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Conservation and security – the question of militarisation of anti-poaching

Written by Keith Somerville |

The problem of how to combat poaching, conserve habitat and wildlife without abusing the human rights or destroying the livelihoods of local communities is a complex and highly controversial one. From David Sheldrick’s and Bill Woodley’s military-style anti-poaching campaign in Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park in the late 1950s to the British Army training anti-poaching units (APUs) in MalawiZambia and Gabon, and private security companies or organizations of US military veterans (aka mercenaries) becoming involved in combating commercial and  localised bushmeat poaching, the role of current or ex-military personnel taking part in anti-poaching operations or training APU rangers in counter-insurgency and combat techniques has been controversial across much of Central, East and Southern Africa and in India and Nepal.

There have been accusations of human rights abuses when counter-insurgency style tactics are used and communities become suspect and RE targets for military sweeps through whole villages. There have also been clashes between bona fide wildlife rangers and military units deployed against poachers in national parks, as Xolani Nicholus Funda, head of ranger services in Kruger National Park (NP)  in South Africa admitted to me in September 2016, soon after the deployment of South African National Defence Force units to combat rampant rhino poaching. In Botswana, mistrust and conflict between wildlife rangers, the police and the Botswana Defence Force has hampered anti-poaching and BDF operations led to frequent shoot-on-sight incidents, usually involving the killing of Zambian, Namibian and Zimbabwean nationals along their borders in the Chobe and Linyanti regions – where unarmed fishermen have often been shot having been assumed to have been poachers.

On the other hand, the deaths of rangers at the hands of well-armed poachers is a serious issues that cannot be ignored – between 2006 and 2016, for example, over 1,000 rangers were killed across the world in the line of duty.  In 2020-21, 18 rangers were killed by poachers or rebel militias in the Virunga NP in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and another ranger was shot in DRC’s Garamba NP.  The DRC has a particular, but not entirely unique, problem of poachers and rebel insurgents operating in NPs and other protected areas, and APUs being treated by poachers and militias as indistinguishable from the brutal and incompetent DRC national army, notorious for its human rights abuses. APUs need to be armed and to be able to defend themselves if fired on or their lives are at risk in other ways.

But should this mean militarisation and counter-insurgency training rather than wildlife protection and wildlife law enforcement?  These are different skills requiring different approaches. This was highlighted by the Game Rangers Association of Africa (GRAA), whose fears were noted by Rosaleen Duffy in her important new book on the issue entitled SECURITY AND CONSERVATION The Politics of the Illegal Wildlife Trade.  The GRAA issued a statement back in 2017 warning that, “Military personnel, military veterans, and security contractors from beyond Africa’s borders are becoming increasingly involved in ranger training across our continent. Intentions in some instances may be noble but there are mounting concerns that need to be noted by the ranger community in Africa.”   The game rangers were concerned about a range of issues where military or ex-military personnel involved directly in wildlife protection or training APUs lacked knowledge of working in the bush, had little grasp of ecology, lacked knowledge of legal frameworks for wildlife law enforcement, were not properly trained  for wildlife work among communities affected by living alongside wildlife and often hadn’t been vetted when they took on their roles.

Professor Duffy, who ran the BIOSEC project at the University of Sheffield, which was established and funded to “to explore whether concerns about biodiversity protection and global security are becoming integrated, and if so, in what ways”, has spent years examining the increasing militarisation of conservation globally, and this has particular relevance to the Commonwealth as many of the countries where militarisation has taken place to an extent (Botswana, Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Zambia and Nepal) are within the Commonwealth and at least theoretically adhere to Commonwealth standards of working for the realisation of human rights across all the member states of the organisation.

Duffy’s and BIOSEC’s research have discovered a plethora of private military companies involved directly in anti-poaching and indirectly in training.  These include Veterans Empowered to Protect African Wildlife (VETPAW), Veterans4Wildlife, Chengeta Wildlife, International Anti Poaching Foundation (IAPF), Ecological Defense Group, Inc (EDGE), and Maisha Consulting.  Maisha is run by a former Israeli special forces officer who was involved in Israel’s war with the Palestinians and conflicts with neighbouring states and then in the Burundi civil war, before developing his quasi-conservation but heavily security oriented consultancy along with a former senior British Royal Marines officer who was involved with the Pentagon in planning the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11 and also served as British governor of Gibraltar.

