When Conservationists Militarize, Who’s the Real Poacher?

Poacher hunter Kinessa Johnson says, “We’re going to do some anti-poaching, kill some bad guys and do some good.” Great! Who’s to argue? She’s one of the former soldiers in VETPAW, a group started by an ex-Marine to give employment to post-9/11 veterans. Paid for with public donations, VETPAW sends veterans to Africa to “defund” terrorism. It’s presented as a win-win: Veterans get work; terrorists don’t get money; animals are saved; and the bad guys are destroyed. All this relies, of course, on the verity of the claim that poaching funds terrorism.

Is this the face of modern conservation?

The renaissance in “green militarism” goes beyond one US nonprofit organization. It’s a “renaissance” because armed environmentalism isn’t new. When national parks were created in 19th century United States, the cavalry first exiled the Native Americans who lived and hunted there and then kept other “poachers” out. The environmental movement was largely the creation of wealthy big-game hunters who wanted to stop “their” herds from being killed by hungry locals. The curious idea that big-game hunters are the best conservationists remains common, and the term “poachers” has always meant only those other hunters whom conservationists want to get rid of.

The conservation industry depicts its work as a war that needs fighting with determination. That’s understandable: The environment is losing. Poachers are now portrayed as organized and sophisticated actors who fuel depravities such as drugs and terrorism. That’s understandable too: Organizations like the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) – which raises $2 million daily – need to give their donors simple narratives. But the hero-versus-comic-book villain sketch is not the whole story.

The Criminalization of “Subsistence Poaching”

Poaching gangs certainly exist, and organizations like VETPAW may be effective in countering them, but is this martial analogy helpful, particularly when conservationists are using more and more real soldiers?

Local people, including local tribespeople, have long been thought of by some conservationists as “in the way” of the environment. They’re termed “poachers” and abused accordingly. Baka people in Cameroon, the Bushmen (please note: I am using the term “Bushmen” rather than “Basarwa” or “San” in this article because my organization has found that members of this group generally prefer this term) in Botswana and Adivasi tribes in India are beaten up or worse by those claiming to protect nature. It’s not getting better.

The United Nations and BirdLife, a partnership of conservation organizations that aims to conserve birds and global diversity, are bankrolling a massive $26 million project in Botswana, which includes targeting “subsistence poaching” – in other words, people like the Bushmen who hunt for their food. Such self-righteously preening projects create hostility in their many victims, and this foments a growing problem for conservationists. Keeping local people on your side should surely be a top priority, especially those who’ve lived there for generations and know the environment incalculably better than any environmentalist. Exactly the reverse is happening.

Innocent people are persistently criminalized, including with barefaced fabrication. For example, when Botswana’s president evicted the Bushmen from their ancestral lands in 2002, the government and its cronies – including some in the British Parliament – repeated ad nauseam that the tribe hunted “from trucks” with “high-velocity” weapons. It was an invention, as officials eventually admitted in court: The Bushmen hunt with spear or bow and arrow to feed their families and don’t threaten wildlife survival. Nevertheless, Botswana’s president, General Khama (a board member of Conservation International), is lauded by conservationists for his recent countrywide hunting ban, in spite of the fact that it’s unconstitutional. It’s a renewed effort to get rid of the Bushmen, though his ban applies to everyone – apart from safari hunters of course. Rich white people – they are almost invariably white – pay to shoot pretty much anything; black African hunters on the other hand, face arrest, beatings and death.

Shoot-on-Sight Policies

Botswana is one of many tourist destinations that have “shoot-on-sight” policies. It’s impossible to get the facts when park guards kill “poachers”: Rangers always claim they were fired on first, and no one alive can say differently. However, sometimes the guards’ own reports can paint a picture at odds with the heavily armed gangs we’re told about.

For example, a few months ago, the Zimbabwe Parks Authority reported that a band of three had shot at guards in Matusadona National Park using a “heavy caliber gun.” Guards promptly killed two, the other fled. The officials described what they found: one .303 rifle; seven rounds of ammunition; a cooking pot and some buffalo meat – as is served in restaurants all over Africa.

The .303 is not a “heavy caliber gun”; it’s an ancient British infantry rifle, first issued no less than 120 years ago and used by the police and armies in former British colonies until recent decades. If poaching is as profitable as is claimed, this “gang” would have surely stretched to something more up to date that packed more bullets. It’s far from being an isolated incident: In 2014, two men were killed in the Zambezi National Park in Zambia. On this occasion, no weapons or ammunition were found. Relatives say the victims were unarmed and collecting wood. In a separate incident, Botswana soldiers were recently accused of faking a crime by planting tusks near the bodies of three men they shot dead. Similar accounts are growing.

It’s not confined to Africa. Locals near Kaziranga National Park in India are reportedly paid to inform on poachers. If someone is subsequently killed, the informant is given up to $1,000, a small fortune locally and a big incentive to point a finger. According to local wildlife expert Firoz Ahmed, “Sometimes we … know what (the poachers) are planning before they act … and they get killed.” In other words, people are extra-judicially executed after a third party, with a vested financial interest, claims they’re planning a crime against animals. The guards, on the other hand, have immunity from prosecution.

Trophy Hunting

Some Western conservationists welcome extreme measures. As far as they’re concerned, if there’s reason to think that people are hunting elephant, for example, they deserve nothing other than to be perfunctorily gunned down.

