Unquestioning defence of ‘militarized conservation’ is naïve (commentary)


Commentary by Leejiah Dorward and Paul Barnes


Originally posted on Mongabay, reposted here with point by point rebuttal of McCann’s article.


In a recent article, Niall McCann attacks critics of the “militarization” of conservation by academics such as Professor Rosaleen Duffy of the University of Sheffield in the UK.

McCann’s position and argument not only fundamentally misunderstands and misrepresents the position of many committed conservationists but also uses an array of flawed and incomplete arguments to defend increasingly militant enforcement of wildlife crime. His arguments, if widely accepted, not only threaten the long-term survival of the species he wishes to save but risk setting conservation practice back decades by promoting colonial era views towards relationships between wildlife, local communities, and the international conservation movement.

The main thrust of McCann’s argument is that wildlife crime should be treated in a manner similar to other crimes; with robust and professional policing methods. He equates wildlife crime, and the killing of any wildlife in a national park, to theft of gold from a bank where nobody would question the use of lethal force against armed bank robbers. There are two main problems with this view: First, it ignores the historical, political and social environments that have created the wildlife laws that now define what is and is not criminal behaviour. Second, it fails to differentiate types of wildlife crime, which should be dealt with differently.

International co-operation and sophisticated law enforcement are required to help protect iconic species such as African elephants from illegal trade perpetrated by well organised international criminal networks. Credit: Leejiah Dorward

To address the first point, if we want to understand the causes and potential solutions to wildlife crime, we must start with how, when, where, and by whom is wildlife crime defined? In the African context that McCann is focusing on, many countries’ modern wildlife laws are built on colonial-era legislation. Colonial administrators systematically removed access and control of natural resources from local communities to consolidate control of those resources under their management. White recreational hunters were glorified as sport or trophy hunters while local subsistence hunters were rebranded as poachers and a threat to the existence of Africa’s wilderness, a narrative McCann’s argument uses elements of. In comparing wildlife to gold, McCann forgets to mention that the banks stole the gold in the first place, created legal structures that meant only colonial elites could access it, and then sanctioned lethal force to stop the original owners from getting anywhere near it.

Secondly, McCann fails to make the simplest distinction between commercialised illegal killing of high-value species and small-scale subsistence hunting. Does he believe these to be the same? Both criminal acts worthy of the same policing styles and prosecution? Combating the international organised criminal networks involved in the illegal wildlife trade requires robust policing, international co-operation, intelligence gathering, and many of the other things McCann proposes. However, by failing to distinguish between different scales of wildlife crime, McCann appears to be advocating the use of these techniques against all poachers, including those engaged in subsistence extraction, a course of action with highly questionable moral grounding and one that is likely to destroy relationships between conservationists and communities.

McCann assumes all poachers are driven by poverty, missing the myriad other reasons people engage in illegal behaviour and hunting. It is here that an understanding of where wildlife laws originated is paramount. Laws may have criminalised traditional practices that communities are trying to maintain, or people may be engaging in “poaching as protest” where social, economic, and political marginalisation drive people to poach as a form of political protest against overbearing conservation legislation (some examples here and here). In these cases, increasing levels of enforcement against illegal behaviour may have little impact on whether or not communities continue or even expand their illegal activities through lack of choice or in protest.

Hunting of small mammals such as dik dik’s can be an important and irreplaceable protein source for many communities
Credit: Leejiah Dorward

We share McCann’s concern about the fact that many species, and the natural world as a whole, face huge challenges over the coming decades. Law enforcement is one of an array of tools that play an important role in species protection. However, it is not without it’s own issues and problems, and collaborating with social scientists to understand drivers of poaching and the impacts of enforcement on local communities is surely paramount.

If we are to save threatened species this must be with the consent and co-operation of the communities they live alongside. This requires increased community engagement, understanding the grievances, some of them deep and historical, that people hold against the conservation movement and addressing the prejudices and assumptions about local communities that are rife in our field.

