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Militarization of conservation and anti-poaching – an army of occupation, not protection 

Global Geneva

As poaching of wildlife in Africa becomes more violent – rhino horn is worth more than gold or cocaine, making the stakes high – so are government countermeasures. Contributing editor Keith Somerville explores how efforts to thwart illicit trafficking are becoming more militaristic in approach, involving the shooting of poachers, but also innocent civilians.

Guardsmen advancing forward take up next firing position as mutual support is given by friendly forces.

In  February 2018, the United Kingdom’s Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that 20 British soldiers would be deployed in Malawi to help train game rangers to combat poachers. And at the end of May, Williamson was pictured with British soldiers and rhinos at the West Midlands Safari Park, just before the troops were to fly out. During this rather lame PR stunt, Williamson said that the troops would train ranger anti-poaching units in tracking, infantry skills, bushcraft and intelligence gathering.

He boasted (See UK Forces Network) that this detachment and other soldiers sent to Gabon for similar reasons would be passing on skills developed during tours of duty in war zones such as Afghanistan.

British soldiers to train Malawi rangers in counter-poaching. (Photo: National Parks of Malawi)

A number of questions immediately sprang to mind on on hearing this. One: what extra skills in tracking and bushcraft would a British soldier trained in the UK, with combat experience in Afghanistan, pass on to Malawian or Gabonese rangers who grew up as well as live and work in the bush environment in which they will work? Two: the UK’s deployment in Afghanistan was hardly a resounding military success and involved British troops carrying out counter-insurgency and search-and-destroy operations against the Taliban. How are those skills relevant to conservation and anti-poaching in Africa? And three: why is militarization of conservation deemed to be a good thing?

Shoot-to-kill: different approaches in Africa

In stark contrast to the combat-based approach adopted by the British Defence Secretary, the new President of Botswana, Mokgweetsi Masisi, announced in June 2018 that his country would be withdrawing military-grade weapons from its wildlife rangers and ending the shoot-to-kill policy (which often became a strategy of shooting suspected poachers on sight) utilized by anti-poaching units and soldiers of the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) for many years in the national parks and reserves of northern Botswana.

This approach had come under increasing criticism from communities in northern Botswana since the former president Ian Khama and his brother Tshekedi Standford Khama (the  Minister of Environment, Conservation, Natural Resources and Tourism) banned hunting in 2014. This impoverished many rural communities, which relied on hunting income. It also led to an increase in poaching for bushmeat and the involvement of Botswana officials with poachers who crossed into the country from Namibia and Zambia to kill elephants for their ivory.

In announcing the change of policy, (See Africa Sustainable News) Masisi had responded to a parliamentary vote on 22 June to lift the hunting ban. This launched a nationwide consultation on ending the ban. The new president was thus responding not only to  domestic criticism of the previous policies, but also years of complaints from Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe of the extra-judicial killing of their nationals suspected of poaching. This tended to involve a “shoot first and ask questions later” approaches by Botswana soldiers and rangers.

The Khama brothers were trenchant supporters of this hardline policy, which, in 2015 alone, resulted in the killing of 30 Namibians, 22 Zimbabweans and an un-specified number of Zambians.  Many of those killed, particularly the Namibians, were just as likely to have been fisherman who had strayed across the Linyanti or Chobe rivers that run along the Namibia-Botswana border, but shot as poachers. The Namibian government had repeatedly protested the killings of Namibians by Botswana’s rangers, police or soldiers. Windhoek maintained that while it did not condone poaching, it objected to the policy of shooting suspected poachers on sight.

In contrast, the Kenyan government has announced it will introduce legislation to impose the death penalty for poaching. The country’s Minister for Tourism and Wildlife, Najib Balala, declared this was needed as a deterrent to the killing of wildlife for ivory, rhino horn, skins or meat, arguing that existing penalties were insufficient. What he might more realistically have said is that law enforcement and justice in Kenya are woefully inadequate in dealing with any form of crime, poaching included.  The kingpins of poaching and wildlife smuggling in Kenya are rarely brought to trial in a country where corruption, including amongst senior officials, is seen as the rule rather than the exception in the police and justice systems. (In South Africa, recent allegations maintain that even the court system is involved with wildlife trafficking).

Not surprisingly, the Kenyatta government in Nairobi has been very keen on linking wildlife poaching and smuggling with globally-despised insurgent groups, notably Al-Shabaab. The Kenyan president accused the Somali militant group of funding the attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in 2013 from ivory proceeds. This not only diverted attention from Kenya’s invasion of southern Somalia to fight Al-Shabaab (a likely cause of increased attacks in Kenya) but also put attention on insurgents as poachers and traders in illegal wildlife rather than on the smuggling networks that operate in Kenya under a veil of police corruption and political patronage.

The Al-Shabaab ivory connection was “uncovered” by the Elephant Action League NGO in 2013, on the basis of what was said to be infiltration and phone-tap evidence.  The claim that up to 40 per cent of the Islamist movement’s military activities and manpower was funded from ivory poaching and trading has since been disproved by my own research  (See Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa by Keith Somerville revealing how the illegal ivory trade is tied to corruption, conflicts, colonialism and local livelihoods); by the work of Cathy Haenlein and Tom Maguire of Rusi.org ( See Poaching, Wildlife Trafficking and Security in Africa: Myths and Realities) and by reports from ivory trade expert Daniel Stiles (See Ivory, Terrorism and U.S. National Security).

