The news: upwards of 30,000 African elephants were slaughtered last year for their ivory; notorious armed groups like the Janjaweed militia and Lord’s Resistance Army are preying on the dwindling number of elephants in central African range states, using ivory to help finance their operations; Chad has lost ninety percent of its elephants; South Sudan likely all of its rhinos; Kenya is seeing an increase in organized poaching; and even Southern Africa—that has historically been buffered from the extensive poaching in east and central Africa due to its relative wealth and robust wildlife departments—has been affected by the surging demand for ivory and rhino horn (South Africa, for example, lost 776 rhinos between 2008 and 2011 to poachers using helicopters and semi-automatic weapons, indicating that wildlife products are lucrative components of organized crime rings alongside weapons and drugs).
This is difficult to grasp. Unlike many conservation issues, where species loss is a function of human-driven habitat change—whether this is on land, in the sea, or in the air—the poaching of elephants and rhinos is a different matter. It is a concerted effort to harvest, and thereby eliminate, two of the most magnificent large mammals left on the planet because of the value of their tusks, the price of their horns.
And the reality hits hard. Last month, on the edge of a favorite protected area in Kenya, I came across the bloated carcass of a dead elephant. The face had been hacked away in order to ply the tusks from their roots, the skin stained with sun-dried blood, the white streaks of vulture shit. Or two weeks ago, a Samburu elder I used to camp and track elephants with in the arid landscapes of northern Kenya, shot and killed by poachers. Or, last week, flying low in a small plane over South Sudan’s Southern National Park—one of the largest protected areas in Africa—and looking down at kilometers and kilometers of savannah woodland that felt eerily empty, incomplete. Thirty years ago it had 20,000 elephants; now, likely none.
Conservation has long been described as a “crisis-discipline,” but with this recent escalation of poaching this has taken on new meaning.
“Anti-poaching,” “counter-terrorism,” “security partnerships,” “informants,” “prosecution,” “elite units”; these are some of the terms that dominated a recent meeting I attended, where African conservationists discussed how to save remaining elephant populations. Indeed, as poachers have become more sophisticated and militarized in their pursuit of elephants and rhinos, conservationists have responded in kind. Private conservancies are putting their rhinos under 24-hour armed guard, community members bordering protected areas are being trained and armed, tracker dogs are being employed, drones are being tested for aerial surveillance, and some conservationists have gone as far as cutting off the horns of rhinos and tusks of elephants.
The militarization of conservation is not new; indeed, this escalation of arms is reminiscent of colonial days, when Europeans managed wildlife populations under a “white hunter, black poacher” paradigm. Seen as threats to wildlife that had become state property, local black African people became the targets of prosecution by white wildlife rangers, and it is only in the past thirty years that conservation has begun to move beyond this, to embrace and work with local people who share land with wildlife and are therefore best positioned to steward their protection. In this regard I find the conservation arms race very alarming, and I ask myself if a militant approach is going to lead to wildlife, particularly the elephants and rhinos, to be perceived as the property of conservationists that are defending them with guns?
But what other choice is there? After all, the difference between the recent poaching crisis and past policies is that now we are dealing with a well-financed and dangerous underworld whose hunt for wildlife products is accompanied by murders, rapes, and child abductions (Janjaweed and Lord Resistance Army, for instance). Their threats to wildlife are also threats to human communities, and if conservationists are going to remain relevant, they have to take on human challenges alongside those of wildlife.
Becoming militant may be the only recourse to saving these animals. And save them we must. But the turn to guns is not something of which conservationists should be proud.