There are many people, including Prof. Duffy, who have dedicated their careers to understanding the social and political complexities of conservation, and while they don’t have all the answers, they are far from naïve.



McCanns text in regular font.

Our commentary in bold italic

Over the past few months, a few academics have released a tide of articles (for example here, here, and here) criticising what they call the “militarisation of conservation,” but their ideas are not grounded in reality and, if taken seriously, would only speed up the extinction of threatened wildlife.

Spearheaded by Professor Rosaleen Duffy at the University of Sheffield, the argument against the militarisation of conservation is based on ideological opposition to the armed defence of wildlife and protected areas, particularly in developing nations, and especially when enabled by foreign individuals and organisations.

Ideologies form the basis of all that we do in conservation, understanding the ideologies that underpin conservation practice is fundamental to ensuring the moral, political and social legitimacy of what we do. We do not know what Duffy’s ideology is, but her background in political ecology suggests it is one based on in-depth research and knowledge of the social and political implications of conservation practice. McCann’s ideology or what it is based on is unclear. However this piece implies it is the conservation of African mega fauna at any cost, even that of the lives of communities whose historic rights to natural resources have been criminalised.


Many of those working on-the-ground in conservation – as opposed to those researching conservation – are not interested in engaging in this debate but are more concerned with continuing their day job, saving species from extinction. However, without a counterpoint, this new narrative could seep from academic journals and blogs into the public space, where it might influence the donors and policy-makers currently preserving the remnants of our cherished natural heritage.

Conservation policy MUST be based on sound ideology and knowledge. In our experience it is often impossible to separate researchers from practitioners as many conservationists do both simultaneously. Also those who predominantly “work on the ground” want their work to be as effective as possible and welcome debate and input that can improve their impact. Without sound research how can we know the best ways to save species? To imply that conservation researchers are not interested in saving species or that conservation practitioners are not interested in basing their practice on sounds research is condescending and offensive to both sides.


In an age of anti-intellectualism positions such as these cannot go unchallenged. Those who wish to drive a wedge between conservation research and conservation practice must be robustly challenged.


Duffy’s narrative is guilty of multiple errors of generalization and sins of omission. It does not treat wildlife crimes as actual crimes or accept that policing of wildlife crime should look like other policing. Instead, this narrative paints all armed law enforcement activities as necessarily bad and, perhaps most worryingly, does not appear to grasp that wildlife – such as lions, elephants, and rhinos – must be protected today or there will be none left for the future.

McCann’s narrative at best is open to the same accusations of generalisations and omissions and at worse promotes views and policies that encourages the criminalising of local peoples traditional relationship with natural resources policed by foreign run militia’s using lethal force. In equating wildlife crimes to all other crimes McCann conveniently ignores questions around who gets to define “wildlife crime”. In many African states white colonial governments systematically removed access to natural resources from local communities who had lived alongside wildlife for millennia. Those who used to be subsistence hunters are now labelled as poachers. Given the problems in the USA of black deaths at the hands of police officers and histories of institutionalised racism in police forces around the world, McCann’s argument that policing of African wildlife should look like policing of other issues shows deep insensitivity to the problems of race relations and violence in policing, conservation and global society in general.


Wildlife crime is a crime

Since a crime is defined as a contravention of the law, poaching animals is a crime. Laws are put in place for many reasons, among them to protect assets belonging to one entity from being stolen or damaged by another.

Laws are indeed put in place for many reasons, and as mentioned above many wildlife laws (especially those that define who poachers are) were created with the explicit purpose of centralising control of natural resources to allow their exploitation by white colonial governments. We cannot ignore the political history and landscape within which laws were created.


Like gold reserves in a central bank or livestock on a farm, national parks and the wildlife they protect are assets that require protection from those who would steal or damage them. Killing wildlife inside national parks is quite literally theft: the stealing of an asset that belongs to the people or to the state; while extinction is theft from future generations.