British forces training Afghan military in Afghanistan. (Photo: UK MOD)

But the now-discredited Al-Shabaab connection has been used to build a narrative of ivory-insurgency links that have spread to unsupported reports of Boko Haram in Nigeria (See Global Geneva: Who’s behind the ivory trafficking in Africa?) benefiting from ivory poached in Gabon and the justification by people such as the British Defence Secretary that militarization of anti-poaching coupled with the deployment of British troops to train rangers in infantry tactics is necessary to combat poaching’s role in global insecurity. He asserted, without data to convincingly back it up, that “a lot” of the estimated $17bn a year generated by illegal wildlife trade goes into terrorism.

This claim that wildlife smuggling is funding insurgency is turning poaching and smuggling into a global security threat. This approach is not only uninformed, but neither realistic nor constructive. Instead, based on more compelling evidence, it should be considered both a conservation threat and a criminal activity.

Militarization damages conservation

Militarization harms rather than helps conservation.  Successful conservation and anti-poaching cannot rely on shooting poachers or a virtual military occupation of national parks and surrounding areas. More pertinently, it needs to gain the support of local communities for conservation by providing incentives for those communities to report poachers and to protect the environment. (In Malawi, for example, allowing beekeepers back into the national parks to hang their hives – a vital source of cash income –s drastically reduced poaching because bush burning to move game also destroyed the hives, prompting local farmers to report illegals).

Elephants in Botswana. (Photo: Botswana National Parks)

This can be done  more successfully through the development of community conservancies (See WWF report on conserving wildlife and enabling communities in Namibia) in which local people are empowered and gain income they see coming directly from wildlife protection. This enhanced sharing of income from tourism, including the devolution of control over wildlife in unprotected areas, is proving far more effective than the current militarization and use of counter-insurgency methods, which tend to operate against whole communities.

One of the first military-style anti-poaching operations was run by Bill Woodley and David Sheldrick in Kenya’s Tsavo Park in the late 1950s.  Taking tactics from the brutal British counter-insurgency against the Land and Freedom Army (aka Mau Mau), they battled Waliangulu and Wakamba hunters, who had traditionally roamed the region before the imposition of colonial bans on hunting by indigenous (not European) communities.  Sheldrick’s wife Daphne summed up the attitude of the anti-poaching commanders to the local communities when she argued that “almost the entire population of the Waliangulu” were in some way involved in poaching or had been in prison for it. Patently untrue, this was unlikely to elicit the communities’ help in stopping poaching.

Involving local populations – here in Namibia – conservation. (Photo: NASCO)

This attitude of blaming whole communities is not uncommon. Combined with military tactics, this leads to wildlife rangers or troops seconded to anti-poaching operations becoming in what amounts to an army of occupation in and around parks or reserves. The local communities are considered the enemy.

Rosal Duffy identified this problem in her book Nature Crime, when she wrote that Malawian wildlife rangers trained by former South African military personnel were implicated in 300 murders, 325 disappearances, 250 rapes and countless instances of torture in and around Liwonde National park in 1998-2000.

The rangers to be trained by the British soldiers will work in Liwonde as well as Malawi’s Majete and Nkhotakota reserves. A convenient link and source of funding for this operation comes via the British royal family. The army team, known as counter-poaching-operatives, is partly funded by a charity run by the Prince of Wales African Parks, which manages the reserves and has law enforcement powers in regions around the parks, has Prince Harry as its president.

The danger posed by militarization is multifaceted.  If the rangers become an army of occupation targeting local communities as the enemy – as the pool from which poachers emerge – this can lead to violence and the killing of innocent local people. At best, it will label whole villages or peoples as suspect.

Furthermore, it introduces, through shoot-to-kill policies, an extra-judicial form of punishment. No trial, no chance of defence, just summary justice in countries which do not have the death penalty for poaching.  Any idea of a law enforcement or justice-based approach to dealing with poaching disappears. It is replaced by a raw counter-insurgency approach, which rarely even has the old attributes of a just war, given that it is not a state defending itself against attack or occupation. Instead, it involves state-backed officials carrying out a war against their own people on the grounds that the crime of poaching has now become a security threat nationally, regionally and internationally.

This is not to argue that rangers should not be armed or trained in the use of arms and how to track poachers. However, counter-insurgency techniques are counter-intuitive.  Rangers become the enemies of local communities in wildlife-rich areas. Local people also come to see conservation and wildlife as a threat to their livelihoods and may opt to kill animals to end attempts at the fortress conservation approach with its accompanying militarized rangers.

African rangers dealing with poaching. (Photo: BIOSEC Project)

According to Conservation Watch, 595 rangers were killed between 2009 and 2016 in the line of duty; another 48 were killed by poachers in 2017. Militarization will only increase the death toll of rangers, and of ordinary people who become poachers through impoverishment, the desire to better the living conditions of their families and for a host of reasons unconnected with insurgency, terrorism or global security.

