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Why we must question the militarisation of conservation
, Francis Massé
, Emile Smidt
, Esther Marijnen
, Bram Büscher
, Maano Ramutsindela
, Trishant Simlai
, Laure Joanny
, Elizabeth Lunstrum
University of Sheﬃeld, United Kingdom
Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, Netherlands
University of Ghent, Belgium
University of Cape Town, South Africa
University of Cambridge, United Kingdom
York University, Canada
Concerns about poaching and traﬃcking have led conservationists to seek urgent responses to tackle the impact
on wildlife. One possible solution is the militarisation of conservation, which holds potentially far-reaching
consequences. It is important to engage critically with the militarisation of conservation, including identifying
and reﬂecting on the problems it produces for wildlife, for people living with wildlife and for those tasked with
implementing militarised strategies. This Perspectives piece is a ﬁrst step towards synthesising the main themes
in emerging critiques of militarised conservation. We identify ﬁve major themes: ﬁrst, the importance of un-
derstanding how poaching is deﬁned; second, understanding the ways that local communities experience
militarised conservation; third, the experiences of rangers; fourth, how the militarisation of conservation can
contribute to violence where conservation operates in the context of armed conﬂict; and ﬁnally how it ﬁts in
with and reﬂects wider political economic dynamics. Ultimately, we suggest that failure to engage more criti-
cally with militarisation risks making things worse for the people involved and lead to poor conservation out-
comes in the long run.
The rapid rise in poaching of elephants, rhinos and many other
species over the last decade has prompted conservationists to think
about how to respond eﬀectively. One proposed response is a series of
measures that include: more forceful or armed forms of conservation
(Asiyanbi, 2016;Barbora, 2017;Massé and Lunstrum, 2016;Verweijen
and Marijnen, 2018); the development and application of military style
approaches (Annecke and Masubele, 2016;Büscher, 2018;Duﬀy et al.,
2015); such as the development of informant networks, and counter-
insurgency-like strategies (Adams, 2017;Büscher, 2018;Dunlap and
Fairhead, 2014;Pimm et al., 2015); and the use and applications of
technologies originally developed by the military (Lunstrum, 2018;
Shresthra and Lapeyre, 2018). In this analysis, we term these devel-
opments the ‘militarisation of conservation’, because of the military
origins and models that inform and guide these interventions.
Proponents of militarisation present the integration of military
approaches with conservation practice as a necessary development
(Shaw and Rademeyer, 2016;Runhovde, 2017;Henk, 2005, 2006;
Hübschle and Jooste, 2017;Mogomotsi and Madigele, 2017). However,
the militarisation of conservation holds potentially far-reaching con-
sequences for practices, rhetoric, policy, and interactions between
conservation actors and other stakeholders. It therefore merits attention
and so here we provide an overview of an emerging body of scholarship
in conservation social science that provides evidence-based critiques of
the militarisation of conservation. We seek to inform and advance de-
bates amongst academics, policy makers and practitioners. Further,
while there are historical antecedents in the use of violence and mili-
tarisation to sustain conservation (Brockington, 2004;Lunstrum, 2015),
we argue that in the new urgent rush to save species from extinction,
many practitioners, policy makers, and proponents of current militar-
isation have not paid adequate attention to the potential disadvantages
and long term implications of relying on such a strategy.
The body of literature we build on is ﬁrmly anchored in qualitative
Received 7 September 2018; Received in revised form 7 December 2018; Accepted 21 January 2019
Corresponding author at: The Department of Politics, University of Sheﬃeld, Elmﬁeld, Northumberland Road, Sheﬃeld S10 2TU, United Kingdom.
E-mail addresses: r.v.duﬀy@sheﬃeld.ac.uk (R. Duﬀy), f.masse@sheﬃeld.ac.uk (F. Massé), firstname.lastname@example.org (E. Marijnen),
email@example.com (B. Büscher), firstname.lastname@example.org (J. Verweijen), email@example.com (M. Ramutsindela),
laure.joanny@sheﬃeld.ac.uk (L. Joanny), firstname.lastname@example.org (E. Lunstrum).
Biological Conservation 232 (2019) 66–73
0006-3207/ © 2019 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an open access article under the CC BY license
social sciences, and often draws on extensive ﬁeldwork in places such as
Nigeria (Asiyanbi, 2016), India (Barbora, 2017), Laos (Dwyer et al.,
2015), Guatemala (Devine, 2014;Ybarra, 2016), Colombia (Bocarejo
and Ojeda, 2016), Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) (Marijnen
and Verweijen, 2016), South Africa (Büscher and Ramutsindela, 2016;
Hübschle, 2017;Lunstrum, 2014), Mozambique (Massé and Lunstrum,
2016;Massé et al., 2017b;Witter and Satterﬁeld, 2018), Tanzania
(Mabele, 2016) and Central African Republic (CAR) (Lombard, 2016).
