Since 2009, the rising levels of poaching of iconic species, particularly elephants and rhinos in Sub-Saharan Africa, have hit the headlines and created a new sense of urgency. Combined with fears about extinction of some of the world’s best loved wildlife, this renewed sense of crisis has provided fresh impetus for a more violent phase of the long running ‘war for biodiversity’. Some have called this ‘green militarisation’. Interestingly, more militarised approaches are increasingly justified with arguments about a global responsibility to protect which is more commonly associated with the large-scale international humanitarian interventions of the past 20 years. How did this approach become the new norm, and is it actually more effective?

 The EU and the illegal wildlife trade

The wildlife trade – both legal and illegal – is one of the most valuable trades in the world. TRAFFIC, the World Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network, estimates that the legal trade of wildlife products into the EU alone is worth nearly 100 billion euros. The scale of illegal trade is more difficult to estimate because of its clandestine nature. The EU estimates that the global illegal wildlife trade is worth between 8 billion and 20 billion euros annually. China is often blamed for increasing rates of wildlife consumption. However, the EU Trade in Wildlife Information eXchange (EU-TWIX) database indicates that the EU remains a major importer, consumer, and transit route for illegal wildlife products as well. This has been a growing source of concern for the EU. Since 2015, since becoming a full member of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), it has played a more central role in the international regulation of the wildlife trade. And 2016 saw the launch of the EU Action Plan Against Wildlife Trafficking, which specifically drew the links between the illegal wildlife trade, organised crime, and possible sources of funding for international terrorism.

Through these initiatives, the EU has sought to enhance its role in supporting anti-poaching operations and in combatting the illegal wildlife trade. However, drawing links between the illegal wildlife trade and security can act to depoliticise the types of conservation that such a framing drives on the ground in many parts of the world. The twin good causes of saving wildlife and enhancing security makes it difficult to engage critically with this issue, but it is one that the green movement in Europe needs to grapple with: what sorts of wildlife conservation are acceptable? Are Greens willing to support conservation of elephants and rhinos by any means necessary? And if so what will that mean for people living with wildlife?

The militarisation of conservation

The idea that the illegal wildlife trade is both a ‘green crime’ and a global security threat has developed into a powerful framing device which is shaping conservation practice in places where poaching has intensified; in essence it is producing new forms of green militarisation (see Duffy, 2016; Massé and Lunstrum 2016).  The result is the development of a more militarised approach in conservation, which has drawn in a wide range of new actors. There are already examples of collaborations between UN Peace-Keeping Operations (PKOs) and anti poaching operations. For example, the UN’s Peacekeeping Operation in Mali (MINUSMA) is part of a multi-agency Anti Poaching Unit, which is a collaborative effort between the Ministries of Environment and of Defence of the Government of Mali. MINUSMA works with the Malian Army, a conservation NGO, the Mali Elephant Project, and a US-based NGO, Chengeta Wildlife, which provides military style training to the anti poaching brigade. The multi-agency initiative is a response to the complicated inter-relationships between the security situation in Mali and the rise in elephant poaching. Its aim is to stabilise the security situation, provide security for those defined as civilian populations and tackle elephant poaching as a means of financing the on-going conflict. Militarised conservation is not confined to conflict zones either: it is happening in ‘carbon’ forestry in Nigeria (see Asiyanbi, 2016) and in rhino conservation in Kaziranga National Park, India (Barbora 2012). There is a discernible shift towards a greater use of physical force across several settings, which include the use of techniques such as shoot to kill, the development of surveillance techniques, informant networks, drones, and camera traps. This is a deeply concerning development because it breathes new life into the ‘fortress conservation’ approach, which was heavily criticised and had started to give way to the emergence of more community based natural resource management (CBNRM) approaches in the 1990s.

