The Issues of Using Militarization to Mitigate Poaching and Illegal Wildlife Trade

Original Paper: Duffy, R., Massé, F., Smidt, E., Marijnen, E., Büscher, B., Verweijen, J., Ramutsindela, M., Simlai, T., Joanny, L. and E. Lunstrum. 2019. Why we must question the militarisation of conservation. Biological Conservation232, pp.66-73.

Featured Image Source: White Cheeked Gibbons. 2012. Credit: Roger Smith, Flickr.

A Persistent Problem

Poaching, or the illegal hunting of wild animals, and illegal wildlife trade, or the unauthorized selling of dead or living plants or animals and the products derived from them (like meat, skins, furs, ivory, and bones), are persistent problems around the world. Most of us can agree neither poaching or illegal trade should be allowed to continue. But how much of a problem are they really? Though comprehensive statistics on poaching and illegal wildlife trade are unavailable for many countries due to their illegality, it’s safe to say they both have devastating effects on wildlife around the globe. For instance, more than 100,000 African elephants were killed between 2014 and 2017 for ivory, and currently more are killed for ivory than are being born. Poaching and illegal trade aren’t only dangers to charismatic species like elephants, but many species, and millions of plants are illegally collected each year. As a consequence of this poaching and illegal trade, many species are at risk of becoming endangered or going extinct, such as the pangolin, the hawksbill turtle, and the Amur leopard.

If poaching and illegal trade are so detrimental to wildlife, then why do they continue? Some people get involved in these activities simply for trophies or pleasure, but many do it for the money. Certain species are prized due to their rarity, medicinal properties, or aesthetic value. Consequently, the illegal trade of items collected from wildlife and plants is estimated to be worth 10 to 20 billion dollars each year. However, generally the poachers and people actually collecting the illegal items are often impoverished. Poverty, lack of employment opportunities, and a limited potential for agriculture and livestock production are key drivers leading many of these people to poach and sell wildlife illegally.

Mitigating Poaching and Illegal Trade

Since poaching and illegal trade have widespread impacts on wildlife and people, it is important to put plans into action that can help mitigate or eliminate these activities and promote conservation. One strategy that’s employed is the militarization of conservation. Militarization refers to the use of force or weapons and military style approaches and technology (like informant networks and counter insurgency-like strategies).

Proponents of this strategy say it’s necessary to integrate militarization into conservation practice to ensure the success of conservation, as they say it’s the best workable option in areas of intense armed conflict. However, though militarization and violence have been used to sustain conservation in the past, Duffy and their team of researchers conducted a study which documented many disadvantages to continued use of this strategy that have been overlooked. To delve more closely into the subject, they wrote a paper that outlines the critiques of militarization and its effectiveness as a conservation strategy.

How Effective and Equitable is Militarization?

These researchers argue that militarization might not be the best solution to poaching and illegal trade, and they say that we need to think more critically before adopting it widely as a practice. They talk about how militarization of conservation is unjust and will not work until it is so, and it will be difficult to enforce in the long term. As evidence, they go on to talk about a number of its limitations. For one, anti-poaching technologies are costly, do not address the underlying causes of declining wildlife numbers, and are not transparent about their effectiveness. Another issue is that militarization can be commodified. Certain ads and notices are used to draw in people who will fund armed conservation efforts even when they don’t understand the actual effects of militarization in conflict zones.

There can also be humanitarian and social issues caused by living in and around areas with militarized conservation. Conflict can mirror and recreate past injustices, thus alienating people living in these spaces by breeding mistrust through violence, intimidation, and surveillance. There are often also unacknowledged racial politics running through conservation circles. The criminalization of poachers draws parallels to colonialism in many cases, which brings forward the animosity that many people feel towards wildlife conservation. In addition, the incentive schemes that are introduced to mitigate the issues that come with forceful conservation approaches like militarization do not actually address the systemic problems or incentives for people to engage in illegal hunting and trafficking. Instead, they address the symptoms. By not addressing the root cause of the problem, this cycle of poverty and inequality which leads to poaching and violence is perpetuated.

There is also a big problem with the portrayal of poachers and rangers as villains and heroes respectively. By portraying conservation practitioners and rangers as heroes, it becomes difficult to address abuses by staff, and so there can be a loss of accountability in the eyes of local people and the international community. By practicing this moral boundary drawing, the portrayal of these groups in the media is used to explain and justify the use of coercion and violence against poachers.

What Can Be Done Instead?

To address the issues brought up by militarization, the authors argue a number of critiques and actions should take place. For one, the political economy of militarization should be analyzed, including the collaborations between conservationists, governments, and national armies. There is a need to also look at the experiences of rangers and those involved in implementing militarized conservation. In areas using militarization tactics, rangers are often put under stressful and compromising situations, and they are often targets of violence. Much of their work ends up straying from their typical role and training, causing a redistribution of resources and attention away from broader conservation activities. By drawing attention to the problems and challenges rangers face as well as their own concerns and criticisms of the practice, this can lead to their improved well-being and working conditions instead of reducing them to the singular category of conservation heroes.

It’s also critical to address the inequalities and inequities occurring in areas of conservation concern to ensure that conservation does not exacerbate these problems. Since poaching and illegal wildlife trade are both very complex issues, there is a need to address their humanitarian aspect. Understanding what militarization means to people living in areas of conservation concern can highlight the social issues involved in the practice. By focusing on the root causes of poaching and trafficking, not just the symptoms, these issues can hopefully be mitigated properly. So far, this approach has been successful. A combination of reduction campaigns and sustainable livelihood approaches have been found to be more effective at reducing poaching than just enhanced policing and enforcement.

Overall, more research is needed on the subject of militarization. What we do know is that there is an urgent need to engage critically with militarization risks to avoid making things worse for the people and wildlife involved. With continued engagement, hopefully we can create strategies that address all issues that arise in areas of conservation conflict.

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Jessica Espinosa

Hi! My name is Jessica Espinosa and I am a PhD student at UConn in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department interested in the bird conservation. I received my masters degree in Conservation Biology from Columbia University where my thesis focused on the effects of coastal pollution on the behavior and morphology of hermit crabs in Fiji. I am also a Mount Holyoke College and City Year Alum. In my free time, I enjoy reading, writing, hiking, doing martial arts, and playing music.

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