Many of these studies are in-depth explorations of a single case, but
there are few overviews (Duﬀy et al., 2015;Duﬀy et al., 2016;Büscher
and Fletcher, 2018) or comparative studies (Lunstrum and Ybarra,
2018). Our aim in this Perspective Piece is to draw out the major
themes, patterns and concerns about militarisation from the critical
literature in order to inform more thorough dialogue in conservation;
this synthesis of critical perspectives is intended to provide reﬂections
in order to inform conservation policy making via the development of a
clear counterpoint to the more commonly articulated position that
militarisation is an appropriate, proportionate and necessary response
to an urgent situation. As such, this Perspective Piece is a timely ﬁrst
step towards sparking a dialogue about militarisation of conservation,
not least because more militarised approaches are gaining traction in
other sectors such as forest protection (Asiyanbi, 2016). More thorough
engagement and dialogue between diﬀerent perspectives will help
conservation practitioners to develop more robust and socially just
policy approaches to the current poaching crisis.
First, we examine why it is important to engage critically with the
militarisation of conservation. Second, we set out the main themes
which characterise the emerging literature on this topic: the importance
of understanding how poaching is deﬁned, the experiences of local
communities, the experiences of rangers, the challenges of conservation
in areas of armed conﬂict, and ﬁnally the political economy of the link
between conservation and militarisation. To conclude we suggest that
failure to engage more critically with militarisation risks making things
worse for the people involved and leads to poor conservation outcomes
in the long run.
1.1. Why critical engagement is important
Militarised approaches to conservation appear to be expanding,
becoming institutionalised and normalised in a growing number of
places and amongst particular conservation non-governmental organi-
sations (NGOs) and donors (Duﬀy, 2016;Marijnen, 2017;Büscher and
Fletcher, 2018). Part of the reason for a shift towards militarised con-
servation is that some conservationists feel pressure to act urgently to
prevent extinctions. This can be especially acute in conﬂict zones or if
conservationists determine that poachers are adopting more aggressive
tactics (Büscher and Ramutsindela, 2016;Marijnen and Verweijen,
2016;Kelly and Gupta, 2016;Lombard, 2016).
Of course, there are many arguments oﬀered in favour of militarised
conservation: that it is the only eﬀective solution in an urgent situation,
that conservationists need to defend themselves and the last remaining
populations of endangered species against armed threats, and that use
of more forceful approaches can reduce poaching leading to growing
wildlife numbers, amongst others (for example see Mogomotsi and
Madigele, 2017;Henk, 2005, 2006;Hübschle and Jooste, 2017;
Hillborn et al., 2006;Emslie and Brooks, 1999). However, our aim is
not to recount the many high proﬁle and well-covered arguments in
favour of militarised conservation. Instead our aim is to intervene in the
debate by changing the focus to address important counter-arguments
and concerns in more detail. While recognizing that militarisation will
be varied in its details from place to place, we argue that militarised
conservation as a model, even when it might result in conserving some
animals and enforcing some protected areas, is fundamentally unjust.
Moreover, if it is not regarded as a just and legitimate policy it will be
diﬃcult to enforce in the longer term, even with enhanced levels of
resources (Wright et al., 2016).
This Perspective piece draws on research that critically engages
with militarised conservation published in books, reports, and over 29
distinct journals that span a range of disciplines from geography, so-
ciology, criminology, anthropology, political science, political ecology,
conservation biology, amongst others. In addition, conservation social
scientists, conservation and enforcement practitioners themselves have
also pointed to the limitations of a top-down and violent approach to
anti-poaching (Barichievy et al., 2017;Bennett, 2011), especially if not
combined with eﬀorts to address local socio-economic inequalities and
injustices (Annecke and Masubele, 2016;Cooney et al., 2017;Haas and
Ferreira, 2018). Indeed,even those who argue that militaries, such as
the Botswana Defence Force (BDF), have been successful in leading
anti-poaching in the country, caution against the use of military ap-
proaches in conservation (Henk, 2005, 2006).
A case in point concerns the development of technological solutions,
like surveillance technologies aimed at detecting poachers, as part of
militarised conservation. Conservationists may ﬁnd these technologies
compelling, but being overly enchanted with them risks obscuring how
they can waste or divert scarce resources; indeed there is a lack of
transparency about the eﬀectiveness of such technologies, the costs of
which run into millions of dollars
(Lunstrum, 2014;Hahn et al., 2017;
Gore (2017). Furthermore, many conservationists do caution against
adopting technologies that have military origins, recognizing that they
can be expensive and possibly divert important investment in other
aspects of conservation, and that they do not address the underlying
causes of dwindling wildlife numbers (Berger-Tal and Lahoz-Monfort,
Reﬂecting on the negative implications of militarised conservation
is vitally important precisely because of its (generally) positive pre-
sentation by NGOs, international donors, and national governments.
