- In a recent article, Niall McCann attacks critiques of the “militarization” of conservation by academics such as Professor Rosaleen Duffy of the University of Sheffield in the UK.
- McCann’s position and argument not only fundamentally misunderstands and misrepresents the position of many committed conservationists but also uses an array of flawed and incomplete arguments to defend increasingly militant enforcement of wildlife crime.
- We share McCann’s concern about the fact that many species, and the natural world as a whole, face huge challenges over the coming decades. Law enforcement is one of an array of tools that play an important role in species protection. However, it is not without it’s own issues and problems.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
In a recent article, Niall McCann attacks critiques of the “militarization” of conservation by academics such as Professor Rosaleen Duffy of the University of Sheffield in the UK.
McCann’s position and argument not only fundamentally misunderstands and misrepresents the position of many committed conservationists but also uses an array of flawed and incomplete arguments to defend increasingly militant enforcement of wildlife crime. His arguments, if widely accepted, not only threaten the long-term survival of the species he wishes to save but risk setting conservation practice back decades by promoting colonial era views towards relationships between wildlife, local communities, and the international conservation movement.
The main thrust of McCann’s argument is that wildlife crime should be treated in a manner similar to other crimes; with robust and professional policing methods. He equates wildlife crime, and the killing of any wildlife in a national park, to theft of gold from a bank, where nobody would question the use of lethal force against armed bank robbers. There are two main problems with this view: First, it ignores the historical, political and social environments that have created the wildlife laws that now define what is and is not criminal behavior. Second, it fails to differentiate types of wildlife crime, which should be dealt with differently.
To address the first point, if we want to understand the causes and potential solutions to wildlife crime, we must start with: How, when, where, and by whom is wildlife crime defined? In the African context that McCann is focusing on, many countries’ modern wildlife laws are built on colonial-era legislation. Colonial administrators systematically removed access and control of natural resources from local communities to consolidate control of those resources under their management. White recreational hunters were glorified as sport or trophy hunters while local subsistence hunters were rebranded as poachers and a threat to the existence of Africa’s wilderness, a narrative McCann’s argument uses elements of. In comparing wildlife to gold, McCann forgets to mention that the banks stole the gold in the first place, created legal structures that meant only colonial elites could access it, and then sanctioned lethal force to stop the original owners from getting anywhere near it.
Secondly, McCann fails to make the simplest distinction between commercialized illegal killing of high-value species and small-scale subsistence hunting. Does he believe these to be the same? Both criminal acts worthy of the same policing styles and prosecution? Combating the international organized criminal networks involved in the illegal wildlife trade requires robust policing, international co-operation, intelligence gathering, and many of the other things McCann proposes. However, by failing to distinguish between different scales of wildlife crime, McCann appears to be advocating the use of these techniques against all poachers, including those engaged in subsistence extraction, a course of action with highly questionable moral grounding and one that is likely to destroy relationships between conservationists and communities.
McCann assumes all poachers are driven by poverty, missing the myriad other reasons people engage in illegal behavior and hunting. It is here that an understanding of where wildlife laws originated is paramount. Laws may have criminalized traditional practices that communities are trying to maintain, or people may be engaging in “poaching as protest,” where social, economic, and political marginalization drive people to poach as a form of political protest against overbearing conservation legislation (some examples here and here). In these cases, increasing levels of enforcement against illegal behavior may have little impact on whether or not communities continue or even expand their illegal activities through lack of choice or in protest.
We share McCann’s concern about the fact that many species, and the natural world as a whole, face huge challenges over the coming decades. Law enforcement is one of an array of tools that play an important role in species protection. However, it is not without it’s own issues and problems, and collaborating with social scientists to understand drivers of poaching and the impacts of enforcement on local communities is surely paramount.
If we are to save threatened species this must be with the consent and co-operation of the communities they live alongside. This requires increased community engagement, understanding the grievances, some of them deep and historical, that people hold against the conservation movement and addressing the prejudices and assumptions about local communities that are rife in our field.
There are many people, including Prof. Duffy, who have dedicated their careers to understanding the social and political complexities of conservation, and while they don’t have all the answers, they are far from naïve.
A more detailed point-by-point analysis of McCann’s article is available on ConservationBlog.co.uk.
Leejiah Dorward is a PhD student in the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford. He is an interdisciplinary conservation scientist interested in how we can plan conservation interventions that improve wellbeing amongst local communities while also protecting the ecosystems upon which they rely.
Paul Barnes is a PhD student in the Anthropology Department at University College London and the Institute of Zoology at the Zoological Society London. His research focuses on relationships between people and nature and the political ecology of conservation in Southeast Asia and Melanesia.