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Forget the war for biodiversity, it’s just war.

A contributed essay from Professor Rosaleen Duffy, Professor of Political Ecology of Development, SOAS, University ofLondon.

Conservationists are facing some difficult and critically important choices over how to conserve elephants and rhinos in the wake of a rapid rise in poaching. But there appears to be a rush towards more militarised responses, which intersect with the strategic aims of the US-led ‘War on Terror’. Elephants and rhinos themselves may be fast becoming the latest weapon in this war. This is not ‘back to the barriers’, which implies a defensive position - it is an ‘offensive’ position extending well beyond protected areas. It could easily lead to an escalation of violence that will undermine decades of work with local communities, and it runs counter to the Conservation Initiative on Human Rights.

Something interesting is happening in conservation: there are increasing intersections with global security concerns especially in sensitive border regions. Elephants and rhinos are fast becoming the latest weapons in the so-called ‘war against terror’.  This is not just a ‘back to the barriers’ movement, which implies a retreat behind the fences of heavily defended protected areas. This is a proactive and militarised response that extends beyond protected areas and in to the land and communities surrounding national parks and privately owned reserves. In many ways it runs counter to the spirit of, if not the actual text of, the Conservation Initiative on Human Rights, which many conservation NGOs signed up to.

Militarisation encompasses greater use of force, provision of military equipment, use of surveillance and intelligence networks. It means more use of actual violence, but also proliferation of monitoring techniques. In essence, conservation is now marked by the kinds of dynamics that characterise the war on terror – and just as we are assured such surveillance and use of force is required to create safe and free societies, we are assured that elephants, rhinos and people will be made safer (or secured). But will anyone or anything be safer in the long term?

There is much to be concerned with here, yet the new thrust of conservation policy is being welcomed and promoted in a largely uncritical way. This shift means that the wildlife trade is rapidly becoming a major international priority for governments, NGOs and private philanthropists. Recent examples of major funding initiatives include: USAID has committed US$40 million, Howard G. Buffett Foundation has committed US$25 million to South Africa for rhino protection, The Clinton Global Initiative has pledged to raise US$80 million (US$10 million from US Government already), and the UK Government has identified it as a major policy, with the announcement of a £10 million fund for tackling the trade.

It is important to step back for a moment – when dealing with organised crime networks it may be necessary to undertake some undercover work. But conservationists seem to be engaged in promoting a simplified message that all poachers are engaged in organised crime syndicates and that there is no alternative to a militarised response; this is not the same as recognising a need for limited, proportionate and carefully managed intelligence gathering with the aim of securing prosecutions. This simplified approach effectively divorces poaching from its social, political, economic and historical context. People who engage in illegal hunting have complex and varied motivations, and illegal hunting has to be seen in the global context of demand from consumer markets. Failing to tackle such complexities with a ‘one size fits all’ approach could be entirely counter-productive, alienating the very communities that conservation will rely on in the longer term. In the rush to get ‘quick wins’ in the new poaching wars,  it seems that the Conservation Initiative on Human Rights has been completely forgotten. Instead we are presented with the idea that poachers have no rights, because they are criminals, or even terrorists.

Four things have facilitated the shift to a ‘war footing’.

First, elephant and rhino poaching is undoubtedly on the rise, driven by increasing wealth in consumer countries. For example, between 2008 and 2012 rhino poaching increased across Sub-Saharan Africa by 184%. The minimum number of recorded poached rhinos in Africa in 2008 was 262, which increased to 745 in 2012 (Standley and Emslie, 2013: 6, drawing on data provided by the African Rhino Specialist Group).

Second, key individuals and organisations have made a convincing case that wildlife crime needs to be treated as serious organised crime. So for example, the International Consortium for Combatting Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) was established in 2010 in recognition of the need to tackle the growing influence on transnational organised crime in trafficking of endangered species. It brings together Interpol, CITES, the World Bank, The World Customs Union and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

Third, some of the new ‘poaching hotspots’ are contiguous with new geographical frontiers in the US-led war on terror. Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama have drawn the link in their own public statements on the relationship between wildlife trafficking, poaching and global security, thereby lending the argument greater international weight. Such links have been endorsed by the United Nations, in the Elephants in the Dust report (UNEP et al, 2013: 12). In 2013 the Clinton Global Initiative announced a commitment to raise US$80 million to combat trafficking and poaching as a security threat in Africa. The partners, or in their own terms, ‘Commitment Makers’ include Wildlife Conservation Society, African Wildlife Foundation, Conservation International, International Fund for Animal Welfare, and World Wide Fund for Nature.  In July 2013, President Barack Obama issued Executive Order 13648 on Combating Wildlife Trafficking. The Executive Order stated that poaching and trafficking constituted a threat to US interests; it states:

‘Wildlife trafficking reduces those benefits while generating billions of dollars in illicit revenues each year, contributing to the illegal economy, fuelling instability, and undermining security. Also, the prevention of trafficking of live animals helps us control the spread of emerging infectious diseases. For these reasons, it is in the national interest of the United States to combat wildlife trafficking’.

It would not be the first time that conservation interests have intersected with US security interests – the declaration of the Chagos Marine Protected Area was later revealed (via WikiLeaks) to have been partly motivated by the need to protect the US Military Base on Diego Garcia – an important strategic location in the Indian Ocean with missile striking range for the Middle East.  There is an additional problem too, it could put rangers at increased risk from attacks by militias like Al Shabaab and Lord’s Resistance Army if they are regarded as agents of a wider (external) strategic objective.

Fourth, the rapid development of new technologies (some initially produced for military application) has facilitated greater levels of surveillance. Two examples are the use of drones for data gathering and surveillance to combat poaching, and the development of SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool, for use by rangers to monitor and report poaching activity. These technologies have been rolled out without really thinking through their wider social implications. Will local communities accept drones engaged in surveillance of their surrounding lands?  Conservation organisations are interested in SMART, but it also allows managers and distant funders to track the daily routines of rangers – where they go, where they stop, how long they spend in particular locations, which units seem to be more active than others. Should we be concerned about this level of workplace surveillance by managers? Do rangers welcome the additional monitoring of their working practices by their managers and conservation NGOs?  Paul Rogers (author of Security by remote control) shows that deployment of such technologies in war situations (eg Iraq and Afghanistan) was no substitute for well trained, well equipped, well paid and motivated personnel.

I do not dispute that poaching is rising, and that organised crime networks are involved, or even that poaching might be used to fund militias. These are complex and difficult problems that are hard to respond to in an effective manner, and rangers and local communities often bear the brunt.  My concern is that this is a very partial picture of poaching, yet it is driving major international funding initiatives and shaping policy on the ground.  Furthermore, it may embroil major conservation organisations and donor agencies in a real mess of potentially contradictory policies – trying to persuade communities to engage in CBNRM at the same time (and in the same places) as greater use of force and expansion on unwelcome forms of surveillance.  We need to ask what kinds of conservation we want, and how we want to achieve it in a practical sense. This raises the question of whether militarisation is appropriate – a heavy handed response could result in a few short term gains, but it has the capacity to undermine over twenty years of working with local communities to produce more positive outcomes for both people and wildlife.  Escalation of violence is likely to follow.  And the biggest risk of all is that conservation slides from a war for biodiversity, to just war.
A recent paper by Rosaleen Duffy on militarisation and anti poaching is part of a special issue of International Affairs on conflict and conservation, which is Open Access until 31 July 2014