Proponents of militarised conservation often present forceful ap-
proaches as a noble or heroic quest to save species (Marijnen and
Verweijen, 2016;McClanahan and Wall, 2016). From this perspective,
criticism may appear as an unhelpful distraction from the urgent op-
erational challenges faced by practitioners in the ﬁeld. Critics have
been portrayed as naïve, lacking in understanding, as pseudo-scientists
or even as hostile towards conservation (Hübschle and Jooste, 2017;
Mogomotsi and Madigele, 2017).
Such portrayals obscure the nature and value of (critical) social
science work on conservation (see Bennett et al., 2016;Charnley et al.,
2017). As Sandbrook et al. (2013) point out, there is sometimes a false
distinction drawn between those who work on and in conservation.
Indeed, researchers often work closely with practitioners, and have
provided an important alternative avenue for them to draw attention to
and express their concerns, criticisms and frustrations (Barbora, 2017;
Bennett et al., 2016;Lunstrum, 2014;Massé et al., 2017a, 2017b. Cri-
tical engagement can facilitate a better understanding of militarised
conservation, its short and long-term implications, why alternatives are
needed and what these might look like. As such, this Perspective piece
aims to provide a basis for further debate and dialogue in conservation
to enable conservationists to improve practices, and help develop more
eﬀective and more socially just forms of conservation. A vital ﬁrst step
in this is to identify and discuss the range of negative impacts of mili-
tarisation as a strategy to address wildlife poaching that are found in
It should be noted that despite these claims of success, by 1995, 8 years after
the BDF took over anti-poaching, the black rhino was declared locally extinct
and there were only 20 white rhinos left (Emslie and Brooks, 1999).
conservation-are-naive-commentary/, accessed 07.10.19.
R. Duﬀy et al. Biological Conservation 232 (2019) 66–73
2. Focusing on the symptoms, not the root causes of poaching
One of the criticisms that has been raised about militarised con-
servation is that it does not address the underlying reasons for why
people engage in poaching and traﬃcking; instead it focuses on tackling
the symptoms (poaching and traﬃcking) of a much deeper and complex
structural contexts that is at the root of these practices (Duﬀy et al.,
2015;Hübschle, 2017;Witter and Satterﬁeld, 2018). Reﬂecting on the
body of more critical scholarship on militarised conservation can help
conservationists to step back and consider the wider dynamics of what
produces poaching in the ﬁrst place. Scholarship also shows how the
portrayal and treatment of poachers as criminals could be ineﬀective,
and even counterproductive. The history of poaching is central to this
debate: there is a well-established body of literature exploring how
some forms of hunting, and not others, became deﬁned as poaching and
the importance of examining how poverty, inequality, historical grie-
vances and the continuing eﬀects of colonial and racial discourses shape
understandings of poaching (see Challender and MacMillan, 2014;
Duﬀy et al., 2015;Hübschle, 2017;Neumann, 2004;Peluso, 1993).
Similar arguments about the need to understand and address these
underlying historical and structural factors to tackle environmental and
wildlife crime eﬀectively are also made by some green criminologists,
such as Gore (2017) Wyatt (2013) and Cao and Wyatt (2016).
Recent scholarship on the militarisation of conservation also focuses
on unpacking and analysing the portrayals of illegal wildlife trade is-
sues by interested parties. Central to this task is the need to interrogate
the discursive and visual representation of poaching. Militarised con-
servation is characterised by a process of ‘moral boundary drawing’
between rangers as heroes and poachers as villains (Neumann, 2004).
Such boundaries are drawn through a variety of representational
practices in policy literature, academic articles and fund-raising activ-
ities (Marijnen and Verweijen, 2016;Massé, 2018). These boundaries
can be used to explain and justify the use of coercion and (deadly)
violence against poachers (Neumann, 2004;McClanahan and Wall,
2016). There are direct parallels between the present day criminalisa-
tion of poachers and colonial era initiatives to control or outlaw
hunting by African communities that produced deeply held grievances
and animosity towards wildlife conservation (Duﬀy et al., 2015;Duﬀy
et al., 2016;Ramutsindela, 2016). Many of these grievances still persist
today and forms part of the reason for why young men might enter the
poaching economy (Hübschle, 2017), as discussed in the next section.
