The Thin Green Line: park rangers risking their lives

Hands up who has been shot at
After 10 years as a park ranger, Sean Willmore packed up his life and took to the road to record the experiences of his fellow rangers around the globe. The result is a revealing and inspiring documentary

It sounds like quite a good gig being a park ranger. Imagine a life spent working outdoors in big open spaces and beautiful wild places, wandering through forests, protecting our natural wonders. Add to the job description some fun toys and, of course, the khaki uniform, and you can understand why this earthy occupation is so popular.

But, in reality, working as a park ranger is not all cuddly koalas and cosy information centres. It's a tough job. In fact, in some places it can actually be downright deadly.

During the ten years Sean Willmore worked as a park ranger in Australia, he came face to face with his fair share of dangers. There were encounters with deadly snakes and other angry creatures; a few close calls with banjo-plucking, trigger-happy pig hunters and their savage dogs; and his desperate and sadly unsuccessful attempt to save a drowning man in the waters off Wilson's Promontory, Victoria, in 1997 - for which he was later awarded a medal of bravery. But none of it, according to Willmore, compares with being a ranger in other parts of the world.

The idea for the Thin Green Line came at an International Ranger Federation (IRF) conference in 2003. At this gathering, Willmore met with other rangers from across the world and he was shocked and inspired by what he saw. 'I was at an IRF meeting at Wilson's Prom and I met rangers who had bullet holes and machete scars across their bodies,' he says. 'These guys had put themselves on the frontline of conservation work and they've been fired upon and stabbed for it.'

Moved by what he saw at that meeting, an idea was born. Willmore put his life on hold, remortgaged his house, sold his car, and made plans to uncover these stories and to show them to the world. With no film-making experience, and armed only with a small hand-held camera, he decided to dive in the deep end and set off to make a documentary about rangers.

A different journey

Travelling to 23 countries across six continents, and with access to many remote places through his membership to the ranger community, Willmore was able to witness amazing wilderness areas and also become close friends with many park rangers. The result of his journey is The Thin Green Line: a documentary that tells the stories of dedicated and courageous park rangers who put themselves directly in the line of fire to help protect our planet - often for little reward, and at great risk.

The fact that violence and death is an everyday reality for these rangers seems to be the most pertinent point for Willmore. 'Some of these guys are working in places where there are commercial poachers with AK47s and where civil wars are taking place,' he says. 'They do this to protect the world's endangered plants and animals for all of us.'

The plight of John Makambo, who is featured in the documentary, is a perfect case in point. Makambo is tasked with protecting 300 of the world's 700 remaining mountain gorillas in Uganda. In his time as a ranger, he has been shot at by rebels and attacked by poachers with machetes. 'People worldwide want our endangered species protected, but who is going to protect these guys?' Willmore asks. 'These people are truly on the frontline of conservation work.'

A notable foundation

Willmore's resolve to do something about these issues has proven to be a huge success. On July 31, 2007, The Thin Green Line premiered in 35 countries, in 330 locations, and was seen by many thousands of people. Even Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger voiced his support and declared July 31 California State Park Ranger Day. Since the premiere of the documentary, Willmore's tenacity to tackle this issue has only increased. Not content with the achievements of the documentary alone, he has transformed The Thin Green Line into a not-for-profit foundation that provides financial assistance to rangers and their families if they're killed during duty.

'How would people in Australia feel if 150 rangers had been shot and killed in Kakadu over the last ten years?' asks Willmore. 'The Thin Green Line says to these guys, we've got your back. And if something happens to you, we'll look after your family too.'

Making the Thin Green Line has also given Willmore plenty of hair-raising tales of his own to tell. He casually speaks of close calls with mad-eyed militia groups, being charged by elephants, and an almost humorous story of escaping a group of blood-thirsty rebels by pretending he was a priest and blessing local onlookers while guns were pointed at his head.

Willmore's life is now a busy blur of managing the day to day operations of the foundation. All donations made to The Thin Green Line Foundation go directly to the cause. Willmore makes money where he can through his public speaking engagements and his new Ranger in Danger books for kids.

For Willmore, inspiring people across the planet is now an everyday reality, but he takes it all in his stride. What does give him a big buzz, however, is seeing all his hard work make a difference by handing over the cash to the rangers and the widows of those killed in the line of duty.

'A few years ago, I was a nobody,' says Willmore, 'and now I'm handing over a year's wage to a ranger's widow.'

'There's no better job,' he says, 'these people are my true heroes.'

Sean Willmore was the winner of the 2009 United Nations World Environment Day Individual Award.

For more information about The Thin Green Line and to make donations, please click here.


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