It’s a jungle out there.
Awash in military hardware—not just arms but night-vision goggles, GPS units, heat-detection telescopes, even aircraft—poachers in Africa are taking their martial skills to the animals. Consider this:
• During its civil war, troops in Mozambique reportedly used their helicopters to hunt hippos in wetlands previously thought out of reach of poachers. Meanwhile, battling forces from both sides hunted for meat and trophy animals, while peacekeepers—peacekeepers!—from South Africa and Zimbabwe allegedly exported pallets of ivory they harvested from the once magnificent Gorongosa National Park.
• In the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Garamba National Park, home of the ultra-rare white rhino, rangers and poachers—the latter often refugees or Sudanese guerrillas like the Lord’s Resistance Army—have battled for years, killing the majority of nation’s elephants and a number of rangers.
• Some 190 rangers died in the DRC’s Virunga National Park between 1995 and 2010 in skirmishes with gorilla poachers, who often hunted the great apes for their meat. And once again, peacekeepers have been implicated in illegal trade networks.
• Forty-two rangers died in Kenya between 1999 and 2007 in battles with poachers. Some believe that a plane crash that cost famed archaeologist Richard Leakey—then the head of the nation’s wildlife service—his legs may have been a case of sabotage. The game-keepers and their governments responded. “The trend towards militarisation follows an estimated 150 deaths among game wardens in Africa in gunfights with poachers,” The Times of London’sJonathan Leake reported three years ago.
• In Mozambique again, former soldiers were recruited as rangers specifically for their military expertise.
• Australian special forces sniper and Iraq War veteran Damien Mander was hired as a ranger at Zimbabwe’s Nakavango Reserve. His story was the focus of a National Geographic article titled "Rhino Wars."
• In South Africa, which hasn’t witnessed recent warfare, the army helps patrol Kruger National Park. More than a million animals have died in South Africa since 2006; 200 poachers have been arrested—and 22 killed.
Not all of these examples are brand new—the Mozambique civil war ended in 1992, although pacification continued long afterward. Sometimes when the shooting between humans stops, the shooting at animals really moves into high gear.
Central Africa has some of the greatest range of plants and animals, especially really interesting and really endangered ones, on Earth. It is also one of the most violent places on Earth, and one of the poorest regions on Earth. This combination, suggest the authors of a new paper in the journal Cooperation and Conflict, means that policies designed to bring an end to conflicts ultimately have to include consideration of that first point. Peace, it seems, requires conservation.
Saskia Rotshuizen, the Central Africa Programs Coordinator for Invisible Children, and MLR Smith (AKA Michael Rainsborough), a professor of strategic theory in the Department of War Studies at the University of London’s King's College, insist this approach is no longer optional. After all, other natural resources, such as “blood” diamonds or the coltan that make cell phones possible, already figure in peace talks. “[Our] focus on wildlife is a response to the over-concentration of recent research on energy and mineral resources, to the detriment of the massive wildlife-related trade and the crucial place of animals in fragile ecosystems,” they write.
The United Nationals has recognized the need to protect the environment during war for decades, but given that the whole U.N. can’t stop the conflicts themselves it’s unlikely signatories to the Rio Convention can halt environmental atrocities within those conflicts.
Rotschuizen and Smith’s paper, which looks specifically at Africa, argues that wildlife conservation needs to be a component of peace-building. One obvious reason is the economic benefit of tourism (and even managed exploitation). Will people who would have spent liberally on a trek to see the gorillas in the mist make the same outlay just to see the mist? A less obvious one is to counter the growing militarization of game-keeping, which as we’ve seen is reaching the point where armed confrontations could re-ignite wars thought extinguished. No blood for ivory? Let’s go back to Mozambique; four government troops were killed near the border with Zimbabwe just this month.
“Protecting wildlife will not solve every problem,” they write, “but dismissing it overlooks an important facet that, if ignored, increases the risk of a return to violence.”
More than warfare itself, the penumbra of conflict shadows natural areas. Refugees, hungry, desperate, and fed up, are a huge problem as they trample and trudge toward illusory safety. (The paper notes displaced populations have been dubbed "exceptional resource degraders.") That’s assuming they are driven to areas without existing populations; jam refugees into local networks, and once tranquil places—like Tanzania—start to destabilize. People suffer, obviously, but so do functioning conservation efforts. When returning refugees crowded back into northeast Rwanda, Akagera National Park shrank from 692,000 acres to 250,000 to accommodate them. So too shrank the sustainable economic benefit of tourism.
“We can thus observe a paradox: the short-term gains obtained by unsustainable measures threaten the long-term survival of refugees as it jeopardises their future financial security,” Rotschuizen and Smith write.
The authors are honest enough to note that not every African war has been bad for wildlife. Liberia actually strengthened its environmental rules during its civil war, and migrating herds of giraffe and elephants were most unaffected by the war that eventually split Sudan in two. But those remain anomalies—many of the once-protected areas in the already lightly governed Sudan turned into dens of lawlessness during the war. And hopes that warfare will scare away the nasty people, a la the demilitarized zone in Korea, founder on “the intensity and geographical invasiveness of modern war.”
The paper is not focused on cataloging the failures, but suggesting a more hopeful future. Bringing together local people, including former combatants, into revived—and collaborative—conservation efforts is a non-political path toward reconciliation.
They endorse the suggestion of Richard Milburn, who has called for creating a new force for good, the Yellow Berets, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo:
This would be a disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) programme, but with a difference. Rather than integrating the rebels back into the Congolese army, which has proven fraught with difficulty, the yellow berets would be an independent force, under UN control. Their task would be environmental protection and controlled natural resource extraction, combined with conventional DDR programmes. ... Put simply, the ‘Yellow Berets’ plan is designed to deal with the M23 rebels by converting these guerrilla soldiers into gorilla rangers.
Milburn represents the Pole Pole Foundation, which works to conserve the DRC’s gorilla-friendly Kahuzi-Biega National Park. The M23 insurgents he cites this month declared they were throwing in the towel, but then they’ve declared peace before.
Some of the armed rangers also push rehabilitation over revenge. “Educating people on the importance of protecting wildlife is, therefore, a crucial element in building sustainable peace,” the authors state. They note with approval the attitude of sniper-turned-ranger Damien Mander, writing that he believes “it is essential to make locals understand that animals often have more value alive than dead. Breeding rhinoceros for their horns, for instance, is a much better option than slaughtering them through poaching.”
That’s not only good for the animals, but for those who live among them. It’s not animals vs. people, but animals and people. “Perceiving wildlife as a critical humanitarian resource that needs to be conserved, especially in order provide economic stability, can be a vital pathway towards a durable peace.”