CAPE TOWN - Passionate, incorruptible and brave - these are just a few of the words to describe the guardians of Africa's rich biodiversity, the continent's park rangers.
The first ever African Rangers Awards held in South Africa this week cast a spotlight on these "heroes", as they were described by United Nations Environment executive director Erik Solheim during the ceremony.
Fifty rangers were honoured for their contribution towards conservation efforts on the continent.
While it's often a thankless, dangerous job, with the threat from brazen poachers ever-present, the rangers can't imagine doing anything else.
According to statistics from the International Ranger Federation, which describes itself as a non-profit organisation raising awareness and supporting the critical work of rangers in conserving the world’s natural and cultural heritage, 269 rangers have died protecting Africa's wildlife and wild places since 2012. Of these, 176 died at the hands of militia groups or armed poachers.
Fernando Macamero is a ranger at the Niassa National Reserve in Mozambique and told the African News Agency (ANA) that despite coming face to face with armed poachers several times over the years, his commitment to conservation is unshaken.
"Being a ranger is like to be a soldier. It's quite dangerous, mostly in our national parks, we face armed poachers, which we've got a lot of colleagues that passed on that died on duty, but I love what I do and I choose to be what I am and this is who I am," said Macamero.
Last December, Macamero and his fellow rangers had a close call when they came across a gang of poachers killing elephants in the reserve.
"The poachers just fired shots and they were shooting the elephants and there were some that were injured so what we did we just ran to the place where they were firing. Me, I had a shotgun with me, the others [rangers] were unarmed," he said.
"What I did I just fired by shotgun...running towards them so they end up giving up. They left everything and just ran away and we recovered everything. They had about 28 tusks plus the elephants that were killed, cellphones, ammunitions, AK47s, their foodstuffs."
Macamero said while conservation efforts are bearing fruit, and they are tightening the net around poachers, it's also having an undesired effect.
"The more we making things hard for them [poachers], so what they do they becoming more aggressive because whenever they manage to kill an animal, they don't want to be stopped, so they shoot on us, but we are prepared."
Asha Mnkeni was the first woman appointed as a ranger in Tanzania's National Parks in 2003.
During the award ceremony she recalled how she came to the decision to follow in her father's footsteps and help protect the biodiverse region she was raised in.
"One day my father came to the house with a picture of an elephant killed by poachers. That picture made me very sad and that picture made me want to hunt poachers until today," she said.
Asha said there's not much she hates about her job, but conceded it does take its toll on family life.
"Conservation is like driven passion, so when you love something, it's hard to see its bad...so for me the problem I face is taking care of my family only," she said.
Zambian wildlife ranger Voster Mweene said while he was proud of his ranger award, he said the continent needs more wildlife protection officers and rangers needed more support.
"To me, it is making sense because rangers need to be equipped, need to be fully trained and rangers are the foundation for a successful business of conservation," said Mweene.
"Having no ranger in a protected area is like having a vehicle with no tyres. It can have good engines, but it cannot move."
All three rangers ANA spoke to said the awards were a morale booster for them, but said more resources and support for their work was key to turning the tide against conservation crimes.
Sean Willmore, president of the International Rangers Federation, stressed that rangers often had to work with very little resources and very little support, with some dying without insurance or pensions, leaving their families destitute.
The IRF, through its charity arm - The Thin Green Line Foundation - lends some financial support to the families of rangers who have died in the line of duty. He appealed on parks authorities to do the "right thing" and ensure rangers have some form of life insurance.
"They watch colleagues fall in line of duty and they have to go out the next day and do the same thing."
African News Agency (ANA)