Yet there’s more than one contradiction in this: Trophy hunters also routinely kill elephants legally. When land in Cameroon was stolen from the Baka people for “protected zones,” the WWF played an important role in carving up the territory, which included safari hunting concessions and logging areas, as well as national parks. The industrial-strength nongovernment organization steadfastly ignores requests to release the records, which would show what it agreed to, and claims, entirely falsely, that the Baka consented to their land being taken.

Conservationists actually profit from trophy hunting, as infamously illustrated by last year’s auction, in which a member of the Dallas Safari Club paid $350,000 to kill an endangered black rhino in Namibia. Corey Knowlton’s club is now a fully fledged component of the WWF’s partner, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Conservationists themselves hunt elephants. This can make sense in some places. Botswana’s Chobe Park is thought to have seven times the number of elephants it can support, resulting in a catastrophic loss of plant and animal diversity. Now that traditional tribal hunters have been largely wiped out by environmental regulations, letting the earth’s largest land creature multiply without control is a terrible idea for the environment.

The hypocrisy of arbitrary labeling of “hunting” and “poaching” is exemplified by Geoffroy de Gentile Duquesne, employed by a Spanish company, Mayo Oldiri, to run a sport hunting concession in a “protected area” in Cameroon. Among his clients was South African Peter Flack, who hunted endangered forest elephants. In describing his expensive adventure in 2012, Flack writes that he wanted to bag “a full skin” for “mounting purposes.” Confusingly, he writes elsewhere, “Only a short-sighted, stupid criminal would hunt endangered game.” Given a “hunter of the year” award by the Confederation of Hunting Associations of South Africa six years before his 2012 trip, the former mining magnate is a WWF trustee.

It gets worse. Flack’s guide didn’t just help rich hunters kill big game in his “protected” area; he also shot dead a supposed poacher (in “self-defense,” needless to say). In other words, some conservationists kill elephants as well as elephant poachers.

This brings conservation back to its historical roots: the attempt to stop poor people from hunting for food, and leaving the game exclusively for the rich. The term “poacher” is expanding: It spans from organized and highly profitable outlaws, to tribal people trying to feed their families. It also encompasses some officials who are paid to stop poaching. But does it also include those who fund terrorists, a claim often repeated by supporters of shoot-to-kill policies?

Does Poaching Fund Terrorism?

Rosaleen Duffy of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies has looked at this in depth. She’s discovered that the claim originated with a single article, which referred to one terrorist group, al Shabaab in Somalia. It was written by Nir Kalron and Andrea Crosta, director of Elephant Action League, and was originally published on that organization’s website in 2012.

The writers say their “first encounter” with poachers was in a Nairobi hotel. They write, “Following the Shabaab ivory trail into Somalia required assistance from courageous local Somalis,” which implies that they went to Somalia, though they don’t actually say so. Their informants are anonymous, which is to be expected, and there’s no way of checking whether their story is accurate.

The article is loaded with qualifiers – “could be,” “might be,” “may” and so on, but one concrete detail appears: The poachers told them $200,000-$600,000 of ivory supports al Shabaab monthly. It’s the higher figure that has become a conservationist mantra, but a fairer response would average the numbers: That would total nearly $5 million a year going to al Shabaab from poaching. The Kalron and Crosta article further claims that this “could be supplying up to 40% of the funds needed to keep them in business.” But are their figures right?

It’s thought that the group receives hundreds of millions of dollars from several sources: “taxes” and ransoms they levy from seaports; sympathetic governments; Somali-owned businesses internationally; and even, reputedly, aid organizations and the UN, which pay protection money (their cash originating, of course, from Western taxpayers). Five million dollars is certainly a lot (the WWF raises the same every two to three days), but interestingly it’s still only 12 percent of the income the UN believes the terrorists amass annually from “taxes,” and this is just one of their many income streams.

Even if the article were correct in claiming that poaching money funds al Shabaab a little, “we” fund it too, through protection money and ransoms paid by the UN, aid agencies and governments.

Whatever the truth, it’s worth highlighting that this is the sole source that Rosaleen Duffy could find for the poaching link to terrorism, and it was written by someone with a stake in conservationists hiring paramilitaries.

Nir Kalron, the lead writer, is a former “élite commando” who runs Maisha Consulting, based in Israel. It provides paramilitaries and weapons training, and together with the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, partners with the WWF and Wildlife Conservation Society (formerly New York Zoological Society). Serious money is available to fight terrorism of course, and Kalron’s certainly a tough operator. As he points out, “It is clear to everyone that we are not do-gooders from some not-for-profit association who will ask people politely to take care of the environment.”

If we take Kalron’s figures at face value, then stopping al Shabaab’s ivory trade would still only slightly dent the terrorists’ budget. But are the numbers real? Neither the UN nor the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL), for example, believe al Shabaab receives significant money from poaching.

Before it frets about terrorists, who are outside its control, the conservation industry might first halt the criminal activity – such as abusing tribal hunters – that we know it does fund. After all, stealing tribespeople’s lands and arresting, beating and torturing them (or worse) is pretty much guaranteed eventually to damage the environment.

It’s time for the conservation industry to stop mouthing platitudes about human rights and start applying them for real. It’s time for it to come clean about its past. It’s also time for it to stop seeing criticism like this as something to be repulsed by public relations lackeys. Until then, it’s difficult to see it doing much lasting good, and there’s no doubt at all it’s hurting innocent people.


Stephen Corry is the director of Survival International, the global movement for tribal peoples’ rights. The organization has a 46-year track record in stopping the theft of tribal lands. Survival’s work on conservation has wide endorsement from environmentalists.

August 9, 2015