As observed by Professor Rosaleen Duffy of Lancaster University and head of the BIOSEC Project, which critically examines the inter-relationships between biodiversity conservation and security, we are in danger of falling in with “the increasing acceptability of human deaths in defence of animal lives. In stark terms poachers are presented as the allowable and acceptable casualties of a war for biodiversity…It plays into a much longer history of colonialism – and feeds the idea that wildlife simply matters more than African lives.”

If we do not start from the position that if local people suffer from rather than gain from the existence of wildlife, and if they develop grievances against conservation and protected areas, then no amount of militarization and use of counter-insurgency tactics will prevent wildlife from being killed.  You make conservation and development problems into a war, rather than finding locally-supportable solutions that are of greater and more lasting benefit.

Professor Keith Somerville teaches journalism at the University of Kent and is a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent. His latest publications are Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa and Africa’s Long Road Since Independence: The Many Histories of a Continent.  He is also a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, and a research associate at the Marjan Centre for the Study of War and the Non-Human Sphere at King’s College, London.

2 thoughts on “Militarization of conservation and anti-poaching – an army of occupation, not protection 

  1. To say that militarization is responsible for the death of innocents and community enmity is an idea of enormous proportions. As for the 595 rangers killed, we must remember that official statistics are products of actions in the field – disregarding the deaths far from the field, but effectively the result of their activity – victims of retaliation. One more that defends the romantic and socialized view of crime. You gathered it all into one bag, mixed it, and threw it into the audience. Even the NGO African Parks and Mrs. Daphne Sheldrick found themselves inside this bag. This time you have overcome.

    Obviously, communities that provide criminal labor will complain! Who are the innocent civilian victims who are carrying guns, horns, ivory to walk around protected areas? The ban on trophy hunts in Botswana’s public reserves and its links to the “impoverishment of communities” has nothing to do with militarization. Very interesting is the simplistic argument of firing first and asking afterwards. It is no longer efficient to propose that the government legalize the community’s reserves, and each should resolve the type of tourism that is best for them to explore. To say that militarization is inimical to communities is to say that the police are enemies of good citizens. It is to induce to believe that armed patrols are enemies of the community., as it can lead to violence and murder of local innocent people is a disservice of any prospect; even the community that makes a conservation project on their land will have to make choices. Wildlife will only develop its quantitative if there is hegemony of attitude. If many members of the community sabotage the reservation through poaching, community justice will solve the problem. Have you seen how certain communities treat their offenders? How it is more violent and repressive than the men armed and trained by the state.

    This leftist position with an ideological bias to place armed efforts to curb crimes as an occupation rather than a
    protection regime is at least biased, since none of those countries that are using military methods to protect their wildlife are suffering from instability institutional, not even Zimbabwe. Poaching for consumption may not have greatly reduced, but all tour operators in northern Botswana were celebrating the climate of peace and ensuring protection of their enterprises and customers. Since Masisi flagged earlier this year, the recall of weapons and military equipment than ivory hunting has increased dramatically. In the local elephant census that is underway by Dr. Mike Chase, more than 50 carcasses were found in only two days of aerial sightings. This number is higher than what was found in a whole week due to the large elephant census that occurred in 2013.

    For you, ivory hunters and rhino horns are innocent! The crime of bushmeat is acceptable and reflective of a situation of
    poverty! Search the internet for the study entitled Illegal Bushmeat huntIng In the Okavang Delta, Botswana (DrIvers, Impacts and potentIal solutions), which makes a very interesting observation: most hunters are those who own land and livestock, and do not directly face poverty , makes use of hunting only by the criterion of easy opportunity since the Penal Law is soft, and the meat used, even when it is not used commercially, it substitutes the need to use its domestic cattle (demystifies that poverty is the motor leading poaching).

    In most of Africa, poaching is the biggest threat to wildlife and we must treat the problem with due seriousness. Without
    these segmented views they place criminals as social victims.

  2. I’m afraid this is just rubbish and you have not read or understood the piece properly. It is not biased but based on research. At no place do I say elephant or rhino poachers are innocent. But they are criminals who should be prosecuted not shot on sight as part of some sort of quasi-war. This is about conservation and law enforcement not conflict. In what away is it “leftist position with an ideological bias to place armed efforts to curb crimes as an occupation “? I know all about the elephant surveys and the reasons for the upsurge in poaching – demand from outside, and local grievances over the hunting ban and elephant damage – as Timex Moalosi and others told me in Maun earlier in the year. The innocent civilians are those harassed by military and ranger units, or are shot in sight because they are in a protected area. They are undoubtedly doing something they should but poaching, collecting wood and illegal fishing, while crimes are not punishable by death in any country in Africa. Use of such violence only increases local grievances and solves nothing. African parks and Sheldrick have been involved in one way or another in increasing militarization and i vilifying whole communities – read Daphne Sheldrick’s book. And a polite warning to finish off, if you continue to throw accusations around that have no basis, then you will be blocked from posting. Keep it reasonable and supported, not just baseless accusations on a misreading of what I write or ignorance of the topic. You have been warned.

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