The example of Virunga National Park in eastern DRC shows why
representations matter for the practice of conservation. The commu-
nications team of the NGO managing the park heavily deploys hero
versus villain categorisations to attract donations, for instance for the
‘Fallen Rangers Fund’. In its messaging, it consistently repeats the ﬁgure
of ‘175 ranger deaths in twenty years’. Yet these numbers are presented
in a decontextualised way: for example, it is rarely mentioned that
people other than rangers were also killed, or that rangers were en-
gaged in destroying homes or ﬁelds as part of their operations,
(Verweijen and Marijnen, 2018;Vikanza, 2011). Instead, park com-
munications simply portray the rangers as heroes battling against un-
deﬁned armed groups, without outlining which speciﬁc group is in-
volved and why they attack the park guards. This deliberate erasure of
abuses committed by rangers gives external audiences the impression
that rangers are always the heroes and contributes to a more general
lack of understanding for why local communities may resist conserva-
tion initiatives (also see Massé, 2018). Identifying and tackling abuses
committed by rangers (environmental and human rights abuses) is vi-
tally important –failure to do so undermines trust between conserva-
tion authorities and people, and does a disservice to those rangers who
conform to very high standards of personal conduct. In sum, moral
boundary drawing between rangers as conservation heroes and evil
poachers is problematic for three reasons. First, it obscures how some
rangers are involved in activities that have a negative impact upon
people and biodiversity (Neumann, 2004;McClanahan and Wall,
2016)–failure to recognise this, means that economic and training
support for militarisation can increase the capacity to engage in such
abuses (Lombard, 2016). Second, it ‘traps’rangers in a particular role,
rendering it more diﬃcult to bring to light the complex variety of actual
ranger stories and experiences needed to improve their working con-
ditions and eﬀectiveness (as discussed below). Third, by decontextua-
lising the death of rangers, the park is able to generate more ﬁnancial
support for a military-style response, even though this has fostered
more direct attacks by rebel groups against the park (and park rangers),
ultimately leading to a cycle of violence (Verweijen and Marijnen,
2.1. Local communities' experiences of militarised conservation
Critical engagement with militarised conservation also means ex-
ploring and revealing the everyday challenges and problems en-
countered by people living in and around areas aﬀected by militarised
conservation, including the ways it can infringe upon their rights and
Militarised conservation can mirror and recreate past injustices,
which risks alienating inhabitants of conservation spaces. For example,
militarised conservation tactics in speciﬁc contexts in South Africa
often resemble apartheid-era counterinsurgency practices, where eﬀorts
to win the support of local people also coincide with tactics of in-
timidation and use of violence. These tactics also currently extend into
Mozambique, and include: the development of informant networks, co-
option and development of cultures of mistrust within communities
(Annecke and Masubele, 2016;Lunstrum, 2015;Massé et al., 2017a,
2017b); raiding and invading people's homes in operations to uncover
evidence of wildlife crimes (Ramutsindela, 2016;Massé et al., 2017a;
Büscher, 2018); and active displacement of communities for conserva-
tion (Massé and Lunstrum, 2016;Witter and Satterﬁeld, 2018). More
forceful approaches to conservation can also be accompanied by new
incentive schemes, such as the provision of game meat to schools and
water reticulation programmes. However, such interventions can
simply serve as stop-gap measures, or as distractions which do not
address the systemic problems which produce incentives to engage in
illegal hunting in the ﬁrst place. There is a debate in conservation about
whether it can or should address poverty and inequality; this is im-
portant because eﬀorts to address these problems underpin ‘hearts and
minds’approaches. However, these approaches are then systematically
undermined by practices of intimidation, violence and surveillance
which can be part and parcel of militarisation (Massé and Lunstrum,
2016;Massé et al., 2017a;Ramutsindela, 2016). As discussed in more
depth below, addressing inequalities and ensuring that conservation
does not exacerbate them is necessary to tackle the underlying causes of
poaching in the longer term (see for example Cooney et al., 2017;Haas
and Ferreira, 2018;Hübschle, 2017;Hübschle and Shearing, 2018;
Duﬀy et al., 2016;Duﬀy et al., 2015).
Local inhabitants' negative experiences of these more forceful forms
of conservation are also inadequately incorporated into portrayals of
rangers as heroes. When any type of conservation practice is presented
as inherently good, it becomes diﬃcult to investigate and address al-
leged abuses by conservation staﬀ(Moreto et al., 2015). This can lead
to a loss of accountability and legitimacy in the eyes of local people and
the international community.