It is unclear here who McCann thinks wildlife belong to, and who has the right to define who wildlife belongs to. The creation of the majority of African National Parks was quite literally the theft of land and wildlife from those who used to live there by colonial governments who wished to preserve a romantic Western ideal of African wilderness and exploit African resources for European gain.


Wildlife tourism also makes a significant contribution to the GDP of countless developing nations across Africa, making poaching a genuine threat to the current and future prosperity of these nations and their people. Poachers who kill wildlife are literally stealing from their fellow citizens who elect not to poach.

Here McCann makes gross generalisations and simplifications of very complex economic situations. Tourism does contribute to GDP in many places, however GDP is widely critiqued as a measure of economic and social progress, one of its biggest failings is that it ignores income distribution or political liberty. How much of a countries income from tourism actually reaches those rural communities living around parks is a matter of debate. For communities that have lost access to subsistence hunting they may have lost access to one of their most important sources of protein and in return face living alongside dangerous mega fauna and receive little or no economic gain in return. Can McCann prove that “poachers” of high value species do not bring more money into their local communities than tourism does?

 This argument also ignores the opportunity costs of conservation. For example, in Tanzania tourism contributes under 5% of the country’s GDP while ~40% of the country is under some form of forest or wildlife protection, what would the impact on GDP and income equity be if that land was distributed to small holder farmers?


Moreover, the slaughter of highly intelligent animals such as elephants for personal financial gain is morally repugnant, both from animal welfare and ecological perspectives. We cannot ignore the extraordinary emotional trauma that poaching inflicts on close-knit families of elephants, or the knock-on effects that extirpating a species has on the landscape. Wildlife crime is more than just a simple act of criminality, it is also incredibly cruel.

McCann accuses Duffy of sins of omission however here he makes a most grievous one. While we agree that killing of elephants causes social stress and trauma to those individuals affected and has wide reaching ecological impacts, McCann makes no mention of the emotional trauma inflicted on people when they are forcibly evicted from their homes or killed in the name of conservation. Here McCann’s omission implies he thinks the killing of elephants is more morally repugnant than the killing of people?


Like any crime, wildlife crime requires policing

The policemen of national parks may look different from those on the streets, they might wear camouflage because they work in the bush, and they are often referred to as rangers, but they fulfil the role of police. Protected areas, like any other resource or asset, require policing. Poachers of high value target species such as rhinos and elephants are almost always armed with illegal firearms, and are often willing to use lethal force. When faced with heavily armed and potentially hostile criminals, rangers, just like the police, must be trained and equipped to protect themselves. All law enforcement agencies have rules of engagement including the use of escalating levels of force commensurate with an escalating threat, occasionally necessitating the use of lethal force.

Here we agree with McCann and doubt many would disagree. Without question many rangers do incredibly difficult and dangerous work and deserve praise and support for doing so. They also do need to be well equipped and well trained to deal with the dangers they face. This doesn’t however mean there shouldn’t be scrutiny of how rangers use their equipment and training, nor questions about the effectiveness of their methods.

 If McCann thinks that all law enforcement agencies strictly follow rules of engagement and only ever use lethal force when necessary he is living in a complete delusion; he just has to look to the US Police force, to see this is not the case. Many conservation agencies work under much less scrutiny than regular police forces do and there are numerous well documented instances of summary executions conducted by conservation personal around the world. Indeed it appears the levels of scrutiny and accountability of foreign run and trained ranger units in some areas appears to be so low that those in charge of the units are willing to admit on the record to international media outlets about how they do not follow the legal rules of engagement when shooting poachers.


Critics of “militarized conservation” often deride the “increasing acceptability of human deaths in defense of animal lives”. But this completely misses the point. Most civilized countries do not have the death penalty, yet law enforcement officials occasionally have to resort to lethal force to protect the public, themselves, or their colleagues, in the course of carrying out their professional duty. Suggesting that conservationists elevate the rights of animals over people is misleading and disingenuous — no one suggests that gold is worth more than people when armed bank robbers are shot during a heist.

