“African conservationists ‘shoot to kill poachers‘” is something of a worrying headline. Unfortunately the book that the story is based upon is yet to be published so it is difficult to comment upon the particulars. Nonetheless the story is now, and I’m worried that, in the absence of context, conservation may be getting a slightly unfair rap.
Let’s start off by saying that a human life is never worth less than a [insert species name here]. Conservationists who even imply that a shoot to kill policy is defensible as a conservation stratagem deserve all the opprobrium they get.
But, and as the BBC news article does make clear lower down, some of these poaching gangs are paramilitary outfits themselves. Many of them are operating in some pretty lawless places, and are attacking a clear economic asset. One of the primary responsibilities of a government of a nation state is to maintain both its territorial integrity and a monopoly on the use of violence within its borders. Furthermore, it does not appear that these armed gangs have any particular political motive or grievance which might generate some sympathy (the terrorists v freedom fighters argument); they simply want to abrogate use of the economic asset (wildlife) for themselves.
I am not a believer in “fortress conservation”. Local people should benefit from the wildlife that surrounds them, and it is offensive when rich tourists benefit at the expense of the rural poor. But establishing effective schemes and mechanisms to share the benefits require the rule of law to be present. Community leaders responsible for managing the wildlife cannot negotiate with someone pointing a gun at them.
The foot soldiers in these poaching gangs are very likely dirt poor and paid a pittance to slaughter wildlife so some local bigwig can get rich off the proceeds. They are as much victims as the child soldiers of Liberia and Sierra Leone; some of these poachers may well be children too. But before they can become victims that society can address, they have to be pacified. Heavily armed poaching gangs should be no more tolerated than heavily armed gangs on the streets of modern cities.
The BBC article talks about a “war for wildlife”. And one of the least pleasant results of a war is, in that horrendous, sanitizing euphemism, collateral damage; civilian casualties caught up in the cross-fire. That is not to say that such loss of lives is not 100% regrettable, but no-one seems to have worked out how to wage a war without causing them. This is even more the case in modern day asymmetrical warfare in which the insurgent (read poacher) relies on their ability to melt back into the general population, instantly becoming a potential victim rather than an active protagonist.
Conservation is often something of a liberal pursuit. It is idealistic. That idealistic aims may sometimes coincide with the rather less savoury goals of a local despot is one of the less salubrious aspects of international development and conservation; we regularly have to hold our noses. Conservation writers, both academic and popular, may sometimes inadvertently give the impression that they do not care about the human cost of war when they lament its impact on indigenous wildlife. This is unfortunate. But bringing peace to a war-torn region is in everyone’s interests. Since, for the most part we can assume the British government will not be regularly repeating its hit-them-with-the-SAS-and-Paras-trick out of Sierra Leone, we must also acknowledge that this task will be carried out by less well trained local forces. More loss of life seems unfortunately inevitable. If you want someone to blame, however, then finger the arms merchants and poaching kingpins, not the conservationists.