Despite often being crucial to the success of conservation eﬀorts, the
experiences of the people living in the areas concerned are overlooked
in debates about the militarisation of conservation. Understanding what
militarisation means for those people can shed light on how the drive to
save species by more forceful means has counterproductive eﬀects in
the longer term. For example, one of the most signiﬁcant problems with
militarisation is that it has the capacity to alienate local communities
who object to the use of force to protect wildlife, the development of
cultures of surveillance and their continued (often violent) exclusion
from protected areas; such approaches will lose the support of the very
R. Duﬀy et al. Biological Conservation 232 (2019) 66–73
people who are central to conservation eﬀorts in the longer term (Duﬀy
et al., 2015;Cooney et al., 2017;Hübschle, 2017;Massé et al., 2017a,
2017b). Further, a recent study by Holden et al. (2018) details emer-
gent ﬁndings that demand reduction campaigns coupled with sustain-
able livelihood approaches are more eﬀective at tackling poaching for
ivory than enhanced policing and enforcement alone. This further calls
into question the long-term sustainability of militarised approaches.
2.2. The experiences of rangers
There is also a need to gain a better understanding of the lived ex-
periences of those involved in implementing militarised conservation,
notably rangers. A growing number of researchers are engaged in this
task (Massé et al., 2017a, 2017b;Moreto, 2015a, 2015b;Moreto et al.,
2015;Moreto et al., 2017;Gore, 2017). Not claiming to speak for
rangers, these researchers instead oﬀer avenues to draw attention to the
problems and challenges that rangers face, and their own concerns and
criticisms of militarised conservation. In so doing, they assist with and
support documenting ranger concerns, and act to amplify them. This is
important work because rangers operate in complicated power hier-
archies, and often fear that they will lose their jobs if they criticise
conservation authorities, so they cannot necessarily speak out publicly
(Annecke and Masubele, 2016;Massé et al., 2017a, 2017b;Moreto,
2015a, 2015b). Moreover, understanding rangers' experiences relates
directly to an understanding of their practices in the ﬁeld and their
motivations, as the recent WWF Ranger Perception surveys show.
The idea that rangers do what they do simply because they love
nature, and that they willingly engage in hard-line approaches to anti-
poaching does not map well on to their actual experiences of carrying
out the practices of militarised conservation (Moreto, 2015a, 2015b).
For example, there are rising rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
(PTSD) amongst rangers in Kruger National Park, and there are reports
of many more staﬀdiagnosed with other stress-related conditions.
also see a re-direction of ranger duties away from ‘their typical role as
conservationists to become active players in guerrilla warfare, putting
their lives in constant jeopardy’.
Indeed, rangers are increasingly tar-
gets of violence themselves (Lunstrum, 2014;Massé et al., 2017a,
2017b), which is especially harsh given that militarised anti-poaching
may not be what they signed up for when they entered the profession
(Annecke and Masubele, 2016).
The entire spectrum of ranger experiences is important. Rank-and-
ﬁle staﬀinvolved in militarised conservation often express concern
about what they are expected to do, and there can be a (perceived or
genuine) lack of transparency of senior staﬀand the wider institutions
engaged in designing and implementing militarised conservation
(Moreto et al., 2015). One reason for such opacity is that conserva-
tionists face immense pressures to demonstrate that they are making in-
roads against poaching. In the Kruger National Park, key performance
assessments of management staﬀare narrowed to reducing the rate of
rhino killed per day, irrespective of the pressures faced by conservation
managers. Such pressures have snowballing eﬀects that can lead to the
use of excessive force, torture, and even extra judicial killings of sus-
pects, as is well documented in Tanzania (Carlson et al., 2015;Mabele,
2016). The negative eﬀects of this pressure also extend to conservation
staﬀthemselves, as a culture of suspicion and mistrust can lead to toxic
work environments, increasing workplace stress. There is often an un-
acknowledged racial politics running through conservation circles as
well. Conscious and unconscious bias amongst white staﬀ, which leads
to unfair and incorrect assumptions about fellow black staﬀprevents
the development of eﬀective working relationships. This undermines
and unravels any gains made in terms of increasing diversity and
equality in the workplace in the longer term (Moreto, 2015a, 2015b;
Mbaria and Ogada, 2016).
Rather than reducing rangers to a singular category of ‘conservation
heroes’it is important to highlight and understand the complex realities
faced by rangers in order to improve their well-being and working
conditions (Massé et al., 2017a, 2017b;Moreto, 2015a, 2015b).
many aspects of ranger experiences remain understudied, including:
How do rangers regard the use of tracking technology, which monitors
their movements during the working day? What are the implications of
such work place surveillance for labour relations? Are rangers paid
adequately and on time? Do rangers feel they have the right equipment,
and are there suﬃcient and appropriate pathways through the profes-
sion? What are their other options for employment? What kinds of
pressures do their families face? Addressing these questions requires
thorough and sustained research from the social sciences, and could
beneﬁt from developing an analysis which is more ﬁrmly anchored in
debates about labour relations rather than conservation per se.
