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The militarization of anti-poaching: undermining long term goals?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 April 2015

Department of Development Studies, SOAS, University of London, Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, London WC1H 0XG, UK
Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent CT2 7NR, UK
Sociology of Development and Change Group, Wageningen University, Hollandsweg 1, Wageningen 6706KN, The Netherlands
Institute for Development Policy and Management, School of Environment, Education and Development, The University of Manchester, Arthur Lewis Building, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PL, UK
*Correspondence: Professor Rosaleen Duffy e-mail:
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Conservation is at a critical juncture because of the increase in poaching which threatens key species. Poaching is a major public concern, as indicated by the rises in rhino and elephant poaching, the United for Wildlife Initiative and the London Declaration, signed by 46 countries in February 2014. This is accompanied by an increasing calls for a more forceful response, especially to tackle the involvement of organized crime in wildlife trafficking. However, there is a risk that this will be counter-productive. Further, such calls are based on a series of assumptions which are worthy of greater scrutiny. First, calls for militarization are based on the idea that poverty drives poaching. Yet, poaching and trafficking are changing because of the shifting dynamics of poverty in supply countries, coupled with changing patterns of wealth in consumer markets. Second, the ways increases in poaching are being linked to global security threats, notably from Al Shabaab are poorly evidenced and yet circulate in powerful policy circles. There is a risk that militarization will place more heavily armed rangers in the centre of some of the most complex regional conflicts in the world (such as the Horn of Africa and Central Africa/Sahel region).

Copyright © Foundation for Environmental Conservation 2015 


The illegal wildlife trade has become increasingly sophisticated and poaching of wildlife, including elephants and rhinoceros, is rising (Burn et al. Reference Burn, Underwood and Blanc2011; Biggs et al. Reference Biggs, Courchamp, Martin and Possingham2013; Wittemyer et al. Reference Wittemyer, Northrup, Blanc, Douglas-Hamilton, Omondi and Burnham2014). The London Declaration, signed in February 2014 by 46 countries, calls for four basic actions to tackle the problem: eradicating markets for illegal wildlife products; ensuring effective legal frameworks and deterrents; strengthening law enforcement; and promoting sustainable livelihoods and development. It backs these with a £10 million fund from the UK Government. The Declaration proposes a broad palette of action, but that breadth is threatened by growing calls for stronger armed responses to poaching from a wide range of conservation non-governmental organizations (NGOs, including leading international organizations) and national governments (including the US Government; White Reference White2014; Duffy Reference Duffy2015). We argue that these calls could be counter-productive because they are founded on limited knowledge about poverty and poaching, inadequately address rising wealth in user markets (Ayling Reference Ayling2013; Roe et al. Reference Roe, Milledge, Cooney, ‘t Sas-Rolfes, Biggs, Murphree and Kasterine2014), make oversimplified claims that trafficking is funding terrorism (White Reference White2014), and do not adequately consider demand reduction strategies.

The shifting drivers of poaching

Poaching is changing because of changing patterns of wealth in demand countries, the dynamics of poverty in supply countries and the interplay between them. In debates about the relationships between poverty, poaching and conservation, there is an underlying assumption that the poor poach to raise their income in situations where they have limited alternatives (Roe Reference Roe2008). Poaching cannot be understood merely as a response to material deprivation. It is also driven by prestige, identity and custom (MacDonald Reference MacDonald and Carrier2004). Attempts to combat poaching through livelihood enhancement that do not engage with these realities will founder (Alexander & McGregor Reference Alexander and McGregor2000). If it is assumed that poverty drives poaching, we must also recognize that poverty is multi-dimensional, encompassing lack of power, prestige, voice, and an inability to shape one's future (Sen Reference Sen1999; Hulme Reference Hulme2010).

Recent increases in poaching are more closely related to increases in wealth in demand countries, rather than poverty in supply countries. Recent reports from CITES (2014) and TRAFFIC (Milliken & Shaw Reference Milliken and Shaw2012) suggest that new drivers of the illegal wildlife trade are part of a shift from traditional culture-related consumption to new forms of conspicuous consumption driven by rising incomes. In the 1980s and 1990s, key markets for rhino horn were Taiwan, Yemen, and to a lesser extent, China. Rhino horn was primarily used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) as a cardio-tonic and blood thinner (rather like aspirin in Western medicine) and as jambiyya dagger handles in Yemen (a marker of status). The market for horn in Yemen has reduced because of economic decline there, and, following a national ban, Taiwan no longer has a significant market (Milliken & Shaw Reference Milliken and Shaw2012; Ayling Reference Ayling2013). Now, the rising markets are in Vietnam and China: as wealth increases a greater number of people can afford to purchase products that contain rhino horn. However, this only provides part of the explanation. Certainly, in Vietnam, increased demand is also linked to new patterns of consumption and groups of consumers. Prior to 2006, use of rhino horn in Vietnam was limited. However, demand increased following the comments of a prominent politician who thought it alleviated his cancer (Rademeyer Reference Rademeyer2012, pp. 275). The price of rhino horn in Vietnam in 2013 was US$ 65000 kg−1, and sometimes US $ 75000 kg−1 (Ayling Reference Ayling2013, pp. 60). Rhino horn also began to be used as a form of conspicuous consumption as a ‘party drink’ that did not result in a hangover and was thought to fortify male strength. Although never originally an aphrodisiac (which was a Western myth), that myth has now gone full circle and Vietnamese consumers now refer to it in these terms (Rademeyer Reference Rademeyer2012, pp. 274–276). In late 2014, the Humane Society International claimed that consumption of rhino horn had reduced by 33% partly as a result of their campaigns, however this was based on a small study and Vietnam remains the biggest market for rhino horn (Humane Society International 2014). Clearly then, the demand in Vietnam blends rising incomes, historical health practices, emerging cultural norms, conspicuous consumption, and state-level corruption (Milliken & Shaw Reference Milliken and Shaw2012; Ayling Reference Ayling2013; Litchfield Reference Litchfield2013).