Properly addressing problematic terminology such as “civilised” is beyond the scope of this response. We will however say that seeing as it’s predominantly used to describe certain types of white culture its use in the context of a piece that touches on colonial relationships and non-white cultures is extremely ill advised and insensitive.

 It is hard to see what McCann’s argument here is, but equating wildlife in a national park to gold in a bank is an incredibly simplistic and inaccurate metaphor. People accessing wildlife in a national park may be acting on long standing traditional access rights that have been forcibly removed from them. McCann’s claim that “conservationists elevate the rights of animals over people is misleading and disingenuous”, and again shows a misunderstanding of the conservation movement’s history. There is evidence from around the world of states using conservation as a guise to violently appropriate control over natural resources at great cost to local communities. Again looking at the history of national parks across much of African and the colonial contexts in which they were created we can see the rights of animals were constantly elevated above those of people as a way of justifying colonial appropriation of land and resources.


Many of the causes of poaching are the same as any other crime. Poverty is a driver of crime in all parts of the world, and it is beholden upon governments and NGOs to alleviate poverty wherever it occurs. But it is equally beholden upon us all to mitigate the effects of crime: to police our streets and natural resources to prevent criminal acts, regardless of whether those acts are perpetrated by people in poverty. It is absurd to suggest that armed police should be able to defend a bank or a farm from armed robbers – even if those robbers may be poor – but that armed rangers should not be able to defend a national park from poor armed poachers.

Again by equating “poaching” to other crimes McCann is ignoring a deep and violent history surrounding who has access to natural resources and how that access is policed. He is also offering a very narrow view of what motivates poachers, and indeed criminals in general. Poaching for some people is a weapon of the weak and is carried out as a form of protest against state violence surrounding access to natural resources. If a community has been politically and economically marginalised poaching may be a method of direct action with which they can voice political dissent. In these situations increasing use of military force and tactics is likely to be counterproductive and could in fact lead to increased levels of poaching.


Articles such as those by Professor Duffy often refer to the war on drugs and criticize the targeting of ‘foot soldiers’ (in this case the poachers) while leaving the kingpins in place. The most important difference here is that, unlike the drug trade, foot soldiers in the illegal wildlife trade are dealing with a finite resource: extinction is forever. We must invest our energies into stopping both the kingpins and the poachers if we are to stop the slaughter of our precious wildlife.

While McCann accuses Duffy of making generalisations here he uses completely inaccurate definitions; wildlife (as living things that reproduce) are by definition renewable resources.


If we desire that wildlife and wild places have a place in our future, then we must extend them the same level of protection as we afford other resources, or they will be lost forever.

Armed law enforcement is required in many cases

Some species may be protected by education efforts, others by safeguarding habitat, but you can’t use the same benign approaches to tackle the poaching of commercially valuable species such as rhinos, elephants, and tigers. The pressures on these species, the drivers of poaching, and the criminals involved are completely different – and require more police-oriented methods.

Articles criticising the “militarisation” of conservation often refer to the use of advanced tactics such as remote surveillance, informer networks, and intelligence gathering. But such articles are confusing the “militarisation” of conservation with the professionalisation of conservation. These techniques aren’t exclusively military – they are standard policing techniques, used because they improve the probability of detecting and preventing a crime before it happens, or apprehending a suspect when a crime has been committed.

McCann’s defence of advance tactics is valid in a number of settings. Protecting wildlife against powerful international crime syndicates involved in the illegal trade of high value species requires complex and professional tactics and techniques. However again he misses the point that contexts within which these tactics are used are important from a moral and practical point of view. From a moral perspective the use of these advanced techniques may be valid against organised criminal syndicates however their use against communities involved with low-level subsistence bush meat hunting seems somewhat Orwellian. Practically, communities who may already feel criminalised and have poor relationships with law enforcement agencies are unlikely to respond well to covert surveillance techniques which could increase feelings of mistrust and disenfranchisement, increasing conflict between conservationists and communities.


