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Are we hearing a 'call to arms' from wildlife conservationists?

A thought provoking contribution from Prof. Rosleen Duffy after 2 days at the London Conference on Wildlife Trafficking.

On 11-12 February I attended the London Conference on Wildlife Trafficking. It was held at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) under the auspices of United for Wildlife. UFW is an initiative of Prince Charles and Prince William under the banner of the Royal Foundation - they have brought together some of the biggest wildlife organisations (ZSL, WCS, CI, FFI, WWF, IUCN and TNC) to facilitate responses to the apparent rise in poaching and trafficking. We need to pause for a moment to consider this new direction.

The main theme, especially on the first day of the conference, was about the need for a tougher stance to combat poaching. Apart from two presentations that stressed the importance of community oriented approaches (Ian Craig from Northern Rangelands Trust and John Kasaona Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation) - the whole first day of the conference was about the urgent need for greater enforcement, deterrence, penalties and militarisation. I asked the panellists whether they were concerned that a militarised approach might undermine the gains from CBNRM. I got an interesting answer that made me sit back and pause for thought too: we need to persuade communities that these poachers are robbers, robbing them of their property and making them poorer. But the participants would undoubtedly have left the first day of the conference with the impression that what we need was more boots on the ground and more weaponry. After all, if you argue that there is urgent need to combat poachers who are linked to organised crime networks, then long term work with community oriented approaches starts to look pretty ineffective. The second day of the conference focused on demand reduction strategies in Asian markets – with an excellent presentation by Naomi Doak of TRAFFIC-ASIA, reminding participants that preaching to consumers would not work, and that instead it was better (and more effective) to engage with consumers on their own terms. Unfortunately many of the main movers and shakers were not there on the second day, they had left to prepare for the London Summit, and related Declaration, on 13th February;

This is an important moment in conservation – it seems we are witnessing a greater call to arms to ‘combat’ and ‘fight’ poaching. More boots on the ground and more weaponry runs the risk of escalating a poaching war as each side gets locked into an arms race and an increasingly deadly conflict (for rangers and for hunters/poachers). It runs a second danger that local communities will get caught up in the war regardless, because of their proximity to heavily fortified protected areas. These risks are real, but the Conservation Initiative on Human Rights was not mentioned at the conference at all, even though many of the organisations in United for Wildlife are signatories This begs the question of whether the CIHR is being consigned to history as organisations have not delivered on their commitments to greater transparency and external oversight.

Two examples that were mentioned at the conference serve as useful illustrations.

Gabon was regularly cited as an excellent example of commitment to conservation. Gabon has replaced Madagascar as everyone’s favourite (conservation) donor darling. President Ali Bongo was cited as a ‘conservation champion’ in the presentation by Heather Sohl of WWF. Lee White, head of the Gabonese National Parks Agency, argued Gabon was not a model because, while its conservation record was good (especially on forest elephants), its record was only good in comparison to neighbouring states. This did not concern me, but what did was the silence around Ali Bongo’s other activities. Lee White did say that President Ali Bongo had been described as a despot, quickly followed by ‘but he is on the side of conservation’. We can easily argue that Ali Bongo appears to be on the side of a particular approach to conservation. He has begun to enforce the parks his late father (President Omar Bongo) established in 2002. He has set up paramilitary style 'jungle brigades' for anti-poaching. Lee White stated that with the help of the military, the Parks Agency moved 6000 people, without incident, in one night out of an illegal mining settlement beside a national park. I am willing to entertain the idea that 6000 people can be moved in one night with no complaints about rough treatment. But I was left wondering where they went. Presumably those people were in the illegal mining settlement because they needed to make money – that need would not have disappeared overnight. So did the Parks Agency solve the problem or did they just displace it so it became someone else’s problem? Furthermore, many organisations (UK Government included) seemed unaware of or unwilling to acknowledge the criticisms of Gabon’s President – it is reported that he has a vast personal fortune, that he may have pocketed up to 25% of Gabon’s GDP (it is an oil based economy), that he has over 35 residences in France, a home in London, and he recently bought a mansion in Paris. But Gabon remains a relatively poor country;  Wildlife conservationists, it seems, are willing to strike Faustian bargains. There is a danger in this – Bongo’s Presidency is disputed, if he were to be replaced then how popular will conservation be, how supportive will local communities be if they have suffered at the hands of the regime? Remember Madagascar under Marc Ravalomanana? He was criticised for bowing to the power of wildlife conservation NGOs.  When he was replaced by Andry Rajoelina following disputed elections, conservation stopped being a central pillar of Government policy. One key difference here is that I really do not get the sense that Ali Bongo is bowing to the powers of wildlife NGOs, rather it strikes me that he is cleverly using them to garner international appeal and acceptance.
The second example is the worrying trend that means community based approaches, ideas of social justice and concerns about development, are being swept aside by narratives about wildlife trafficking as a threat to global security. On the one hand I welcomed the ways that participants were arguing that wildlife trafficking should be considered as a serious crime. However, this argument was stretched to breaking point. Several times at the conference I heard participants repeat the claim that wildlife trafficking funds terrorist networks and rebel militias. The head of one NGO suggested that conservation organisations needed to talk the language of global security in order to be relevant to the funding agendas of governments. This is a potentially dangerous route to take.  It has been claimed, with very little evidence, that poaching is used by fund Al Shabaab and the killings in Kenya’s WestGate Mall have been linked to ivory poaching  There were also comments about how the Lord’s Resistance Army were using poaching to fund operations and even that the current conflict in the Central African Republic started with poaching 40 years ago.  These allegations are repeated in a report Global Impacts of the Illegal Wildlife Trade: The Costs of Crime, Insecurity and Institutional Erosion released by UK’s Chatham House, released last week. We need to remember that wildlife has long been used by standing armies and militias: the SADF and UNITA in the 1980s, Idi Amin’s forces in Uganda in the 1970s, and the forces of the British Empire in the 19th Century, to name a few.  What this adds up to is a justification for the militarised approach that many of the participants wanted anyway. Following this logic, wildlife NGOs and parks agencies could be implicated as active participants in some of Africa’s longest running and most complex civil and inter-state conflicts. I doubt they have thought of how that would affect and drive their interactions with local people in the longer term, whether it would mean they are engaged in human rights abuses, nor the PR disaster that would ensue if they are accused of perpetuating these wars.

The rise in poaching, the changing dynamics of Asian end-user markets, the involvement of organised crime networks and the role of poverty are all important parts of any debate about wildlife conservation. But before conservation organisations rush headlong into believing ‘more aggressive enforcement is the answer’ they need to stop and think about what that will do to people on the ground. This will provide a better basis of designing strategies to tackle poaching in a more effective, socially just and sustainable manner.

Rosaleen Duffy is Professor of Political Ecology, Department of Development Studies, SOAS University of London. She researches wildlife conservation, trafficking, ecotourism and transfrontier parks. She is author of Nature Crime: How We’re Getting Conservation Wrong (Yale University Press, 2010); and co-author with Dan Brockington and Jim Igoe, of Nature Unbound: Conservation, Capitalism and the Future of Protected Areas (Routledge/Earthscan, 2008)