Heroes versus villains

This shift towards militarised conservation is anchored in rather unhelpful and blunt categorisations of heroes and villains, which is likely to be counterproductive for species conservation and for more local community engagement. As Marijnen and Verweijen (2016) indicate in the case of Virunga National Park in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), conservationists engage in moral boundary-drawing, grounded in colonial stereotypes of black poachers and rebels versus the white saviours of the park management authority. The park authorities can then be presented as the legitimate actors trying to save wildlife, while poachers are cast as illegitimate, threatening criminals and rebels. This is evident in efforts to attract donations for the ‘Fallen Rangers Fund’ for the Virunga National Park in which rangers are presented as martyrs and the park communications team consistently repeat the figure of ‘150 ranger deaths in twenty years’. Such numbers are presented in a decontextualised way: no further information on whether others were killed as well as rangers, or if the rangers were engaged in destroying homes or fields, or even responsible for violation of human rights (Marijnen and Verweijen, 2016: 280)

Another such example is the 96 Elephants Campaign by American NGO the Wildlife Conservation Society, organised around three themes ‘Humans and Elephants’, ‘Terror and Ivory’, and ‘Heroes and Hope’. Under the banner of Heroes and Hope, rangers are presented as heroes who have names, stories, and identities, while poachers appear only as pervasive but depersonalised enemy, without names or further detail about who they are. Poachers are presented under the theme of Terror and Ivory, which intersects with high profile international claims that ivory poaching and smuggling is a source of funding for global terrorist networks. Indeed the 96 Elephants campaign information repeats the slogan that ivory is the ‘white gold of jihad’  – yet this characterisation of poached ivory has been heavily criticised as lacking in credible evidence. Furthermore, critical examinations of these claims have revealed that the very idea that ivory is a major source of finance for global terrorist networks such as Al Shabaab is based on a single poorly evidenced report by Elephant Action League. The use of the language and imagery of ivory as a source of terrorist finance also feeds into the ways poachers are presented as terrorists. The 96 Elephants campaign clearly states that poachers are not motivated by poverty, but instead are part of larger criminal and terrorist networks. This in itself sets up the poacher as a terrorist or criminal, who needs to be tackled via the use of force.

The juxtaposition of rangers and poachers in this way obscures the complexities of poaching, and of the roles played by rangers as well. Equally, one of the challenges of criticising militarised forms of conservation in places where the rates of armed poaching are very high, is that it raises the question of what rangers on patrol should do when confronted by heavily armed poachers. However, narrowing our thinking to the single moment in which a ranger and poacher engage in combat obscures the wider context, which produced the multiple steps that led to that point in time. What this also obscures are the ways that rangers themselves may not be in support of military strategies and tactics, and may themselves regard the increasing use of force as counterproductive, leading to an escalation in violence. Further, within conservation there is a well-known exchange between poachers and ranger roles because they share similar skills sets and often live with or near large wildlife populations. Ex-poachers can be drawn into ranger roles with the promise of formal employment, and any additional benefits that go with it such as housing or education for family members. Rangers can also switch to become poachers or perform dual roles as both poachers and rangers, as demonstrated by Lombard (2016) in her discussion of the ways that rangers have shifted into becoming poachers in Central African Republic.

The appeals to the idea that rangers are a force for good, versus poachers as force for ill, are unhelpful and even misleading because they obscure a range of important issues. Basing current conservation strategies on the idealised notions of hero versus villain leads to strategies which do not put an end to poaching because they remove conservation from its wider political context. The characterisation of hero versus villain obscures the roles rangers can and do play in eviction, exclusion, and perpetration of violence against local communities. The characterisation of poachers is equally unhelpful and misleading. At one very simple level it fails to address the ways that communities may be drawn in to large scale commercial poaching via coercion and pressure from organised groups. At a more complex level it absolutely fails to acknowledge the historical, economic, social, and political contexts which help explain why some communities persist with extra-legal forms of wildlife hunting despite increased penalties and increasingly militarised responses.

