Image credit: Mister-E/Flickr
As the value of endangered animal parts on the black market has increased, poachers have been able to upgrade and expand their operations. Now, gangs, armed with helicopters and weapons—and financed by foreign cartels—perform stealth raids that harvest rhino horn in minutes and defend themselves with the artillery of a small army.
To defend protected species—and themselves—wildlife rangers in Africa sometimes employ aggressive tactics, shooting suspected poachers on the spot. The techniques come at the advice of security experts, but some wildlife managers fear that "shoot to kill" conservation does more harm than good.
The trend towards extreme conservation methods is easy to understand. Increasing interest in nature-based tourism makes the preservation of threatened species valuable to countries struggling to expand their economies. And threatened is an understatement for many of the species in question.
Image credit: Every year, more than 38,000 elephants are killed by poachers. Stig Nygaard/Flickr
In spite of the efforts of rangers, conservationists estimate that more than 38,000 elephants are killed by poachers every year. More than 120 black rhino were killed by poachers in South Africa in the first six months of 2010 alone. In one small region of the Congo, an estimated 50 percent of the gorilla population is lost each year. At these rates of loss, the already small populations are far from sustainable and conservationists fear that extinction could be possible in as little as a decade.
Clearly, these are desperate times and, as the saying goes, desperate measures may be necessary.
Desperate Measures...But at What Cost?
The measures some countries have taken are desperate indeed. Rosaleen Duffy, a professor at the University of Manchester who studies conservation tactics, explains:
Because private military operations and also park rangers are given authority to shoot on sight, the suspected poachers, then they can shoot first and ask questions later.
The problem with these aggressive methods is that they fail to consider an important element of all conservation plans: The humans that live in or near protected areas.
Where polar bears and humans are forced into close proximity, problems arise—and not just for the bears. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
As habitats are degraded, and development pushes populations to the borders of nature reserves, humans and animals come in contact with increasing frequency. From chimpanzees to polar bears to vampire bats, these conflicts make it clear that conservation is not simply about preserving important species but also about rebuilding the relationship between communities and the environment.
Shooting first and asking questions later—if ever—can do irreparable damage to this relationship.
Duffy comments that:
What happens...is that local people get justifiably very angry about people being shot because they're suspected of poaching whereas in fact what they might be doing is simply taking a short cut through a national park or they might be collecting grass for thatch.
When the essential human element is removed from the plan, conservationists are left with a brutish strategy that, like culls in North America and Europe, is inherently unsustainable.
Preserving the Essential Element
Protecting critically endangered species and the communities that interact with them is, of course, a much more challenging objective. Education is essential to ensure people understand how to live beside their familiar but often more erratic animal neighbors. Economic development is critical to discourage desperate industries like the bushmeat and charcoal trades, deforestation, and even poaching. And the scope must be global, extending from the savannas of Africa to the medicine markets of Asia.
In the face of heavily armed poachers, wildlife rangers must use some force to protect themselves and preform their duties. Still, escalating a war on wildlife, at the expense of local support, leads to a dangerous face off these species simply can't endure.