2.3. Conservation and armed conﬂict
One of the strongest arguments in favour of militarised conservation
is that it is the best (or only) workable option in areas of intense armed
conﬂict. However, the intersections between conservation and wider
dynamics of armed conﬂict remain ill understood. Yet there is an
emerging body of work, often drawing on insights from a range of
academic disciplines such as development, and peace and conﬂict stu-
dies, that speciﬁcally examines how militarised conservation intersects
with conﬂicts and violence. (Lombard, 2016;Verweijen and Marijnen,
In this Perspectives piece we argue that militarisation of conserva-
tion is in itself fundamentally problematic precisely because it can serve
to embed conﬂict dynamics further, rather than resolve them
(Marijnen, 2018). A pertinent question which requires further debate is
whether militarised conservation ultimately contributes to rising levels
of violence in contexts of armed conﬂict. When conservationists operate
in conﬂict zones, they often face intense pressures and can feel directly
threatened by armed groups and by heavily armed poachers. When
faced with such threats it can seem a ‘common sense’response for
rangers to resort to the use of force to protect wildlife and themselves.
However, when readily using force, it may occur that groups (including
rangers), which are armed for conservation purposes, are simply re-
garded as another armed group engaged in a conﬂict. This can lead to
an escalation in arms and in levels of violence, and once such a dynamic
is generated it is diﬃcult to de-escalate (Duﬀy, 2016;Humphreys and
Another key issue is the well publicised and high proﬁle claims that
poaching is a crucial funding strategy for militias, rebel groups and
even terrorist networks. While conservation social scientists do not
deny that poachers may be heavily armed in certain places, especially
in conﬂict zones, they do examine and question the claims that there is
a clear link between illegal wildlife trade and funding for armed con-
ﬂict. For example, the Elephant Action League controversially claimed
Al Shabaab use ivory to fund terrorist activity. This narrative was taken
up by a range of NGOs, philanthropic foundations, governments and
media outlets (Duﬀy, 2016). However, several studies show that these
claims are poorly evidenced and are based on false assumptions (Duﬀy,
R. Duﬀy et al. Biological Conservation 232 (2019) 66–73
2016;Smith & Haenlein, 2016;Sommerville, 2016;White, 2014;Kelly
et al., 2018). While there has been a recent move away from making
such explicit claims about Al Shabaab because of the lack of evidence, it
has not stopped the circulation of the problematic narrative that ivory
(and illegal wildlife trade more generally) is used to fund conﬂict and
speciﬁcally militant groups such as Janjaweed, the Lord's Resistance
Army and Boko Haram (Kelly et al., 2018). For example, Achim Steiner
when he was head of UNEP, Prince William and the #Whosesidear-
eyouon campaign of United for Wildlife, Wildlife Conservation Society's
96 Elephants Campaign and Conservation International's Direct Con-
nection campaign all drew links between (broadly deﬁned) interna-
tional terrorism and the illegal wildlife trade (Duﬀy, 2016;
Sommerville, 2016). Even while lacking evidence, such claims increase
the sense of urgency to save species in the face of intense or growing
pressures of armed conﬂict, and are thus used to justify a shift towards
more militarised forms of conservation.
Increasing collaborations between conservationists, national armies
and UN Peace Keeping Operations (UNPKO) could also beneﬁt from
greater critical reﬂection. This could draw on long standing debates in
politics and international relations about the risks and challenges of
working with these kinds of military institutions. For instance, much of
the literature on UNPKOs highlights that peacekeeping and peace en-
forcement often means taking sides, and that it is not possible (or even
necessarily desirable) to be ‘neutral partners’in a conﬂict zone
(Verweijen, 2017;Fassin, 2012). This is an important point for con-
servationists seeking to partner with UNPKOs: working with military
actors means becoming more deeply embedded in the very conﬂict
dynamics that undermine conservation eﬀorts.
Collaborations between military actors and conservationists might
also spark tensions: military actors are trained in a particular type of
approach and rules of engagement that are geared towards overlapping
areas of defence, counter-insurgency and pursuing warfare. This ap-
proach diﬀers from the role and purpose of conservationists. It cannot
be assumed that government forces have a clean record on conservation
issues either. In speciﬁc places, there have been accusations of direct
involvement of military personnel in poaching or other forms of illegal
and damaging natural resource extraction, even using poaching to fund
their operations (Carlson et al., 2015;Ellis, 1994;Titeca, 2013). There
are also risks in providing military training and equipment to rangers
because there are instances where the new skills and weaponry are
turned back on wildlife and local communities. This occurred for ex-
ample in CAR where a park guard who received paramilitary training
funded by the European Commission became a rebel leader with the
Seleka movement, and many of the other externally trained park guards
joined as well (Lombard, 2016).