Duffy also attempts to discredit “militarized conservation” by debunking links between Boko Haram and Al Shabab and the illegal wildlife trade, while conveniently ignoring the proven involvement of the LRA, Mai Mai militias, and Malian Islamist groups in cases of mass elephant poaching. What is totally undeniable is that commercial poaching and trafficking are run by multi-national criminal gangs, whether or not they are linked to global jihadi terrorism.

Duffy’s critique of those linking Islamist groups and elephant poaching was in response to a specific period of time and specific campaigns which conflated evidence and facts to justify the actions and funding of certain campaigns. Linking wildlife trade and jihadism falls into a much wider anti-Islamic global narrative around the war on terror that conservationists should definitely question. McCann himself recognises there may not be links to global jihadism, so why does he criticise Duffy for making the same assertions?


Anti-poaching isn’t becoming more “militarized” because of jihadi terrorist groups, it is becoming more “professionalized” because the threat to wildlife and to rangers has increased, and because we are running out of time to save the most valuable species and landscapes on Earth from determined criminals.

In her criticism, Professor Duffy has correctly pinpointed some of the rare offences, verging on atrocities, carried out by NGO-financed rangers in the field. What this highlights is that wildlife policing should be regulated in the same way as regular police forces are regulated, by the creation of IPCC-equivalent bodies. It is vital that rangers operate within the law, and that any atrocities are reported and prosecuted. However, for these articles to use rare examples such as these to condemn the work of professional and responsible law enforcement personnel who risk their lives every day in the protection of our natural resources does a huge disservice to those who are operating within the law and are making a positive contribution to the countries in which they operate.

It does not take long to find numerous examples of assaults, beatings, extrajudicial killing and summary executions by rangers in a number of countries (some examples here, here and here). If McCann thinks someone being killed for collecting firewood only verges on being an atrocity I do not want to know what a real atrocity looks like. Earlier McCann denotes an entire paragraph to the emotional trauma elephants suffer and the cruelty of killing them while only sparing a single sentence for those killed by rangers, seemingly countering his own claim that: “Suggesting that conservationists elevate the rights of animals over people is misleading and disingenuous “.

 Increased regulation, scrutiny and accountability are things critics of the militarisation of conservation are calling for, and rangers should of course operate within the law and atrocities should be prosecuted. The issue again comes back to who gets to define what the law is? McCann’s language here is telling, he acknowledges the “rare offenses” Duffy points out but pulls short of calling them atrocities, however it is only atrocities that should be prosecuted, suggesting he does not see the offenses Duffy highlights as prosecutable? This may seem like arguing over semantics, however when dealing with actions and ideas that will and do result in people’s deaths we have to be clear about what we are talking about.


When it comes to complex law enforcement problems, such as the policing of commercial wildlife crime, NGOs and international organizations (Interpol, the UN, etc.) are often better positioned to provide the necessary training, equipment and support than host nations, due to matters of economics and expertise. As a result, many foreign organizations have become involved in this “militarized conservation”.

Combating an international illegal trade does require international co-operation and the involvement of large international organisations, however this has to be collaborative with international organisations working as equals alongside host country organisations and governments if it is to be effective. The idea that external experts are better placed to engage with local communities than people from those communities and countries is an incredibly patronising viewpoint. This view fits with a colonial narrative that indigenous communities are unable to conserve their own environments without the involvement of international actors, despite the fact that African societies historically conserved their wildlife while Europeans decimated their own.


But Professor Duffy criticizes several such organizations, for example the International Anti Poaching Foundation. Duffy assumes that because the founder of the IAPF is ex-military, the organization is necessarily bad. Duffy ignores the facts that the IAPF’s founder, Damien Mander, is a vegan motivated by his deep concern for wildlife, who employs dozens of local people in the protection of their natural resources and is investing in female empowerment programs in rural Zimbabwe.

