies on the $5 a day she makes during patrols, which she gets from Britain-based Fauna & Flora International (FFI), the only international conservation organisation currently operating in the country, that also pays stipends for patrols, trains rangers and helps with some logistics like bringing in food.
Protecting the parks, inspiring women
South Sudan has been hit hard by climate change. The country has experienced three years of devastating floods that have impacted some 850,000 people and killed hundreds of thousands of livestock. Yet the government puts little money into conservation.
Only some 100 rangers, with one car and no walkie-talkies, are charged with protecting Western Equatoria state’s forests and wildlife, much of it with no phone network.
While guarding the forests is not a priority for the war-weakened nation – less than 1 percent of the national budget, approximately $5.8m, was allocated to wildlife conservation, according to the 2019-2020 budget – conservationists have said it’s crucial to protect them.
“South Sudan has the potential to become a continental giant for wildlife conservation,” says Benoit Morkel, South Sudan country representative for the FFI. “Of course, when faced with so many other development emergencies, conservation may not be on the forefront of people’s minds, but better management of these incredible parks and natural resources would contribute significantly to sustainable development and climate resilience. And, considering South Sudan’s socioeconomic state and the climate crisis, now is the time to act.”
During the civil war, it was too dangerous for rangers to patrol the parks. But since then, rangers like Martin have returned hoping to make it more habitable for animals and also to raise awareness with communities about the importance of preserving the land and protecting the wildlife.
Martin and the others are proud of what they’ve done, saying they have seen more animals in the park recently, a sign that perhaps some are returning or not fleeing and not being poached due to their efforts.
Yet, the challenges and threats persist. Since the country’s fragile peace deal was signed more than three-and-a-half years ago, there’s been an increase in poaching outside the parks’ protected areas, as the reduction in fighting has made it easier for people to move freely and kill animals, according to locals and conservationists.
While poaching in the parks has decreased since the rangers returned, it has gotten worse in the non-protected forest areas. Rangers and community members near the park say the lack of employment is also a driver for killing animals because people are desperate to make money. During the war, people were afraid to move around, but now gunshots can be heard in the forests and locals tell Al Jazeera they see a lot more “bushmeat” being sold in the market than in previous years.
Rangers say they are ill-equipped to monitor the vast areas around the parks, lacking communication equipment and transport. South Sudan’s government told Al Jazeera it is doing what it can to protect the parks and wildlife, however minimal resources make it hard to access areas and catch poachers. “We have no binoculars, no state support, [we] need transport, communication or cameras,” says Joseph Mathew Waure, chief warden for Bangangai. Last September, rangers caught one poacher and kept him on their base because they had no vehicle to transport him to town. But after a month he escaped back to Congo, they say.
Continued fighting – like the violence in Tambura county that displaced 80,000 people last year – also posed challenges in protecting the parks; it forced one ranger post to close in Southern National Park.
Yet despite the setbacks, Martin says she will continue the fight, not only because she wants to protect the parks, but because she hopes her work will inspire women in South Sudan to take control of their lives.
Standing proudly in the centre of the ranger outpost, she speaks forcefully in front of her majority male colleagues.
“My message to the women of South Sudan is don’t be lazy, do any type of work to start your life,” she says. “It can help send your children to school, especially girl children. Don’t let them waste time and don’t let them stay at home.”