Protecting Nature’s Protectors

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What one conservationist is doing to assist wildlife rangers—“the world’s most dangerous civilian job.”

When Joshua Powell LPS’16 was 10 or 11, he encouraged his sister to film him during a family vacation to the Seychelles … explaining the importance of mangrove swamps to the environment. “I said they are inundated by water for some of the day, and they are completely exposed in the hot summer,” he recalls. “It’s amazing that they can adapt to this cycle. It would kill all other plants I could think of.”

From those precocious beginnings as a nature-obsessed boy, Powell, now 26, has emerged as a leading voice in conservation. Today, he’s empowering nature’s first-responders, the rangers who keep the world’s wilderness areas safe from poachers, pollution, and other depredations. He launched an organization called Rangers Without Borders in 2017 to do just that.

“Rangers work around the world in some of the most challenging environments, helping to protect our wildest areas and save our endangered animals. They are instrumental against poaching,” Powell explains. “It’s been described as the world’s most dangerous civilian job.” Yet they often lack resources, training, and government protection, or they are left to do their jobs in isolation without the teams they need.

This is especially true in wild lands near contested borders or warring neighbors. For example, rangers in Azerbaijan’s Hirkan National Park might be charged with protecting an endangered leopard. Yet they are helpless when the animal roams over the national border into Iran.

Rangers Without Borders aims to fix this, Powell says, by researching what rangers need and how they operate; securing funding from government and nonprofit agencies; and putting together training programs. He believes it can help create coalitions of rangers that transcend manmade borders.

Powell—who in March gave a presentation about his work at the Explorers Club, a 115-year-old professional society dedicated to scientific discovery and exploration, to a standing ovation—has received funding from the National Geographic Society and is working with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) on the research side.  

He’s been interested in conservation since he was a young boy. Growing up in Kent, England, he enjoyed watching BBC nature documentaries and later took zoology classes while his peers were playing cricket.

After studying geography at the University of Nottingham, he won the Thouron Award, giving him a full ride to get his master’s in environmental biology at Penn. Powell, though, spent very little time on Penn’s campus. He received funding to head to Yellowstone National Park to film a documentary on a wolf reintroduction program, an effort by the government to restore the natural predator to a habitat from which it had been eliminated. The final product was screened at Hayden Hall by Penn’s Earth & Environmental Sciences department. “Josh was one of the few students who took advantage of our funding,” says Harriet Joseph, former director of Penn’s Center for Undergraduate Research & Fellowships who advises University scholars. “He traveled all over; he was hands-on with his studies.”

Powell also journeyed to Puerto Rico for Penn’s inaugural environmental studies course there. His focus was on creating conservation policies for marine environments that don’t have clear borders. But other things caught his attention, too. His professor, Sarah Willig Gr’88, recalls a moment when Powell saw a Puerto Rican boa—an endangered species—slither near the group. “He was so excited,” she says.

As his master’s coursework was wrapping up, Powell met an Oxford student named Peter Coals, who helped train rangers in Belize. They started talking and realized there was a global misunderstanding of the tasks that wildlife rangers perform. “We had so many questions,” Powell says. “What support are they provided? What training? What happens if they are killed on duty? Is there support for their family? How well are rangers equipped to deal with poaching? What do they do if their region is on a contested border? How do they deal with trans-boundary conservation?”

Last year, Powell traveled to the Caucasus, a region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea that has valuable wildlife but is wrought with political friction between neighboring countries and separatist groups. There, he collected information on how and where rangers operate, and what they need. He also went on research expeditions to Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

He hopes to soon provide reports for major organizations like the WWF that fund rangers and show them how to target their grants more effectively.

It can be simple. For example, the rangers he interviewed in Kyrgyzstan were setting up cameras to monitor endangered species around a lake. The data collected was then sent offsite to specialists who identify species. A few cameras cost the same amount as an annual salary of one ranger, so Powell believes it would be more effective to use the funds to train the rangers to do the work themselves. “A single ranger with a pen and paper could get better quality data,” he says. “Then you are also giving rangers skills they can use forever in their career.”

The final stage of Rangers Without Borders will create training programs for rangers in specific regions. Rangers in one region might need more firearm training while others might need scientific training. That stage would also entail developing trans-boundary cooperation so rangers in contested regions can help one another succeed even when their governments are at odds. “[That’s] where it gets complicated,” he says. “We aren’t there yet.”

But those who know him best believe Powell is up to the task—and can be an effective spokesperson for wilderness conservation. “He talked about trying to work on communicating environmental issues to a larger audience,” says James Hagan, one of Powell’s professors at Penn, calling Powell an excellent communicator. “And I thought that perhaps at some point in time he might just do that.”

Alyson Krueger C’07 C’07

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