Conservation’s Not-So-Secret War

As millions around the world recently convened in response to a global climate emergency made all the more tangible by continuing news of the unconscionable burning of the Amazon rainforest, another global conservation and human rights story should not be overlooked. Few outside environmental anthropology and conservation circles may be familiar with news concerning alleged ties between the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the world’s largest conservation organization, and human rights abuses reported across six countries in Africa and Asia. Last March, BuzzFeed News published “WWF’s Secret War,” the outcome of a year-long investigation into claims of extrajudicial killings, torture, and rape allegedly perpetrated by WWF-supported anti-poaching and paramilitary forces. Since then, the story has continued to develop, though it has received little coverage by major US news outlets. Although investigations are underway, the relative silence is troubling given the allegations’ gravity, scope, and scale.

Struggles against environmental destruction remain concomitant with marginalized peoples’ demands for justice.

At a moment when Brazil’s president is employing anti-colonialist discourse to both deny the seriousness of the Amazon rainforest fires and to blame international NGOs for them—reportedly without providing any evidence for the latter claim—a conversation about unrelated allegations aimed at WWF may seem untimely. However, the political polarization of the moment should not overdetermine what is speakable. The Buzzfeed allegations demand public attention in their own right because the lives of marginalized peoples continue to matter.

Though I am in no position to confirm or deny reports provided by BuzzFeed or other secondary sources referenced, these accounts echo patterns of violence well-known within conservation scholarship, if more commonly understood in terms of state violence. As an anthropologist of conservation and human rights in Tanzania—a country that is not implicated in BuzzFeed’s probe but that has been a site of green violence since colonial times—I would like to call attention to the colonial linkages between the patterned unevenness of both anti-poaching violence and its representations and to suggest a need for far greater examination of the complex transnational entanglements involved. Attention to Tanzania’s experience with a failed militarized anti-poaching operation further demonstrates that neither NGOs nor governments can be understood in monolithic terms or in isolation.

Despite its limited reach, BuzzFeed’s reporting has sent shock waves through international conservation networks. Germany reportedly has frozen funding to the WWF-managed Salonga National Park in Democratic Republic of Congo pending investigation of alleged human rights atrocities, while WWF faces additional inquiries from the United States and Europe. Vowing to take the allegations seriously, WWF has launched an independent investigation chaired by a former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. In April, however, numerous smaller organizations cosigned a letter by the Rainforest Foundation UK expressing concerns over the investigation’s credibility. In May, a Dutch TV program alleged that WWF facilitated sterilization projects targeting people near protected areas in a number of countries, focusing on one such project in North India in an area already under scrutiny by Survival International for its alleged use of “shoot-on-sight” policies aimed at suspected poachers.

Shoot-on-sight, which effectively authorizes extrajudicial killing, provides a stark example of the continuing coloniality of anti-poaching violence and its representations. Militarized antipoaching emerged through entwined histories of colonial hunting and colonial warfare. As John MacKenzie argues, hunting as a European cultural tradition went hand-in-hand with colonial warfare in India and southern and eastern Africa. Offering both violent sport and training in soldiering, colonial hunting was nonetheless figured as a gentlemanly pursuit, a feat accomplished largely through the racialized transformation of resident hunters into so-called poachers. Moreover, as Edward Steinhart argues, the experiences of colonial hunters/soldiers proved vital to emergent forms of militarized anti-poaching. The counter-insurgency tactics deployed by David Sheldrick’s anti-poaching force in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park in the 1950s—which Daphne Sheldrick argues provided a “blueprint” for anti-poaching more widely—were adaptations of colonial warfare tactics deployed against the Mau Mau Uprising.

The unevenness of shoot-on-sight’s application and acceptability today reflects this colonial history. As Roderick Neumann notes, shoot-on-sight gained traction in the 1980s in response to steep declines in elephant and rhino populations. In 1985, Zimbabwe launched Operation Stronghold, commanded by white officers of the former Rhodesian Defense Forces in an overtly racialized attack on supposed black poachers. Similar shoot-on-sight operations were soon undertaken across numerous other African countries. Today, through frameworks of global security and neoliberalism, scholars are building on what Elizabeth Lunstrum describes as a mounting green militarization to examine how conservation organizations, governments, and private contractors participate in entwined political economies that fund, equip, and train security officers and provide intelligence, legal support, and public relations assistance.

