Some 50 rangers working in 17 countries across Africa won the inaugural African Ranger Awards, which were given out on August 7.
The awards will be given annually for the next 10 years by the Alibaba Foundation and the Paradise Foundation, a Chinese not-for-profit environmental conservation organisation.
At the ceremony held in Cape Town on Tuesday, Alibaba founder Jack Ma said, “Wildlife rangers are Africa's heroes not just because they protect its endangered species but because in turn that protects jobs and the economy.”
The winners included Asha Mnkeni, the first female ranger employed by Tanzania's National Parks Service, Craig Williams, who helped reduce rhino poaching in South Africa by 20 per cent, Jeneria Lekilelei, a Kenyan herdsmen working with his peers to persuade them not to kill lions, and
Nanyuki Lapalee, a Kenyan former poacher now using his bush skills for conservation, and working to reform other poachers.
Another winner was Walter Odokorwot, a Uganda community conservation warden at the Kidepo Valley Conservation Area. He is attached to the Uganda Wildlife Authority. Odokorwot devised and carried out a successful human-wildlife conflict strategy in Murchison Falls National Park.
Eleven of the winning rangers attended the event.
The rangers work in dangerous conditions, often far from their families and without the necessary resources.
Mugaruka Takembo, a winning ranger working in Upemba and Kundelungu National Park Complex in the DRC, described being captured and tortured during the course of his work.
“There is danger, and there is corruption; there is disappointment, but there is also hope,” he said.
Mnkeni talked about following her father in his profession as a wildlife ranger. “When I was a child, he showed me a picture of a poached elephant. It was so horrific that from that day I hated the poachers. From that day I decided to do this job,” she said.
"Rangers are the heroes because they protect the natural world for us and by doing that they protect jobs. I'm very honoured to be able to do this very meaningful thing and recognise their work," Ma said.
"When our grandchildren ask us what did we do that is meaningful in the world, we will be able to say that without [rangers] you would only see lions or elephants on BBC documentaries, but because of rangers you can still go and see them in the wild."
Unep executive director Erik Solheim, South Africa’s Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa, and Songtian Lin, Chinese ambassador to South Africa, addressed the event.
The honourees were selected from 146 nominations drawn from 21 African countries. Among the selected rangers, many have been injured or faced significant danger in confrontations with wildlife criminals.
Five rangers who lost their lives in the course of their work were among the 50 award winners.