The defence of wildlife must be proportional to the threat

The recent tide of articles criticising what is pejoratively described as the “militarisation” of conservation are representative of a concerning shift in the narrative around the conservation of threatened populations of wildlife. This narrative is based upon an ideological opposition to the armed defence of wildlife and protected areas, particularly in developing nations, and particularly when enabled or carried out by foreign individuals and organisations.

These articles are guilty of multiple errors of generalisation and sins of omission. The main points that are variously missed and/or misrepresented tend to fall into four categories: 1) The failure to equate wildlife crime with crime; 2) The failure to equate the policing of wildlife crime with other forms of policing; 3) The presumption that all conservation efforts involving armed law enforcement are necessarily bad; and 4) The failure to recognise that wildlife must be protected now or there will be nothing left in the future.

Many of those working in conservation, as opposed to those researching conservation, are not interested in engaging in this debate and are more concerned with continuing their vital work on the ground, saving species from extinction. There is a concern, however, that without a counter-point being presented, this new narrative will seep over from academic journals and blogs into the public space, where they might begin to influence the donors and policy-makers currently preserving the remnants of our cherished natural heritage. In response to these articles, it is important to look at their main failings in turn:

1) The failure to equate wildlife crime with crime.

If crime is defined as a contravention of the law, then poaching animals protected by law is a crime. Laws are put in place for many reasons, among them to protect individuals from harming other individuals, and to protect assets belonging to one entity from being stolen or damaged by other entities.

It is worth noting that the authors often fail to differentiate between different forms of poaching. For clarity, I will focus on the poaching and protection of high value target species such as rhinos and elephants. Pangolin, rosewood, subsistence bushmeat and all other forms of poaching are still, by definition, crimes, which are undoubtedly contributing to escalating rates of habitat and species loss and must also be policed. For the purposes of this piece, however, I will treat those as a separate issue to commercial ivory and rhino horn poaching.

National parks and the wildlife they protect are, like gold reserves in a central bank or livestock on a farm, assets that require protection from those who would steal or damage them. Killing wildlife inside national parks is quite literally theft: the stealing of an asset that belongs to the people or the State. Wildlife tourism makes a significant contribution to the GDP of countless developing nations across Africa. Poaching is, therefore, a genuine threat to the current and future prosperity of these nations and their people; poachers killing wildlife in national parks are literally stealing from their fellow countrymen who elect not to poach. By implying that robbing a house or stealing someone’s livestock is a crime, but killing an elephant for its ivory is not a crime, one is failing to equate wildlife crime with crime.

Beyond the criminal act of theft against the State, the slaughter of highly intelligent animals such as elephants for personal financial gain is morally repugnant, both from animal welfare and ecological perspectives. The extraordinary emotional trauma that poaching inflicts on close-knit families of elephants, and the knock-on effect that extirpating a species has on the landscape they inhabit, should not be ignored. Wildlife crime is more than just a simple act of criminality, it is also incredibly cruel.

2) The failure to equate the policing of wildlife crime with other forms of policing.

Most if not all countries have laws that cover the protection of national parks and natural resources including wildlife. To suggest, as these authors often do, that all national parks forced local people off their land and now prevent them from practicing traditional hunting rights is an egregious generalisation. One might be philosophically opposed to national parks, or to the state ownership of wildlife, but as both of these things are legal realities the philosophical debate is moot for the purposes of this discussion.

Accepting that protected areas and natural resources including wildlife are protected by law, to a greater or lesser degree, the debate should then centre around how these resources are policed. Protected areas, including national parks, which protect our cultural, biological and geographical heritage, require policing like any other asset or resource. The policemen of such areas are Rangers; in some countries (such as in Zambia) they are even called Wildlife Police Officers. The uniforms they wear might be camouflaged, but this is because they work in the bush; the role they fulfil is that of the police. The level of policing must be commensurate with the level of threat posed, both to the resource (in this case protected areas and the wildlife they contain) and to the law-enforcement staff.

Poachers of high value target species such as rhinos and elephants are almost always armed with illegal firearms, and are often willing to use lethal force. When faced with heavily armed and potentially hostile criminals, park Rangers, just like the police, must be properly trained and equipped to perform their professional duties and to protect themselves. All law enforcement agencies have rules of engagement including the use of escalating levels of force commensurate with an escalating threat, occasionally necessitating the use of lethal force.

