The road to hell can be paved with good intentions. A cautionary account that shows the dangers of militarisation and victimisation of local communities. KS
Down the road from the crocodile ponds inside Nepal’s renowned Chitwan National Park, in a small clearing shaded by sala trees, sits a jail. Hira Chaudhary went there one summer night with boiled green maize and chicken for her husband, Shikharam, a farmer who had been locked up for two days.
Shikharam was in too much pain to swallow. He crawled toward Hira, his thin body covered in bruises, and told her through sobs that forest rangers were torturing him. “They beat him mercilessly and put saltwater in his nose and mouth,” Hira later told police.
The rangers believed that Shikharam helped his son bury a rhinoceros horn in his backyard. They couldn’t find the horn, but they threw Shikharam in their jail anyway, court documents filed by the prosecution show.
Nine days later, he was dead.
An autopsy showed seven broken ribs and “blue marks and bruises” all over his body. Seven eyewitnesses corroborated his wife’s account of nonstop beatings. Three park officials, including the chief warden, were arrested and charged with murder.
This was a sensitive moment for one of the globe’s most prominent charities. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) had long helped fund and equip Chitwan’s forest rangers, who patrol the area in jeeps, boats, and on elephant backs alongside soldiers from the park’s in-house army battalion. Now WWF’s partners in the war against poaching stood accused of torturing a man to death.
WWF’s staff on the ground in Nepal leaped into action — not to demand justice, but to lobby for the charges to disappear. When the Nepalese government dropped the case months later, the charity declared it a victory in the fight against poaching. Then WWF Nepal continued to work closely with the rangers and fund the park as if nothing had happened.
As for the rangers who were charged in connection with Shikharam’s death, WWF Nepal later hired one of them to work for the charity. It handed a second a special anti-poaching award. By then he had written a tell-all memoir that described one of his favorite interrogation techniques: waterboarding.
Shikharam’s alleged murder in 2006 was no isolated incident: It was part of a pattern that persists to this day. In national parks across Asia and Africa, the beloved nonprofit with the cuddly panda logo funds, equips, and works directly with paramilitary forces that have been accused of beating, torturing, sexually assaulting, and murdering scores of people. As recently as 2017, forest rangers at a WWF-funded park in Cameroon tortured an 11-year-old boy in front of his parents, the family told BuzzFeed News. Their village submitted a complaint to WWF, but months later, the family said they still hadn’t heard back.
WWF said that it does not tolerate any brutality by its partners. “Human rights abuses are totally unacceptable and can never be justified in the name of conservation,” the charity said in a statement.
But WWF has provided high-tech enforcement equipment, cash, and weapons to forces implicated in atrocities against indigenous communities. In the coming days, BuzzFeed News will reveal how the charity has continued funding and equipping rangers, even after higher-ups became aware of evidence of serious human rights abuses.
A yearlong BuzzFeed News investigation across six countries — based on more than 100 interviews and thousands of pages of documents, including confidential memos, internal budgets, and emails discussing weapons purchases — can reveal:
- Villagers have been whipped with belts, attacked with machetes, beaten unconscious with bamboo sticks, sexually assaulted, shot, and murdered by WWF-supported anti-poaching units, according to reports and documents obtained by BuzzFeed News.
- The charity’s field staff in Asia and Africa have organised anti-poaching missions with notoriously vicious shock troops, and signed off on a proposal to kill trespassers penned by a park director who presided over the killings of dozens of people.
- WWF has provided paramilitary forces with salaries, training, and supplies — including knives, night vision binoculars, riot gear, and batons — and funded raids on villages. In one African country, it embroiled itself in a botched arms deal to buy assault rifles from a brutal army that has paraded the streets with the severed heads of alleged “criminals.”
- The charity has operated like a global spymaster, organizing, financing, and running dangerous and secretive networks of informants motivated by “fear” and “revenge,” including within indigenous communities, to provide park officials with intelligence — all while publicly denying working with informants.
WWF has launched an “independent review” led by human rights specialists into the evidence uncovered by BuzzFeed News. “We see it as our urgent responsibility to get to the bottom of the allegations BuzzFeed has made, and we recognize the importance of such scrutiny,” the charity said in a statement. “With this in mind, and while many of BuzzFeed’s assertions do not match our understanding of events, we have commissioned an independent review into the matters raised.” The charity declined to answer detailed questions sent by BuzzFeed News.