Conservationists also need to be aware of the human rights record of
their collaborators. In some instances, soldiers from national armies
engage in human rights abuses and are regarded as a repressive and
hostile force. Working with military partners can therefore contribute
to a more negative view of the work of park rangers amongst those who
bear the brunt of these abuses (Verweijen and Marijnen, 2018). Colla-
borating with military partners with records of social and ecological
abuses is potentially problematic to conservationists because it can
inﬂict signiﬁcant reputational damage on the international stage,
thereby undermining international support for conservation. These
considerations highlight the importance of studying military colla-
borations and the eﬀects on conﬂict dynamics in zones of armed con-
ﬂict, in particular when conﬂict dynamics are central to justiﬁcations
for the need to militarise conservation in the ﬁrst place.
2.4. The political economy of the militarisation of conservation
One central, but often overlooked, question in arguments about
militarisation of conservation is: who wins and who loses from in-
creasing militarisation? Who proﬁts from the development of more
militarised approaches, and how does that shape or produce speciﬁc
conservation strategies? Answering these questions requires examining
the political economy of militarisation of conservation.
As a growing number of studies show, the militarisation of con-
servation can be driven by the demand for proﬁts from private sector
actors seeking to expand into new markets. For example, Devine (2014)
examines the intersections of ecotourism, conservation and militarisa-
tion in Guatemala, drawing out the ways in which ecotourism devel-
opment has become a means by which the Guatemalan state has revived
and repurposed tactics of counterinsurgency warfare derived from the
country's civil war. Massé and Lunstrum (2016) argue that anti-
poaching strategies in and around Kruger National Park constitute
‘accumulation by securitisation’whereby anti-poaching security and
training oﬀers lucrative avenues for the private sector (Lunstrum,
2018). Such accumulation is evident in the number of Private Security
Companies (PSCs) oﬀering their services for training or for direct en-
gagement in anti-poaching operations. Critics of using PSCs in con-
servation point out that it is important to examine past examples of
poor practice. For example, Neumann (2004) discusses the case of Li-
wonde National Park in Malawi, where rangers trained by a PSC were
implicated in human rights abuses over a two-year period. In the past, a
number of conservation NGOs have been engulfed in scandals involving
intelligence gathering for anti-poaching via contracting private com-
panies staﬀed by ex-special forces. One of the best known examples is
Operation Lock during the mid 1980s, which was carried out by KAS
Enterprises (a private military company). While intended to conduct
wildlife crime sting operations, it was later revealed that they also
gathered intelligence on anti-apartheid activists for the South African
state. As WWF-International had provided funds to this operation, the
NGO's reputation was damaged (Rademeyer, 2012). Despite these ne-
gative experiences, several conservation NGOs today continue to hire
private intelligence companies staﬀed by former operatives from in-
telligence services, including the former Bureau of State Security
(BOSS) and Mossad (Massé et al., 2017a).
The concerns raised about the role of PSCs and partnering with
intelligence specialists, especially external or ‘foreign’operatives, are
shared by professional bodies. In 2017, the Game Rangers Association
of Africa issued a statement expressing concerns about the activities of
security agencies from outside Africa. They noted these agencies' lack of
coordination, lack of understanding of the operating environment, lack
of ecological sensitivity, lack of knowledge of the legal frameworks that
rangers operate in as well as the lack of proper vetting of foreign se-
curity agents and proﬁteering by military equipment manufacturers.
Conservation NGOs themselves are also becoming more involved in
surveillance, intelligence gathering and developing informant networks
(Massé et al., 2017a, 2017b;Sandbrook, 2015). The risks related to
these practices are not suﬃciently acknowledged by their proponents.
For instance, NGO staﬀmay not have the training to collect and store
sensitive data securely in order to ensure that participants or informants
are not put at increased risk (although there is now more attention on
Additionally, the process of gathering information may
itself be problematic if informants feel physically threatened or fear
losing their jobs. Furthermore, in certain areas where it is practiced,
intelligence-led approaches to conservation have already fomented
intra-community tensions resulting in violent attacks (Biggs et al.,
2016). Practices of intelligence gathering by NGOs and private security
sector partners are embedded in and shaped by the attitudes and ap-
proaches of the individuals and organisations involved in it, which may
not align with local attitudes (Massé et al., 2017a, 2017b;Roe et al.,
Full text of the statement can be found at http://www.gameranger.org/
R. Duﬀy et al. Biological Conservation 232 (2019) 66–73
Another dimension of the political economy of militarised con-
servation is that this practice can become commodiﬁed in itself. For
instance, it may become a form of ‘spectacle’that is central to fun-
draising eﬀorts by enticing ‘consumers’to directly fund armed con-
servation eﬀorts. An example is the multi-media campaign launched by
the Virunga Foundation after the release of ‘Virunga, the movie’
whereby the viewer is asked to become part of ‘Virunga's epic ﬁght’by
donating money, for instance to fund patrols or dog-tracking teams,
without understanding the on the ground eﬀects of these strategies in
this conﬂict zone (Marijnen and Verweijen, 2016).