Critics of “militarised conservation” ask whether the death penalty is an appropriate punishment for the crime of poaching an animal, and deride the “acceptability” of killing poachers in the protection of animal lives. This completely misses the point. Most countries do not have the death penalty, yet law enforcement officials occasionally resort to lethal force when preventing a crime or apprehending a criminal. Suggesting, as these articles often do, that conservationists elevate the rights of animals over people is misleading and disingenuous; no one suggests that gold is worth more than people when armed bank robbers are shot during a heist.

Some of the causes of poaching are the same as for any form of crime. Poverty is a driver of crime in all parts of the world, and it is beholden upon governments and NGOs to alleviate poverty wherever it occurs. It is equally beholden upon us all to mitigate the effects of crime: to police our streets and natural resources to prevent criminal acts occurring, regardless of whether those acts are perpetrated by people in poverty. Even though the causes of crime are often unjust, it is still necessary to police crime from the criminal elements that live within any society, and if wildlife crime is recognised as a crime, then the policing of these crimes must also be legitimised. To suggest that armed police should be able to defend a bank or a farm from armed robbers, even if those robbers are poor, but that armed Rangers should not be able to defend a national park from poor armed poachers, is to fail to equate the policing of wildlife crime with other forms of policing.

Articles such as those to which I refer often refer to the war on drugs and other forms of transnational crime, and criticise the targeting of ‘foot soldiers’ (in this case the poachers) while leaving the kingpins in place. The most important difference here is that the foot soldiers in the drugs trade are pedalling an essentially infinite resource to the users. Foot soldiers in the illegal wildlife trade are dealing with a finite resource: extinction is forever. Vast improvements in both policing and the judiciary are required to prosecute the financiers and enablers of wildlife crime, and we must invest our energies into stopping both the kingpins and the poachers if we are to stop the slaughter of our precious wildlife.

Replace “conservation armies” with “police”, and imagine that these critics are referring to any type of non-wildlife crime and you will realise that the failure to equate wildlife crime with crime, and the failure to equate the policing of wildlife crime with the policing of other forms of crime, is as erroneous and maleficent as it is prevalent within academia and many in the development NGO sector. If we desire that wildlife and wild places have a place in our future, then we must extend them the same level of protection as we afford other resources, or they will be lost forever.

3) The presumption that all conservation efforts involving armed law enforcement are necessarily bad.

Articles criticising the “militarisation” of conservation often refer to the use of advanced tactics such as remote surveillance, informer networks and intelligence gathering techniques. When alluding critically to these developments, these articles are confusing the “militarisation” of conservation with the professionalisation of conservation. The techniques mentioned above aren’t exclusively military in nature, they are standard policing techniques, used in all forms of policing because they improve the probability of detecting and preventing a crime before it happens, or apprehending a suspect after the crime. By objecting to the use of basic policing techniques in the policing of protected areas, the authors of these articles are objecting to the use of any techniques that increase the likelihood of apprehending poachers and other wildlife criminals.

It is important to recognise that the techniques employed to prevent commercial poaching are necessarily quite different to those used to prevent bushmeat and other forms of poaching. Many species are threatened by habitat loss and unrestricted bushmeat poaching, and projects such as the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy, which have had great success in conserving the critically endangered mountain bongo, have achieved their successes through strong education-focussed community-engagement programmes. To assume that you can use the same approaches to tackle the poaching of commercially-valuable species such as rhinos and elephants as for the mountain bongo is naïve in the extreme. The pressures on the species, the drivers of poaching, the personnel involved and the conservation approaches required to stem the slaughter are completely different. Every protected area in every country requires a bespoke solution to guarantee its protection from those who seek to despoil our natural heritage for personal gain.

These critics correctly pinpoint some of the rare offences, verging on atrocities, carried out by NGO-financed Rangers in the field. What this highlights is that the policing of protected areas should be regulated in the same way as regular police forces are regulated, by the creation of IPCC-equivalent bodies, and the human rights training must be at the heart of all ranger training. It is vital that Rangers operate within the law, and that atrocities are reported and prosecuted. However, for these articles to use rare examples such as these to condemn the work of professional and responsible law enforcement personnel across the continent, who risk their lives every day in the protection of our natural resources, does a huge disservice to those who are operating within the law and are making a positive contribution to the countries in which they operate.

