One method of protecting endangered species is to take a militarised approach. This “green militarisation"is now widely criticised. It often leads to human rights violations and may deepen existing divides between conservation and communities.
It may not even be effective in the short or long-term.
Critics of military style anti-poaching are calling instead for community engagement in anti-poaching efforts in protected areas.. This goes beyond enforcement, an approach my colleagues and I call "inclusive anti-poaching”.
Community based initiatives have long been recommended for development and conservation. But involving communities in conservation law enforcement is gaining attention. Unlike militarised conservation, this approach does not see the locals as the enemy.
It recognises that many communities have little incentive to protect wildlife. They don’t always receive benefits from conservation and may get far greater direct and indirect material gains from poaching. Such gains are attractive given the often high levels of poverty, unemployment and dependence on subsistence agriculture that characterises many communities in and around protected areas in Africa.
Inclusive anti-poaching has its own challenges. A project run jointly with the Sabie Game Park, Southern African Wildlife College and World Wildlife Fund-South Africa is an example.
Based on research I did in the reserve, I believe two things are essential in such initiatives. Communities must benefit from the wildlife they are helping to protect. And community scouts must be accountable to their communities, not to an external organisation.
Getting the communities involved
Sabie Game Park is a private wildlife reserve in southern Mozambique adjacent to South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Kruger is home to about 40% of the world’s white rhino population. With the skyrocketing price of rhino horn to USD$45,000 - USD$65,000 per kilogram we have seen an unprecedented increase in poaching from 7 rhinos poached in South Africa in 2007 to over 1,000 in 2013 and every year since. Over 60% of these poaching incidents occurred in the Kruger.
While rhinos deaths have started to decrease, we see an increasing number of poaching incursions into the park.
With up to 75% of poachers coming from villages in Mozambique next to the Sabie Game Park, the reserve is considered to be one of the most important places on earth for rhino protection.
Sabie Game Park has worked with the Southern African Wildlife College and World Wildlife Fund-South Africa to develop a plan to help prevent poaching.
When the plan was drawn up in 2015 it acknowledged that militarised anti-poaching had limitations and negative effects. The plan set out to address and avoid these mistakes.
It aimed to develop a locally owned wildlife economy with the 900 households in five communities that border the reserve. This included hiring and training 21 local community scouts.
Their responsibilities include managing conflicts between humans and wildlife as well as broader policing roles like conflict resolution in their communities. The scouts have already curbed cattle theft in the area.
They also patrol the outside of the reserve, report signs of intrusion and act as a deterrent to poachers. But their biggest value in conservation law enforcement comes from providing intelligence to the anti-poaching unit. The unit consists of the rangers working in Sabie Game Park who are managed by an external anti-poaching organisation.
The scouts have made positive contributions, but the plan didn’t work as originally envisaged, as I discovered in my research.
Scouting and community issues
Scouts take orders from the anti-poaching unit. This is a problem because the unit is managed by an external organisation that takes a top-down, paramilitarised approach. The unit focuses on protecting rhinos, so the scouts do too. But the original mandate was broader and that was where community support for scouts lay.
The people who live near the reserve don’t benefit from the efforts to protect the rhinos (beyond the salaries of the scouts). And they don’t have any ownership or decision making powers over conservation in the area. The material benefits they get from conservation are minimal. Many community members oppose scouts for arresting fellow community members and stopping a lucrative poaching-based livelihood.
As a result, scouts have been the victims of violent backlash. They are routinely threatened and have been attacked in their homes.
The lack of accountability to communities also threatens to create tensions between those who support the scouts and those who support the poaching syndicates. Indeed, other research suggests local participation in conservation law enforcement can foment divisions in communities if scouts appear to answer to an external law enforcement body rather than their own people.
Conservation law enforcement requires the involvement of communities if it’s to be successful and socially just. But local people must benefit from the wildlife they help to protect and those involved in anti-poaching must be accountable to their communities.
This piece is based on a longer article first published in the South African Crime Quarterly. The special issue was funded by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime.