Wildlife rangers working to save animals from poachers are experiencing psychological trauma, Scientific American reports in its February 2017 issue.
Throughout the African continent, poachers are targeting animals in order to participate in illegal wildlife trade. In 2015, poachers killed 24,000 elephants and 1,300 rhinos.
The rangers trying to protect these animals face danger, trauma, and loss.
In a recent World Wildlife Fund survey of 12 African countries, 82 percent of the 570 rangers indicated that they experienced life-threatening situations while working. Over the last decade, roughly 1,000 rangers have been killed.
The traumas that these rangers face can cause severe mental stress.
Scientific American interviewed clinical psychologist Susanna Fincham about what mental health issues rangers in Sabie, South Africa are facing as they protect animals from poachers.
According to Fincham, rangers experience anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), because the rise of poaching has created a type of “guerilla warfare” around the targeted animals.
Prior to 2006, rangers only used firearms to control animals when necessary. Since poachers are launching organized cartels to capture the animals while heavily armed, the rangers now need to use their guns against other humans.
This violence and danger, rangers are exposed to makes them prone to mental health issues like anxiety and PTSD.
To mitigate these issues, Fincham uses preventative techniques to help rangers from developing PTSD.
“This entails careful clinical assessment of their emotional state,” Fincham explained. “One step is psychoeducation, or the impartment of knowledge about the body’s response to trauma, including why they sweat, shake, struggle to fall asleep, and have increased startle reflexes.”
Fincham helps rangers with these physiological symptoms by training them to control their breathing and muscle tension. She also uses a narrative approach to help them work through their emotions about a traumatic situation they experienced.
Rangers face a few challenges when dealing with the psychological toll of their stress, such as lack of research on the issues they face and the South African stigma against men seeing a psychologist.
According to Fincham things are looking up for rangers who need help.
“Now more senior rangers are seeking assistance, so we’re chipping away at that [mental health stigma] wall,” she said.
Fincham has helped about 120 rangers since 2011, and also speaks with concerned family members.
Fincham is working to improve therapy for rangers, and hopes to provide more help for them.
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“I’m developing a culturally sensitive therapeutic strategy specifically for rangers, and I’d like to collate and publish all the information I’ve found so it’s available for anyone who wants to use it. Long term, I would also love to see a special independent unit of psychologists and social workers established for rangers.”