There are few places, even in the Wild West that is the internet, that you can get away with calling for summary execution of other human beings and not attract some censure. When you start describing the parts of their body you would like to cut off and the nature of the slow death which you would like to inflict, you’re into criminal territory, at least in some countries. The conservation blogs and Facebook pages are rife with these sorts of comments. It’s amazing the level of inhumanity, cruelty and depraved violence that ordinary people are able to muster when they see a picture of dead wildlife. Some of the pictures of mutilated animals are horrendous, and the level of suffering meted out to these poor animals is extremely upsetting, but the solutions are not for more criminality. Killing human beings outside of war or due process is a criminal offence. The writers of these blogs and the owners of the Facebook pages would be well advised to censure these comments – but they don’t. This is quite revealing of the attitudes around wildlife conservation. Do conservationists really think that killing poachers is a solution to the problem of wildlife conservation?
It would be interesting to see what the outcome would be of shooting a poacher in say, Scotland. The Scottish red deer is abundant, and about the size of a Waterbuck. It represents a significant meat supply. Should someone in Scotland, who decided to help themselves to one of these animals, be shot on site? If they were shot, what would the proper procedure be for prosecution? My guess is that it would probably be a murder charge and a police investigation followed by a court case and lengthy prison term. Yet the readers and by implication (because they make no attempt to censure these comments) the owners of blog sites and Facebook pages on conservation of African wildlife routinely advocate the killing of poachers as if (a) this is a solution to the long term survival of wildlife, (b) killing human beings without due process is a trivial matter.
The truth is that most poachers in Africa are poor Africans, desperate to take whatever opportunity they can to survive. It gets more complicated when large criminal organisations get involved, for example with ivory and rhino horn, but the people doing the dirty work are still poor Africans who get paid very little. Arresting or killing them is never going to solve the problem. The idea that killing poachers has anything to do with conservation is part of the simplistic drivel that surrounds most discussions about how to conserve African wildlife. Even when criminal syndicates move into an area, they cannot operate without some complicity from the local population. I’ve worked long enough in the remotest parts of Africa to know that the bush telegraph is almost as effective as the internet in transmitting information about what is going on in an area. If poachers have this cooperation from local people it means that tenure and governance around wildlife and natural resources has alienated people from what they now consider to belong to the government. The laws and lack of participation in governance has created an open access commons. It’s every man for himself, instead of a responsible community empowered by ownership to look after their own resources.
In the past, the methods used to track down and apprehend or kill poachers relied on techniques developed by special forces and ex-soldiers from the various bush wars in Africa (Rhodesia or South Africa). These days the anti-poaching is done mostly by the wannabes who either were not directly involved or were too young to emulate their heroes. I struggle to comprehend how militarisation of anti-poaching activities is an option which is even allowed by African governments. Is the historical dehumanisation of rural Africans not sufficient, so that we now consider them fair game in support of our myths about pristine wilderness? The proposal to use drones, equipped with thermal imaging cameras represents the height of dehumanisation of conservation and is a measure of the disconnect that conservationists have managed to achieve between the people of Africa and their wildlife. When you have to use drones to protect wildlife, it’s an admission of failure at a very profound level. Unless a connection is made between people and wildlife through responsible ownership facilitated by good governance, wildlife in Africa will never survive. You can kill or arrest as many poachers as you like. Many studies are showing that stopping the poaching of timber, fish or wildlife is impossible unless the community monitors its own resources. It’s not about throwing more money at the problem and arresting or killing more people.
When President Michael Sata of Zambia came into power in 2011 he immediately released 673 convicted poachers, most of whom had been given prison sentences for minor wildlife-related offences. The President found these jail terms to be disproportionate to the nature of the offence. The conservation community met this with almost unanimous condemnation which simply supports the views of many rural Africans, that conservationists value wildlife more than they value people. The lack of compassion on the part of conservationists for a person who has poached a duiker to feed his family and receives a 5 year jail term, is a grave indictment of the mindset that prevails among many conservationists. If these people truly believe that a simplistic solution like killing or imprisoning poachers will solve a complex problem of sustainable natural resource use, it is a source of grave concern for everyone involved in wildlife conservation.
Apart from running a lion breeding operation that has been condemned by every major lion researcher in the world, the pseudo-conservation organisation Alert has published a guide for anti-poaching activities, along with some other cowboys of conservation. Ostensibly a training manual for anti-poaching activities which claims to be an alternative to the military style tactics used by former soldiers, the blurb is quick to highlight the first authors law enforcement and military qualifications! Is this another wannabe bush war anti-poaching ‘expert’ who makes passing reference to alternatives to anti-poaching and then launches into a full description of how to apprehend and charge people who are mostly just trying to survive? You can make your own judgement. If you want to know what I think of the methods and the people involved, read the title of this post again.