Welcome to the “For Rangers Ultra” – a very special ultra-race which treats its competitors to 230 kilometers in the company of Africa’s “Big Five”: lions, elephants, rhinos, leopards and buffalo. The event charts a course through Kenya’s national parks under the watchful eyes of the rangers it aims to support.
In October of this year William Hofmeyr, chief ranger at the Olarro reserve in Kenya – home to Africa’s “Big Five” (elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards and buffalo) and countless other wild animals – was attacked while out on one of his regular patrols. A dart pierced his cheek, but at the wheel of his off-roader, Hofmeyr blocked out the blood loss and pain to give chase. His assailants were poachers, hunting elephants for their tusks. Hofmeyr and his fellow rangers line up against such criminals on a daily basis, making it their business to protect the animals from this human threat. And so to “For Rangers Ultra”, an ultra-race event that takes participants through the heart of the rangers’ territory, past the resident elephants and lions. The event was set up to support the rangers, who in turn keep a protective watch over runners and animals alike throughout the race. Unfortunately, the rangers never caught the men who attacked Hofmeyr. But as the incident underlines, it’s not just the animals who need help; the people working to protect them also deserve greater appreciation.
The For Rangers Ultra covers 230 kilometers through five of Kenya’s national parks and took place for the first time in 2018. The event is split into five stages, the runners pounding their way across the almost endless expanses of the open savannah. However, at no point in their journey are they ever alone. The route is populated by pretty much any wild animal you’d care to think of; giraffe, rhinos, lions, wild dogs, ostriches, crocodiles, hyenas and zebra – they are all out there.
It’s the animals that bring tourists to Kenya, year after year, in their droves. Visitors from around the world come here on safari tours, eager to see lions at close quarters and witness a rhino in its natural habitat with their own eyes. But what most tourists will only be able to admire from a safari vehicle, the For Rangers Ultra runners experience rather more directly. Herds of zebra cross their path, elephants amble along the route and giraffes peer at them from a safe distance.
On hand to ensure the competitors don’t get too close to the wilder side of the wildlife are the rangers. They keep a vigilant eye on the runners throughout the event, sometimes from atop a hill rising out of the grassland, at others from even further up in a helicopter. But of course, it is not always possible to prevent the runners coming face to face with an animal. Late in the third stage of this year’s event, a handful of participants had a too-close-for-comfort encounter with a bull elephant and a member of his family, receiving a trumpeted fanfare as they arrived at the Ol Jogi private ranch. Elephants are protected and their tusks sell for scarily high prices on the black market. Plus, illegal traders can also earn big bucks for rhino horns and lion skins. Which explains why poachers will go to any lengths to get their hands on these prized luxuries. The For Rangers Ultra gives ultra-runners the opportunity to join the fight against the poachers – and support the rangers by raising awareness of the work they do. A high-profile event like this can do wonders for the cause.
The athletes carry everything they need for the duration of the race: food, drink, safety equipment and running gear. They bed down in tents every night, with the rangers keeping guard over the camp at all times. However, sleep doesn’t come easily to many, such are the unfamiliar, unsettling noises emerging from the darkness. Most people simply aren’t used to hearing a lion or elephant exercising their vocal chords in the depths of night.
The For Rangers Ultra is a joint enterprise between the For Rangers organization and the Save the Rhino project. Numbers of some rhino species have fallen below 80 worldwide, and yet an average of three rhinos a day are still killed for their coveted horns. For Rangers and Save the Rhino are committed to protecting the various species and supporting the rangers, in the hope that the situation will improve in the future.
The 50-strong field for the inaugural For Rangers Ultra were led on their way by a runner dressed as a rhino – who stayed with them over the full distance. The next For Rangers Ultra will take place in September 2019, giving ultra-athletes another chance to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the rangers and protect the treasures of the wild from poachers.