It continued: “We hope that an accurate picture of our conservation work on the ground, the challenges faced by all, in some of the most dangerous and hostile places on Earth, and the efforts being made to secure a future for people and planet can be reflected in the story.”
WWF was established by a small group of mostly British naturalists in Zurich in 1961. Since then it has expanded globally, establishing field offices in over 40 countries, which are coordinated and led by executives at its international headquarters in Gland, Switzerland. It aims to “protect the future of nature,” a vital mission that has galvanized millions of supporters, including famous patrons, from Leonardo DiCaprio to Prince Charles to Sir David Attenborough. The charity’s advertising campaigns, many of which promote rangers as “one of the planet’s first and last lines of defense” against wildlife crime, inspire small donors to give in droves. In 2017 alone, WWF raked in more than 767 million euros, more than half of which came from members of the public.
The charity funnels large sums of cash to its field offices in the developing world where staff work alongside national governments — including brutal dictatorships — to help maintain and police vast national parks that shelter endangered species. It says it is active in more than 100 countries on five continents, and showcases its collaborations with communities, whether in protecting reefs in the Pacific islands or facing off against illegal gold mining in the Amazon rainforest.
But many parks are magnets for poachers, and WWF expends much of its energy — and money — in a global battle against the organized criminal gangs that prey on the endangered species the charity was founded to protect.
It’s a crusade that WWF refers to in the hardened terms of war. Public statements speak of “boots on the ground,” partnerships with “elite military forces,” the creation of a “Jungle Brigade,” and the deployment of “conservation drones.” The charity sells forest ranger children’s dolls for $75, branded as “Frontline Heroes.”
WWF is not alone in its embrace of militarization: Other conservation charities have enlisted in the war on poaching in growing numbers over the past decade, recruiting veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to teach forest rangers counterinsurgency techniques and posting promotional materials showing armed guards standing at attention in fatigues and berets. Ex–special forces operatives promote their services at wildlife conferences. But WWF stands out as the biggest global player in this increasingly crowded space.
The enemy is real, and dangerous. Poaching is a billion-dollar industry that terrorizes animals and threatens some species’ very existence. Poachers take advantage of regions ravaged by poverty and violence. And the work of forest rangers is indeed perilous: By one 2018 estimate, poachers killed nearly 50 rangers around the world in the previous year. But like any conflict, WWF’s war on poaching has civilian casualties.
Indigenous people living near one park in southeast Cameroon described a litany of horrors in interviews and documents obtained by BuzzFeed News: dead-of-night break-ins by men wielding machetes, rifle butt bludgeonings, burn torture involving chilis ground into paste, and homes and camps torched to the ground.
Their tormentors in these accounts were not poachers, but the park officials who police them. Although governments employ the rangers, they often rely on WWF to bankroll their work. Rangers are scattered thousands of miles apart across many countries, but WWF’s international network of offices effectively stitches them together into one global force fighting under the same set of principles.
Staffers in the charity’s in-country field offices are supposed to report any allegations of brutality back to its headquarters in Switzerland. But documents reveal WWF’s own staffers on the ground are often deeply entwined with the rangers’ work— coordinating their operations, jointly directing their raids and patrols alongside government officials, and turning a blind eye to their misdeeds.
Since 1872, when Native American tribes were forced to leave their ancestral lands to make way for Yellowstone National Park, hundreds of thousands of people worldwide have lost access to their land to ensure animals roam in people-free spaces. These communities, from the Tharu in Nepal to the Baka in Central Africa, remain on the outside looking in at land where their ancestors gathered food, built shelter, and made medicine out of natural resources for generations.
With deep knowledge of the land and its animals, these communities should be ideal partners in WWF’s war against poaching, anthropologists and activists said. Alienating locals only encourages them to assist professional out-of-town poachers, making that battle harder. “The Baka are the eyes and ears of the forest and could really help conservation,” said Charles Jones Nsonkali, a Cameroonian indigenous rights activist. “But they are treated as the enemy instead.”
WWF said it does not see indigenous communities as its target: The goal is to catch organized criminals, not people struggling to feed their families. The charity vows to work hand in hand with these communities, and even has a written policy pledging that it will “not undermine” their human rights.
Yet, time and again, indigenous groups — both small-fry hunters and innocent bystanders — say they suffer at the hands of the rangers.
This is the untold story of collateral damage in WWF’s secret global war.