The redistribution of resources, attention, and focus resulting from
green militarisation and the political economy of fundraising that has
emerged around it also has broader ecological impacts. This is espe-
cially the case in areas where (para)military actors are at the helm.
Massé (2018), for example, demonstrates how many conservationists in
areas where former and current military personnel have increasing
decision-making power are concerned about the impacts this has on
broader conservation activities. Similar concerns are voiced with re-
gards to shifts in fundraising practices that focus on simplistic under-
standings of poaching and the responses needed. The result is an in-
creasing allocation of scarce resources to (para)militarised enforcement
approaches, and away from other conservation priorities that may be
less spectacular, but no less important. Indeed, oﬃcials from South
African National Parks draw attention to how rangers in Kruger spend
90% of their time hunting potential rhino poachers at the expense of
their more traditional conservation management and monitoring roles
like basic ecological and landscape monitoring assessments (Annecke
and Masubele, 2016;Hübschle and Jooste, 2017). This is coupled with a
shift in ranger training away from holistic conservation and ecological
management towards more narrow paramilitary and counter-in-
surgency tactics (Ibid.; Lunstrum, 2014). Our research indicates similar
trends in Mozambique and elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa. This is a
worrying development for the broader state of biodiversity conserva-
tion now and in the long term, as resources are diverted away from
activities that are essential to the ecological integrity of protected areas.
Therefore, more research into how the trend of conservation's militar-
isation risks jeopardizing the broader ecological health of protected
areas is needed.
It is vitally important to reﬂect on militarised actions and inter-
ventions in conservation. Failure to do so, especially in urgent situa-
tions, can lead to a greatly enhanced willingness to use violence, with
counterproductive and unjust outcomes for people and for wildlife. The
sense of urgency produced by concerns that wildlife poaching and
traﬃcking will lead to extinctions has led to the argument that there is a
need to act before it is too late. Moreover, this urgency feeds into ap-
peals that the ends (saving species) justify the means (use of force, in-
cluding deadly force). However, conservationists must not simply ac-
cept this as a stark ‘no choice’pathway for tackling traﬃcking and
poaching. Amidst the sense of urgency to save wildlife and prevent
extinctions via any means necessary, those who favour and support
militarisation have not paid enough attention to how it will funda-
mentally reshape conservation in the longer term; in this Perspective
piece we have cast light on the wider dimensions of, and potential
problems with, relying on a militarised approach.
In order to conserve species and develop socially just and sustain-
able strategies we need critical, imaginative, and often uncomfortable
thinking to get us out of the ‘urgency’of the moment and put things,
literally and ﬁguratively, in perspective. This Perspectives piece is in-
tended as a ﬁrst step towards that: the negative eﬀects of militarisation
and the criticisms of it need to be made clear in order to build eﬀective
alternative approaches. Developing such alternatives also means that it
is essential that we develop an understanding of all the steps that lead
to the speciﬁc moment when rangers encounter poachers, think about
how and why people engage in poaching and what the eﬀects of using
forceful strategies are on rangers, their families and wider social net-
works. In addition, we should further analyse the political economy of
militarised conservation, learn lessons from the past (including the
colonial legacies that produced poaching), think through the challenges
of conservation in contexts of armed conﬂict and consider how rangers
and communities in and around protected areas experience militarisa-
tion. Further research inspired by this kind of thinking can facilitate the
design of conservation policies that aim to conserve species in ways that
are sustainable, eﬀective and locally acceptable.
Failure to engage more critically with militarisation will make
things worse for the people involved, and could lead to poor con-
servation outcomes as well. The use of forceful and violent strategies in
conservation can be counterproductive and can lock conservationists
into an escalation of violence, a dynamic that also risks undermining
other conservation priorities. Yet, we only have a partial grasp on the
full range of implications of the militarisation of conservation, and its
intersections with broader social, political and economic contexts.
Social sciences (as well as Arts and Humanities) researchers therefore
have much to oﬀer in developing future research on militarised con-
servation. Such research provides important opportunities for dialogue
to develop better conservation practice, with more positive outcomes
for wildlife and for people.
The research for this piece was supported by BIOSEC: Biodiversity and
Security, Understanding Environmental Crime, Illegal Wildlife Trade and
Threat Finance. ERC Advanced Investigator Grant. Number 694995; and
by UKRI grant number ES/P008038/1.
The authors would like to thank Professor Dan Brockington, Dr
Brock Bersaglio and the Political Ecology Reading Group at the
University of Sheﬃeld for their insightful comments on earlier drafts.
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