In the article McCann cites, Duffy makes no specific claim against Damien Mander (and what his dietary preferences have got to do with anything is beyond us) only citing him as an example of increasing involvement of ex-military personnel in wildlife enforcement. Duffy does however cite the Game Rangers Association of Africa (an organisation we would have thought has important views on the whole issue of militarisation and McCann has conveniently ignored) who raise multiple concerns about how increased military involvement in ranger training risks eroding the very specialised skill set that rangers have and the foreign military personal may not be aware of (local laws, community relations, dangers of working in the bush, ecological sensitivity, understanding of the local political, cultural and social environment etc.)


It is clear that conservation efforts will fail in the long run if communities are not engaged in the process. Responsible conservation NGOs are intimately engaged in community development programs, but they also recognize that robust policing is required to mitigate the disastrous effects of unregulated poaching.

There will be nothing left if we don’t protect wildlife today

In 2016, WWF released its Living Planet report, which found that 58 percent of all wildlife on Earth has already been killed in the last fifty years. There simply isn’t time to wait for long-term initiatives to replace those directly protecting wildlife.

McCann’s use of “killed” misleadingly implies that 58% of the earths wildlife has been hunted, poached or intentionally destroyed. Illegal killing of wildlife does threaten some species however the vast majority of biodiversity loss is driven by much larger global issues such as habitat conversion and climate change, much of which is driven by demand for commodities in western societies.


Of course, we must tackle the drivers of poaching that these articles mention, but if we only focus on tackling these drivers through long-term education and social programs, there will be nothing left to protect in a remarkably short time.

Not only is there a legal responsibility to protect wildlife from illegal exploitation, but there is a moral responsibility, too, if we are to prevent the extinction of untold numbers of species on our watch. Although I have focused on poaching of rhino and elephant, it is worth raising the point that unrestricted bushmeat hunting in Africa, Asia, and across South and Central America is a human disaster in the waiting that will precipitate a tragedy of the commons, where nobody benefits in the long-term. Without strict regulation, uncontrolled bushmeat hunting will see many communities poach every living thing out of the wild, leaving nothing for future generations.

Unsustainable bushmeat hunting is a severe issue in many parts of the world, however again McCann uses far too simple a lens to view what is a highly complex social and economic issue. For many communities bushmeat is one of the only available sources of protein, these communities are often economically and politically marginalised without land on which other protein sources may be grown or farmed. Criminalising and then policing access to these protein sources without considering the outcomes and impacts this could have may well cause huge negative impacts on those communities and have little impact on the levels of bushmeat consumption.


No doubt Professor Duffy and I both want the same thing: to see a reduction in both the causes of crime and crime itself. I welcome any robust analysis of the efficacy and morality of anti-poaching operations. These critiques, however, do not constitute a robust analysis. At a time when our natural heritage is under threat from all sides, such articles are not only misleading but dangerous, and an insult to the families of the thousand-or-more brave rangers who have lost their lives in defence of the wildlife that is so important to the future prosperity of their communities and to the state of the planet as a whole.

McCann clearly does not welcome a robust analysis, as he has previously stated he is not willing to engage in this debate. It seems his main criticism of Duffy’s argument is that it disagrees with his own, not that her analysis of the situation is fundamentally flawed.


The extinction of elephants and rhino and of untold other species is almost unconscionable, and yet, as poaching levels remain so devastatingly high, it is becoming a more realistic prospect as every year goes by. We are not at the eleventh hour, the eleventh hour has gone. Now is not the time to roll back on our efforts to stop the slaughter, now is the time to do all we possibly can to prevent this ecological and moral catastrophe: the destruction of the living planet and the extinction of species.

It is undeniable that the natural world is in a state of crisis, but the use of this crisis to justify using any means at our disposable to save species is a worrying standpoint. While previously arguing that “suggesting that conservationists elevate the rights of animals over people is misleading and disingenuous McCann here argues we must do all we can to prevent a moral catastrophe that is the extinction of rhino and elephant, offering no caveats. We should strive to protect these species but not at any cost, not at the cost of the lives and communities that live alongside these species.