Privatisation of security

The shift towards more militarised forms of conservation has also created a demand for more training and engagement by former military personnel. This brings its own set of problems with it. This is illustrated by the International Anti Poaching Foundation (IAPF), which advocates direct (militarised) action to save iconic species and characterises the current levels of poaching as a ‘World Wildlife War’. The IAPF promotes the idea of direct action, and the development of a ‘green army’, exhorting supporters to become part of it. The IAPF was set up by Damien Mander, who originally trained in the Australian Navy and the Army Special Forces, and went on to work in Iraq with private military companies. When he set up IAPF he stated that he would use it to apply the lessons he learned in Iraq to anti poaching (primarily in Zimbabwe and Mozambique). Mander’s story is increasingly common; several organisations provide new roles in conservation for veterans from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. These include the US-based Veterans Empowered to Protect African Wildlife (VETPAW), an organisation which aims to reduce unemployment rates amongst post 9/11 war veterans by using their skills to engage in training rangers and direct engagement in anti poaching operations. VETPAW attempted to engage in anti poaching in Tanzania, but the government ordered them to leave in 2015 because they were attracting negative publicity about the country’s conservation efforts. In 2017 they are currently contracted to run anti poaching operations in private reserves in South Africa, and have claimed that such activity helps veterans find peace and cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In April 2017, the Game Rangers Association of Africa (GRAA) issued a media statement on the use of security and military personnel and tactics in training Africa’s rangers. It stated:

“Military personnel, military veterans, and security contractors from beyond Africa’s borders are becoming increasingly involved in ranger training across our continent. Intentions in some instances may be noble but there are mounting concerns that need to be noted by the ranger community in Africa.”

Amongst other concerns, GRAA note a lack of coordination, a lack of understanding of the operating environment, a need for ecological sensitivity, a lack of knowledge of the legal frameworks that rangers operate in, and a lack of proper vetting, as well as profiteering by military equipment manufacturers.

This is an entirely new phenomenon – there is a long history of movement between conservation agencies and the armed forces. In South Africa, for example, the end of apartheid led white members of the South African Defence Force to seek new careers in conservation. The development of this dynamic in current conservation practice can be seen as directly mapping the debates and practices of international interventions (often justified under the banner of humanitarianism) in Afghanistan and Iraq to ‘protect’ civilian populations against regimes defined as a threat to democratic values. These narratives and practices have shifted across to wildlife conservation, and have carried with them the additional complexities of the application of such arguments to wildlife protection.

Finally, one significant complexity which has not been adequately addressed, to date, is the increasing acceptability of human deaths in defence of animal lives. In stark terms poachers are presented as the allowable and acceptable casualties of a war for biodiversity, and we need to think carefully about the wider implications of such a position. It plays into a much longer history of colonialism – and feeds the idea that wildlife simply matters more than African lives. As a result, militarised forms of conservation, even though they may be motivated by a desire to save important and iconic species, have the capacity to be counterproductive in the longer term. Such responses can alienate the very local communities on which conservation depends in the longer term. This increasingly pertinent topic is the centre of a four-year study, BIOSEC, which focuses on the implications of integrating biodiversity conservation with security concerns, funded by a European Research Council Advanced Investigator Award.


NB: A response to the arguments in this article has been published by Dr. Susan Canney of the Mali Elephant Project. 



Asiyanbi, A P (2016) A political ecology of REDD+: Property rights, militarised protectionism, and carbonised exclusion in Cross River. Geoforum 77: 146-156.

Barbora, S (2017) Riding the Rhino: Conservation, Conflicts, and Militarisation of Kaziranga National Park in Assam. Antipode. E-Pub 04 May 2017, DOI: 10.1111/anti.12329

Duffy, R (2016) War by Conservation. Geoforum, 69: 238-248.

Lombard, L (2016) Threat Economies and Armed Conservation in Northeastern Central African Republic. Geoforum, 69:  218-226

Lunstrum, E (2014) Green Militarization: Anti-Poaching Efforts and the Spatial Contours of Kruger National Park. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 104(4): 816–832.

Marijnen, E and Verweijen J (2016) Selling Green Militarization: The discursive (re)production of militarized conservation in the Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo’. Geoforum 75: 274–285.

Massé, F and Lunstrum, E (2016) Accumulation by securitization: Commercial poaching, neoliberal conservation, and the creation of new wildlife frontiers. Geoforum, 69: 227-237.

Cookies on our website allow us to deliver better content by enhancing our understanding of what pages are visited. Data from cookies is stored anonymously and only shared with analytics partners in an anonymised form.

Find out more about our use of cookies in our privacy policy.