It is clear that conservation efforts will fail in the long run if communities are not engaged in the process. Responsible conservation NGOs are intimately engaged in community development programmes in addition to their law enforcement activities, but they recognise that robust policing is required to mitigate the disastrous effects of unregulated poaching. The failure to recognise that effective policing is a necessary complement to long-term efforts to bolster the judiciary, tackle corruption, educate the end users of wildlife products and engage communities in the conservation of their natural resources, demonstrates that the authors’ objections to “militarised conservation” are purely ideological and without nuance.

4) The failure to recognise that wildlife must be protected now or there will be nothing left in the future.

The drivers of poaching that these articles mention, including poverty, status, community coercion, demand in SE Asia and beyond, absolutely must be tackled at their source. But if we only focus on tackling these drivers through long-term education and social programmes, while ignoring the policing aspect of conservation – preventing animals being killed right now – there will be nothing left to protect in a remarkably short time. WWF’s 2016 Living Planet report states that 58% of all wildlife on earth has already been killed in the last fifty years. There simply isn’t time to wait for long-term initiatives to replace those directly protecting wildlife.

Not only is there a legal responsibility to protect wildlife from illegal exploitation, there is a moral responsibility too, if we are to prevent the extinction of untold numbers of species on our watch. Although I have focused on poaching of rhino and elephant, it is worth raising the point that unrestricted bushmeat hunting is a human disaster in the waiting which will precipitate a tragedy of the commons, where nobody benefits in the long-term. Take the recent announcement by the Marine Conservation Society that North Sea cod stocks have returned to sustainable levels. Had the EU not applied and policed strict regulations on the fishing industry, it is almost without doubt that Europe’s fishing communities would have fished themselves (and the cod) out of existence. The control and replacement of bushmeat hunting is no different, especially given the extraordinary human population expansion underway in Africa. Without strict regulation, uncontrolled bushmeat hunting will see many communities poach every living thing out of the wild, leaving nothing for future generations.


These articles attempt to discredit “militarised conservation” by debunking links between Boko Haram and Al Shabab and the illegal wildlife trade, while conveniently ignoring the proven involvement of the LRA, Mai Mai militias and Malian Islamist groups in cases of mass elephant poaching. What is totally undeniable is that commercial poaching and trafficking are run by globally-significant criminal gangs, whether-or-not they are linked to jihadi terrorism. Anti-poaching isn’t becoming more “militarised” because of jihadi terrorist groups, it is becoming more “professionalised” because the threat to wildlife and to park Rangers has increased, and because we are running out of time to save the most valuable species and landscapes on earth from determined criminals, who will not be deterred by community outreach programmes or by rangers carrying whistles and batons. Irrespective of who the perpetrators of poaching are, there is still a legal responsibility to uphold the law of the land and a moral responsibility to prevent the unnecessary suffering of wildlife and the extinction of species.

No doubt the critics of professionalised conservation and I both want the same thing: to see a reduction in both the causes of crime and crime itself. Whilst I strongly disagree with much of the content of these articles, it should be obvious that we must base conservation policies on the best available evidence. A robust analysis of the efficacy and morality of anti-poaching operations is, therefore, both welcomed and important. These articles, however, do not constitute a robust analysis. At a time when our natural heritage is under threat from all sides, such articles are not only misleading but dangerous, and an insult to the families of the thousand-or-more brave Rangers who have lost their lives in defence of the wildlife that is so important to the future prosperity of their communities and to the state of the planet as a whole.

The extinction of elephants and rhino and of untold other species is almost unconscionable, and yet, as poaching levels remain so devastatingly high, it is becoming a more realistic prospect as every year goes by. We are not at the eleventh hour, the eleventh hour has gone. Now is not the time to roll back on our efforts to stop the slaughter, now is the time to do all we possibly can to prevent this ecological and moral catastrophe: the destruction of the living planet and the extinction of species.


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