Industrial-scale poaching of elephants and rhinos across Africa has fueled an unprecedented militarization of conservation efforts on the continent. Now, two major green groups, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), have been implicated in funding anti-poaching guards accused of gross violations of human rights in the Congo Basin.
A recent report from the human rights group Survival International documents more than 200 incidents of abuse of rural, tribal people by anti-poaching guards including: kidnappings; beatings; and, torture, as well as the destruction of food and private property. In one incident a woman had her hands tied behind her back before being cut with a machete and beaten in response to the suspected poaching of game for food.
The accusation of abuses in the Congo Basin follows recent claims that Kenya’s Wildlife Service has engaged in kidnappings and extra-judicial killings of suspected poachers and wildlife traffickers. Kenya, which banned all hunting in 1978, has long been lauded by green and animal rights groups as a model for wildlife conservation. Similarly, in Botswana, rural residents have accused the Department of Wildlife and National Parks of abuses, including chasing down indigenous hunters with a helicopter gunship. Botswana banned all hunting in 2013 and its program was cheered as “an example for the region and the world” by President Obama.
The increasingly militarized approach to conservation in Africa has been supported by the US Congress with last year’s passage of the Eliminate, Neutralize, and Disrupt Wildlife Trafficking Act of 2016. This law, signed by President Obama, formalized Congressional consent for the Obama Administration’s provision of “defense articles,” “defense services,” and related training to African security forces for the purpose of countering wildlife trafficking and poaching. This support has already taken the form of US Army personnel providing training to game rangers in Tanzania and Gabon.
Green and animal rights activists have argued that a militarized approach to conservation is necessary due to the presence of well-armed and organized wildlife trafficking networks and their links to militant groups in Africa like Boko Haram and Al Shabaab. The intelligence cited by activists to support the latter claim however has proven itself scant and inconclusive at best.
At the same time, researchers and African landowners with a direct connection to African wildlife have steadily argued that a soft power, market-based approach will be more effective in conserving Africa’s wildlife and improving regional security in the long run because it will create the economic opportunity and stability that incentivizes conservation and reduces social tensions. Their case is bolstered by the fact that for all of the military equipment and knowledge that has poured into African anti-poaching programs over the past several years the poaching of elephants and other African wildlife remains at crisis levels.
For its part, South Africa has become the first country to begin pursing a more robust, market-driven approach to ending the continent’s poaching crisis. The country recently legalized domestic trade in rhino horn in an effort to shrink the black market and reduce the violent criminality inherent with it. Time will tell if their program succeeds where militaries and paramilitary units have failed. If they do, it will strengthen the case that green groups and governments must stop fighting a war to conserve wildlife and begin protecting the environment as if people mattered.