If conservation war is a “secret,” it is thus a profoundly public one. Nevertheless, only certain types of knowledge about conservation violence prove legible under what Francis Massé calls anti-poaching’s politics of (in)visibility, which emphasizes the vulnerability of anti-poaching rangers and wildlife while often suppressing information on negative impacts experienced by area residents. Thus, there is a continuing need to demand social impact studies of conservation; to question the militarization of conservation; and as Mathew Mabele argues to go “beyond forceful measures,” offering diversified strategies informed by community engagement.

In early October 2013, weeks after I completed the majority of my dissertation fieldwork on the western border of Serengeti National Park (returning in 2014 and 2017), Tanzania launched Operesheni Tokomeza Ujangili (Operation Eradicate Poaching) in response to an escalation in elephant and rhino poaching. The operation was abruptly suspended, however, less than a month after it began, following allegations charging state-conscripted security forces with gross human rights violations against innocent civilians. Following pressure and publicity from the Tanzanian Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC) and others, a parliamentary committee was formed to investigate and presented their report in an all-day, televised session of parliament, transcripts of which are available on numerous Kiswahili blog sites. The committee’s findings, which are also cited extensively in LHRC’s 2014 report, provide evidence of murder, torture, and rape, and resulted in the resignation of four cabinet ministers as well as the launch of a judicial committee investigation. Though the results of the latter investigation were reportedly presented to the government in 2015, as of this writing, the report remains unreleased pending finalization, forestalling possibilities for prosecutions and redress.

Shoot-on-sight policies effectively authorize extrajudicial killing and provide a stark example of the continuing coloniality of anti-poaching violence and its representations.

Crucially, Operation Tokomeza Ujangili was first announced at the inauguration of the International March for Elephants, which took place in 15 countries that day. In Arusha, the informal capital of Tanzania’s safari industry, the march was organized by the Tanzania Association of Tour Operators together with the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT), a Kenyan-based nonprofit with offices in the United Kingdom and United States, best known for rescuing and rehabilitating orphaned baby elephants. A banner advertising the march bears the slogan, “One every 15 minutes,” flagging the distressing pace of elephant slaughter. According to DSWT, if no action is taken, Africa’s wild elephants could be extinct by 2025.

At the close of the march, Khamis Kagasheki, former Tanzanian Minister of Natural Resources and Tourism, affirmed to an international audience Tanzania’s renewed commitment to decisive action over concerning declines in elephant numbers, declaring:

Poachers must be harshly punished because they are merciless people who wantonly kill our wildlife and sometimes wardens. The only way to solve this problem is to execute the killers on the spot. . . . I am very aware that some alleged human rights activists will make an uproar, claiming that poachers have as much rights [sic] to be tried in courts as the next person, but let’s face it, poachers not only kill wildlife but also usually never hesitate to shoot dead any innocent person standing in their way.

When given an opportunity to do so, DSWT reportedly declined to condemn Kagasheki’s statement.

Notably, in contrast, Bell’Aube Houinato, then country director for WWF Tanzania, reportedly cautioned against a shoot-on-sight approach, arguing incisively that “killing poachers . . . would lead to an escalation of violence.”

Clearly, militarized anti-poaching and its potential abuses are complex issues that can neither be understood strictly in the limited terms of state violence nor through wholesale vilification of NGOs. There is, however, a need for far greater scrutiny of militarized anti-poaching, particularly where conservation actors step into relations already overdetermined by coloniality. Where scrutiny itself proves unevenly distributed, both within and beyond the state, the integrity of investigations into both human rights abuses and the illegal ivory trade is compromised—a reminder in these polarizing times that struggles against environmental destruction remain concomitant with marginalized peoples’ demands for justice.

Celeste Alexander is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Princeton University. Her research concerns relational politics and ethics in a Tanzanian wildlife corridor.

If you have news or an idea to share, please contact Jessica Pouchet, contributing editor for the Anthropology and Environment Society’s section news column, at [email protected].

Cite as: Alexander, Celeste. 2020. “Conservation’s Not-So-Secret War.” Anthropology News website, February 11, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1342

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