Anti-poaching as a global security initiative

Appropriate policy responses to these threats may be impeded by the ways that poaching is linked to issues of global security. A good example is the link drawn between poaching and Al Shabaab, which can be traced back to a single investigation by the Elephant Action League (Kalron & Crosta Reference Kalron and Crosta2012; see also White Reference White2014). Posted on the Elephant Action League website in 2012, their report was only picked up by international media after the attacks on Nairobi's Westgate Mall in 2013. Since then, claims linking Al Shabaab to wildlife trafficking have been made in diverse fora, including testimonial to the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations 2012), the UK's Chatham House (Lawson & Vines Reference Lawson and Vines2014), meetings of the International Conservation Caucus Foundation (Barron Reference Barron2013) and media reports (Doshi Reference Doshi2014). More broadly, Hilary Clinton (US Secretary of State 2009–2013) and Barack Obama (US President 2009–present) have made public statements drawing links between wildlife trafficking, poaching and global security (Goldenberg Reference Goldenberg2013; The White House 2013). The idea that ivory poaching funds terrorism thus circulates in high political circles, but it does so on a paucity of clear evidence and using simplifications of a complex political economy of poaching. Somali groups have long been identified as a possible source of ivory poaching in Kenya, while, at the same time, poaching activities have also been linked to corruption within the Kenyan Government itself (Leakey & Morell Reference Leakey and Morell2002).

These simplifications matter because where militias and insurgent groups are involved in ivory poaching, it is only part of a wider military strategy, and hence so must counter-poaching strategies. Poaching has been used as a financial underpinning for conflicts across Sub-Saharan Africa, including Uganda in the 1970s and 1980s, Angola and Mozambique in the 1980s, the Great Lakes region since 1996, and the Central African Republic and its neighbours more recently (Ellis Reference Ellis1994; Humphreys & Smith Reference Humphreys and Smith2011). Solutions to poaching must engage with issues of broader regional stability and the wider political context (Milburn Reference Milburn2012; Lunstrum Reference Lunstrum2014).

There are also serious ethical concerns. More forceful actions against poaching can lead to injustices (Neumann Reference Neumann2004); this was an important omission in Challender and MacMillan's (Reference Challender and MacMillan2014) review of poaching and policy responses, which did not examine how more aggressive approaches to enforcement are made possible by policy debates. Shoot-to-kill policies are legal in some states (such as Botswana and Uganda), contrary to the principles of the Conservation Initiative on Human Rights (CIHR), to which many in the conservation community aspire (IIED [International Institute for Environment and Development] 2015).

Undermining long-term goals

Strong and forceful approaches to conservation can work (Brockington Reference Brockington2002). Specifically, there is evidence that greater levels of patrolling reduced poaching in the Serengeti (Hilborn et al. Reference Hilborn, Arcese, Borner, Hando, Hopcraft, Loibooki, Mduma and Sinclair2006). However, the same authors were clear that their analyses did not provide evidence that better armed rangers, or greater use of force, would be more effective. Instead, militarized approaches can escalate conflict between rangers and poachers, and lead to the alienation of local communities.

Arresting more poachers does not always stop criminal syndicates. In South Africa, rhino poaching continued to rise despite increased arrests (Milliken & Shaw Reference Milliken and Shaw2012; Rademeyer Reference Rademeyer2012; Standley & Emslie Reference Standley and Emslie2013). Where poaching is the consequence of organized criminal networks and global commodity chains, tackling just one end of the chain will have limited impact (Rademeyer Reference Rademeyer2012; Duffy et al. Reference Duffy, Emslie and Knight2013). We need to be cognizant of the fact that the illegal wildlife trade is not a singular phenomenon that requires a one-size-fits-all strategy to tackle it. Illegal hunting and wildlife trading play a central role in the subsistence strategies of many communities around the world (Roe et al. Reference Roe, Milledge, Cooney, ‘t Sas-Rolfes, Biggs, Murphree and Kasterine2014). The strategies for tackling subsistence hunting need to be quite different to those for commercial-scale poaching of high-value products. Other approaches seek to reduce demand in end-user markets (Zain Reference Zain2012) as an effective strategy. There are arguments in favour of formal legalization and monitoring of wildlife trades (such as the rhino horn trade; Biggs et al. Reference Biggs, Courchamp, Martin and Possingham2013), but these do not adequately address important considerations of the relative roles of wealth, poverty and inequality. Clearly, different trades might require very different policy responses according to species, place of origin, trade and transit route, and profile of demand.


The breadth of the London Declaration is welcome. A key issue is what sort of impact it makes on policy and practice, based on the types of understandings of the problem. Important measures of success will include the long-term solutions that it fosters, and the extent to which it tackles poaching within the broader political, social and economic context of which it is part. Efforts to reduce poaching need to engage with the broader political economy of the wildlife trade; notably how wealth (rather than poverty) drives demand, and structures markets and trade. Reducing demand from consumers needs a complex combination of carefully-designed awareness campaigns, leadership from involved actors, and systems of incentives and penalties. Previous experience indicates this will require commitments over several decades from all stakeholders, not just greater enforcement in supply countries.


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