Alone, a militarized conservation force will never win the war.

By October 30, 2020November 20th, 2020Editorial

During a coffee break at a long-past conservation seminar, I eavesdropped on a small breakaway group chatting about poaching. Rhino poaching, to be precise. Nothing unusual about that—when conservationists meet in South Africa, you’ve got as much chance of not hearing opinions about rhinos as you have of watching CNN and not hearing anything about next week’s US elections or Covid-19.

One fellow in the group, louder and more opinionated than his companions—there’s always one—was espousing his poaching “cure.” “If you ask me,” he proclaimed, notwithstanding that no one actually had, “there’s only one way of sorting the poachers, and that is, more troops on the ground, with orders to shoot on sight and ask questions afterwards. That’s the only language those buggers understand.”

Apart from the racist overtones of such a statement, the call for more “troops,” meaning armed game ranger anti-poaching units, is questionable on many grounds. Notwithstanding the moral issues around taking a human life, where would the money come from to fund such an expanded ranger “army”? Certainly not from governments who almost universally under-fund conservation, and not from NGOs whose resources are also stretched to cover the demands placed on them.

Recently, a rhino was killed for its horn in the Kruger National Park. Sadly, as most of us know, this is not an uncommon occurrence. This particular event, however, had an unexpected twist. The rhino had been slaughtered close to a perimeter fence line, and by the time rangers got to the scene, not only was the horn gone but two of the creature’s legs as well. The limbs had been taken for their meat by a community living at the edge of the park.

The rangers acted in good faith and in the best interests of people and the park. While understanding the attraction of “free” meat, by turning a blind eye to community members entering the park, a dangerous precedent would be set. Not only this, but there would also be a real risk to their safety. After all, humans would not be the only ones attracted to the carcass, as the scent would soon be picked up by lions, hyenas, and other dangerous predators. The rangers sensibly called in a helicopter, and the remainder of the carcass was duly maneuvered into a sling and airlifted to a more remote area for nature’s scavengers to do their work. As this was being done, an angry and vocal crowd gathered along the fence. Their purpose was not to express anger at the death of yet another rhino but misguidedly to remonstrate with the organization perceived as denying them a valuable protein source.

The photograph used at the head of this commentary captures the moment. A distressing scene, vividly portraying the tension between poor people and the forbidden bounty of a neighboring game reserve. It is a tension that manifests all too often in poverty-ridden countries around the world.

In so many ways, these two accounts reveal much about the conundrum that is conservation in these difficult times. But before I go any further, let me express my unreserved regard for game rangers around the world. They really are part of a Thin Green Line. These brave, shamefully badly paid men and women have the daunting task of protecting the beleaguered wild spaces of our planet.

Often under-trained and under-equipped, they work in harsh environments. While in conservation areas that are home to elephants, rhinos, lions, tiger, pangolins, and many other animals hunted for their body parts, they have to face down poaching gangs frequently better armed than they are. Put simply, without game rangers—many of whom have lost their lives in the line of duty—the world’s great game reserves would face a sad but inevitable future—utter destruction.

That said, there is a need for circumspection. There is an increasing tendency to describe rangers as front-line heroes fighting the forces of evil. We refer to the “war against
poaching.” And it is a war. Bullets often fly, and people do get wounded and die. Even worse, the conflict shares the many characteristics of a civil war. Poachers and the rangers can be members of the same rural communities. Families are ruined by death on both sides of the divide.

There is no question that anti-poaching units are essential if the integrity of conservation areas is to be protected. But we should also understand that the violent confrontation between rangers and poachers, the so-called militarization of conservation, has pitfalls that can result in unjust outcomes and many other unintended, harmful consequences. These are excellently probed in “Why we must question the militarization of conservation,” a paper by Rosaleen Duffy et al.

The points raised by Duffy and her colleagues need careful reflection and further research that “provides important opportunities for dialogue to develop better conservation practice, with more positive outcomes for wildlife and for people.”

A particular point that many readers might not have considered is the effect of militarization on the rangers themselves. We have a somewhat romanticized view that portrays these young men and women as passionate individuals that love what they do. While this may partly hold true, there is no escaping the fact that rangers are increasingly being drawn away from typical conservation duties and into a messy, dangerous world akin to guerrilla warfare. The result is an alarming rise in post-traumatic stress disorder amongst rangers and other staff.

But what of the other side of the coin: the world of the poachers. Insights into the societal, community and individual reasons behind wildlife crime have been few and far between. Of immense value, therefore, is a recent report by TRAFFIC, the global wildlife trade monitoring network. In The People Beyond the Poaching, interviews with 73 convicted wildlife offenders in South Africa make essential reading for anyone trying to get their head around the matrix of drivers behind poaching.

Most of the interviews were with offenders that operated at the coalface, the poachers themselves rather than those higher up in the smuggling supply chain. A slew of reasons reveals why they became involved. These include the lack of available jobs, the need to provide for family needs, the dream of a better life, the perception of easy money for little risk, the lack of social stigma attached to poaching, a corrupt government, and many more.

Of all the telling quotes, one really resonated with me. This was from the poacher who said, “I didn’t go to Skukuza because I wanted to; I was in a difficult situation. My friends in the village used to come back with money after working in Skukuza. What attracted me most is that they were living a good life, they had nice houses, and they could afford anything they wanted, whenever they wanted it. I wished for that. One day I went to the tavern with a person who poaches rhinos. We met some other people there. The way they were behaving made me look like I am not man enough because I couldn’t afford what they could. I was turned into a laughing stock in my community. Then one night I met a stranger and he asked me if I know who the people are in the village that can help him get rhino horn. I told him I could do it.”

Ultimately, the lesson is clear. We can militarize conservation to the nth degree, but we’ll never succeed unless the underlying socio-political issues that drive the illegal wildlife trade are addressed. All we will be doing is taking a pill to ease a headache while a deadly disease flourishes unchecked in the background.