Maisha was closely connected with the Elephant Action League (which has now renamed itself as the Earth League international), which misleadingly claimed that the Somali Al-Shabaab movement was heavily involved in ivory smuggling in east Africa and funded 40% of military activity from the proceeds.   This was ultimately proved to be incorrect but was quoted by President Uhuru Kenyatta after the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi in September 2013, as he sought both increased military aid to combat the Kenyan wing of Al Shabaab and funding for a more militarised anti-poaching operation.  Linking elephant poaching with Islamic insurgency was a clever ploy to increase Western sympathy and elicit funding.  But it was a false narrative, as several studies showed that Al Shabaab had little role in the ivory trade, and that political, police and customs corruption in Kenya played a bigger role.  In this way the securitisation of poaching and wildlife smuggling can actually harm conservation and law enforcement by diverting attention and resources from the real problems.

The idea that insurgent groups – and this was widened from Al Shabaab to the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) of Uganda, the Sudanese Janjaweed, Nigeria’s Boko Haram and Mozambique’s Ahlu al-Sunnah wal-Jamaah – were involved in poaching  grabbed international attention even though the evidence that the groups financed their military activities through ivory trading was flimsy and became a catalyst for increasing militarisation – the Janjaweed were certainly involved in poaching and ivory smuggling but as a continuation of a centuries old trading and raiding tradition rather than to fund insurgency.  The insurgency factor plus, as Duffy (p. 5) identifies,  the organized scale  of global wildlife product smuggling, the rise in poaching in states experiencing conflict, a perceived need for rapid and forceful responses to poaching, and the use of military-grade weapons by some poachers all encouraged increasing militarisation and also the interest of countries like Britain in both training APUs but also getting their army’s boots on the ground so they had experience of operating in the bush, given the spread of Islamist insurgencies in Central and East Africa.

Often the development of community-based approaches to conservation and anti-poaching – such as the Namibian community conservancy movement and the more limited advances made by the Zambian community-based programmes and the Zimbabwean CAMPFIRE (Community Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources) – were successful in combating poaching and linking conservation to community livelihoods.  But some governments, like Botswana’s, saw the use of military weapons by poachers as beyond community-based conservation capabilities and opted for the use of their armed forces in support of APUs or, like Malawi and Gabon, turned to countries like Britain to train their anti-poaching units drawing on the British army’s experience of counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But military-style anti-poaching can not only lead to humans rights abuses, as happened with WWF-funded anti-poaching programmes in Cameroon and Nepal, where there was substantial evidence of  indigenous people and villagers being shot, beaten unconscious, sexually assaulted, and whipped by armed rangers, or militarised anti-poaching in Malawi’s Liwonde NP about 24 years ago – when APUs trained by former South African soldiers led to extra-judicial killings, beatings, rapes and total alienation of people in villages near the park who were suspected of harbouring poachers.  In the case of Liwonde, Duffy details the abuses – “in just two years (1998–2000) the parks staff in Malawi who had received the training, were implicated in 300 murders, 325 disappearances, 250 rapes, and numerous instances of torture and intimidation” (p. 177). These abuses are strong arguments against militarisation, in which anti-poaching is seen as a war rather than a combination of wildlife/habitat protection and law enforcement and in which suspected poachers can be shot on sight without any legal process to prove their guilt and the villages or communities from which they come are treated as enemy territory.  The militarised approach rarely takes account of socio-economic causes of poaching – not just poverty but economic inequality, feelings of marginalisation and the lack of opportunities for income generation for local communities from conservation or wildlife tourism projects, with a very small trickledown effect from eco-tourism.

The illegal wildlife trade is a major form of transnational crime – along with things like arms or people smuggling and the narcotics trade – and is of concern for governments across the world and for international organisations like INTERPOL.  But the core of the problem is not military or directly security-related but instead is about economic equality, poor rural development in wildlife rich areas, lack of income and opportunities there and law enforcement both against the poachers themselves (at the bottom of the rime chain) but also the criminal middlemen and smuggling syndicates.  This requires integrated rural development and conservation programmes, crime intelligence work and both efficient law enforcement and viable wildlife laws backed up by transparent and efficient judicial processes, not counter-insurgency or shoot-to-kill approaches. And in many countries –   Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique and South Africa being examples – corrupt politicians, police and both customs and judicial authorities are a major part of the problem which cannot be solved by quasi-military means. An array of socio-economic, conservation, law enforcement and judicial tools are needed.  As Duffy concludes (p. 189), “the integration of security-oriented approaches in tackling the illegal wildlife trade is fundamentally reshaping conservation in ways that do not necessarily tackle the underlying drivers of trade”, and may, in my view, damage long-term attempts to stop poaching, destroy international smuggling syndicates, and engage the support and sense of empowerment of local communities over habitats and the wildlife they contain.

Professor Keith Somerville is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, a Member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, University of Kent and a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London