- It is important to question and critically analyze new directions in conservation, as failing to do so will undoubtedly lead to negative outcomes for people and wildlife. Justice for animals is not well served by perpetrating other injustices.
- I can agree that poaching is against the law and therefore is a crime. But the law is not a neutral or apolitical instrument. For example, the argument that wildlife laws are neutral instruments renders invisible the colonial origins of wildlife laws in Africa, which separated wildlife and people in ways that actively produce human-wildlife conflict today.
- It is useful and important to debate the problems of militarization, because this can and should shape policy and funding strategies for conservation.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
Constructive engagement with concerns about the rise in militarized forms of conservation are very welcome. I currently run a four-year project funded by the European Research Council, BIOSEC, which explores the growing challenges, problems, and issues raised by an integration of security logics with wildlife conservation.
Here I respond in brief to Niall McCann’s recent article, which criticized the questioning of militarization. But it is important to question and critically analyze new directions in conservation, as failing to do so will undoubtedly lead to negative outcomes for people and wildlife. Justice for animals is not well served by perpetrating other injustices.
It is claimed that my criticisms are based solely on an ideological position, but they are also based on realities of conservation practice on the ground. It is not helpful to separate out those working in conservation and those researching conservation — many of us operate in both worlds.
Our BIOSEC team undertakes research that is responsive to the concerns of conservation professionals on the ground — they point to the very same problems produced by militarized conservation that we have identified. This came through very strongly in our recent Knowledge Exchange workshop with conservation practitioners (a summary of those discussions can be found here).
I can agree with McCann that rangers are in a very difficult position, indeed, especially in conflict areas where they risk their lives on a daily basis. That is the dominant narrative. But there are other ranger stories we wish to bring to light as our research progresses: the growing levels of stress, the lack of support for rangers suffering PTSD, rates of refusal and resistance because militarized conservation is not what they signed up for.
McCann’s article claims that critics of militarization insult rangers. This couldn’t be further from my intention. We need to understand the spectrum of ranger experiences. To do anything else is insulting.
Militarizing conservation can simply escalate conflict and violence (see research by Elizabeth Lunstrum and Francis Masse; Esther Marijnen and Judith Verweijen; as well as Bram Buscher and Maano Ramutsindela). We should also be aware of the risks that enhanced training and provision of weaponry can be turned back on wildlife, and increase rates of poaching.
McCann refers to the figure of ‘more than one thousand’ rangers killed in action, which originates from the campaigns of the Thin Green Line Foundation; but that is likely to be a significant underestimate — ranger deaths go unrecorded in some cases because of fears of negative publicity. Equally, we do not know how many suspected poachers have been killed. Put simply, these deaths are deemed not worthy of recording.
I can agree that poaching is against the law and is therefore a crime. But the law is not a neutral or apolitical instrument. For example, the argument that wildlife laws are neutral instruments renders invisible the colonial origins of wildlife laws in Africa, which separated wildlife and people in ways that actively produce human-wildlife conflict today (see work by Bill Adams and by Dan Brockington). Projecting a singular model of policing and military approaches across very different situations is also misleading and overlooks the ways that authorities can be involved in poaching and trafficking themselves.
Poverty may be a driver of poaching, but the evidence base for this is thin. In a review of evidence for the UK Government Department for International Development (DfID), we found that the poverty-poaching connection is assumed but not proven. Also, which matters more: absolute or relative levels of poverty? (Freya St John will be running a major study of this connection via her WILDPOV project.)
The argument that wildlife needs to be conserved because it can generate income from tourism is also problematic. I can agree that wildlife-based tourism can be a significant source of income, but we also need to examine where the money goes. There is an enormous body of work that shows that the income from wildlife tourism does not necessarily go to local communities, but is instead captured by elites, governments, and private companies.
It is useful and important to debate the problems of militarization, because this can and should shape policy and funding strategies for conservation. But that debate has to include those of us who question and criticize — this is essential for producing conservation which is successful and socially just.
Rosaleen Duffy is a professor in the Department of Politics at the University of Sheffield in the UK. She leads the BIOSEC project, which examines claims by national governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that wildlife poaching and trafficking are increasingly being used to fund organized crime and terrorist groups.