There is a unique strategic conundrum at the heart of the protection of wildlife and the interdiction of illegal wildlife trafficking (IWT): to survive wildlife needs the altruistic engagement of humans to combat the actions of other human beings for its ultimate defence and part of this protection includes the controversial use of force, sometimes referred to as ‘militarization’.
As the volume of IWT, both dead or alive, has risen to be the fourth highest illegal trade classification and worth between $10-20billion per annum, the phrase ‘militarization’ is increasingly applied to describe counter-measures: while ‘militarization’ generally implies the use of force, it crosses a wide terrain from the actual use of violence through the use of guns to conceptual critiques of counter-poaching, such as ‘green militarization’ and ‘green violence’, which carry a negative connotation.
Here the suspicion is that militarized responses to IWT might have a negative impact on communities because there is a failure to distinguish between poaching for profit and poaching for subsistence: even though IWT also includes luxury products such as crocodile-skin boots, pashminas, shark-fins and turtle eggs, as well as the ‘grey’ area of wildlife traded for ‘canned’ hunting, the taking of wildlife is also a source of food, clothing or medicine for millions of people, the majority from the poorest communities in the world. Furthermore, for some communities IWT constitutes a key source of income, either to just make ends meet or as a business that pays handsomely.
Conversely, with the global proliferation of small arms, poachers can easily get hold of rifles and AK 47’s for hunting and self-protection: one account of the overlap between the drugs trade and turtle egg raiding in Mexico describes how hundreds of hueveros (egg snatchers) arrived on the beach with machetes and guns blazing.
Though there are a number of IWT source countries in which the rangers either do not carry weapons, such as in Colombia, or where the rangers are virtually non-existant, such as in Central America, taking an overview of today’s ‘militarised’ counter-poaching it is clear that inexorably the main focus is on central and sub-Saharan Africa, which is hardly surprising given that Africa hosts the largest proportion of the world’s megafauna which attracts the most aggressive poaching and ‘militarized’ counter-measures. Though IWT takes in a wide range of species, the main focus of ‘militarized’ counter-poaching is clearly on high-profile species such as elephants, rhinos, lions, tigers and snow leopards.
The dynamics of poaching and ‘lootable’ wildlife resources have become entwined with the ever-growing ‘shadow’ economy of transnational criminal networks, especially in countries and areas that have been ‘wasted’. These ‘wastelands’ can either occur through conflict, such as in central Africa, or severe deprivation, as in parts of Mexico and much of Central America; in these ‘wastelands’ the absence of an effective and centralized authority makes them in the view of political geographer, Derek Gregory, ‘pre-constituted as fallen, violated and damaged, always and everywhere potential targets for a colonising capitalist modernity’. Furthermore, the state’s monopoly of violence may have collapsed, leading to a position where ‘non state actors (warlords, local and ethnic militia) are able to establish alternative, territorially restricted forms of centralised violence’.
The area where ‘militarised’ counter-poaching and militant conservation mingle, such as with the Sea Shepherd marine conservation organisation and its opposition to whaling, also throws up thorny issues of moral and legal ambiguity surrounding the use of force that includes ‘eco-terrorism’. Furthermore, ‘militarised’ counter-poaching broadly follows trends in late-modern warfare that conform to ‘man-hunting’ that target individuals or groups, typically demonstrated in the rise of drone usage, which have been labelled by Derek Gregory, as ‘the individuation of warfare’, along with his suggestion that ‘man-hunting’ is ‘a new form of networked (para) military violence’. Thus, in various ways the essential ‘hunting’ element within counter-poaching has been in a sense ‘legitimized’ by developments in modern military tactics as well as relentless media coverage. Jasper Humphreys