A potentially momentous summit of environmental officials took place in Johannesburg: the 17th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, better known as CITES. Based on an agreement between 182 countries, CITES’ aim is to “ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.” With climate change increasingly evident, so too is the world suffering largescale habitat loss and unprecedented species extinctions. The booming black and gray markets in already-threatened animals, including the rhino, elephant, and pangolin, worsen the situation.
Shooting the Problem
Even though the cross-border trade in rhino horns and elephant ivory will probably remain technically banned when CITES ends, its delegates are at risk of being distracted from saving threatened species thanks to two dubious developments: new proposals to allow trade in elephant ivory have been made by South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe (although lifting that ban is opposed by Botswana, Kenya and Tanzania), and there is an even more controversial proposal by Swaziland’s King Mswati to sell $10 million of his feudal monarchy’s rhino horn stock (plus $600,000 worth annually from rhinos that die naturally), and the militarization of conservation, leading to an anti-poaching arms race within protected areas. The Southern African region has such a checkered history of militarization, what with 366 years of armed conflict between white settlers and indigenous people (including slavery); what with (white-backed) black right-wing guerillas in Renamo (Mozambique) and Unita (Angola) having attacked liberation governments resulting in more than 1.5 million civilian casualties during the 1970s-90s; what with mercenaries still thick on the ground; and what with the militaries of Zimbabwe and South Africa recently involved in, respectively, extreme malgovernance (e.g. looting diamond operations) and controversial skirmishes in central Africa. Southern Africa is no place to start a new arms race over nature. Yet in the pursuit of conservation, the region is witnessing new platoons of soldiers and paramilitary-trained rangers, with military leaders heading anti-poaching efforts. New technologies, including drones and military-grade helicopters, along with new partnerships with military firms are all entering the region’s parklands, ostensibly to save them.
There is little public discussion about the merits of militarization within CITES or mainstream conservation. This is despite the fact that NGOs such as Conservation International, the Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund were exposed by WorldWatch researcher Mac Chapin a dozen years ago for disastrous adventures in military conservation. This included what he described as “a disturbing neglect of the indigenous peoples whose land they are in business to protect.”
Many poachers are indeed armed, dangerous and the foot-soldiers of global organized crime. This reality is coupled with unsubstantiated claims that poaching fuels terrorism, proving more support for militarized solutions. Precisely because we want to see wildlife survive and thrive, we disagree that more firepower is needed to stop commercial poaching. Green militarization is a short-sighted response with severe long-term implications. In recent years, several hundred suspected poachers have been killed in South Africa and dozens in Botswana. Many of these deaths result from controversial shoot-on-site policies and practices (whether official or unofficial), where suspected poachers are killed without the opportunity to surrender. This not only violates human rights but generates hostility to conservation in economically-marginalized border communities. These are the very areas from which conservation needs local ownership if it is to be effective. Worse, green militarization has opened the doors of conservation services to private defense corporations. The most caricatured must be Ivor Ichikovitz’s Paramount Group, thanks in part to his celebrated Mbombe Parabot, the CGI African superhero cyborg-robot. These firms seek to create new markets for their hardware and services, markets they actively work to enlarge by exploiting conservation to showcase their hardware at military trade shows. This also amounts to a perverse form of greenwashing. As the firms bedazzle us with their well-advertised commitment to environmental protection, we are left blind to the destruction—both environmental and social—they leave in their wake in conflict zones around the world.
Putting a price on conservation
There are similarly devastating impacts of markets, including not only worsening economic meltdowns (e.g. 1998, 2000-01, 2008) but also the ideology now known as the financialization of nature, which is based on the view that a market problem, like the threat of extinction posed by poachers, can be treated best with a market solution. For example, politicians negotiating the United Nations climate treaty were persuaded as early as 1997 (in Kyoto) that carbon trading—selling the right to pollute instead of regulating the steady reduction of greenhouse gas emissions—meant “solving a market problem with a market solution.” In reality, the European and U.S. experiences were humiliating—with a 90 percent price crash in the former from 2008-14, and bankruptcy of the latter’s Chicago exchange in 2010, but the practice continues. In the same spirit, Swaziland’s proposed international rhino horn market strategy is, fortunately, still firmly opposed by leading environmental experts. However, National Geographic recently warned that Mswati’s move may serve as a stalking horse for a future South African bid—one that it would lose at CITES (in a humiliating context, as host) if it were to be put on the table in Johannesburg at the current CITES meeting.
Confusingly, flip-flopping Pretoria officials say they still support the rhino horn ban, but have come under intense pressure to drop it by rhino-horn factory-farming ranchers like John Hume, who owns 1,400 of the beasts, more than live in Kenya. If Swaziland is allowed an exemption, watch Hume and his allies move animals across the border for horn harvesting and lucrative sales. One of the world experts on wildlife trade, El Colegio de Mexico economist Alejandro Nadal, warns that pro-trade advocates make numerous methodological errors and harbor a variety of false assumptions about both supply and demand. Both the legalization of rhino horn and ivory and green militarization are neither just nor sustainable responses to the extra-legal trade in wildlife. We can do better than this in several ways.
The only surefire way to stop commercial poaching is drastically reducing demand. Wildlife fetches staggering prices. A kilogram of rhino horn, for example, fetches $60,000—more than gold, diamonds and cocaine—so there will never be a shortage of people willing to procure it, even risking their lives to do so. Until buyers lose interest or shift to a new fad (as happened a century ago to South African ostrich feathers), there will never be a shortage of people willing to procure wildlife, CITES, to its credit, has done a great deal to prioritize demand reduction especially in Asia, where the largest markets exist. Namibian and South African authorities are finally naming and shaming smugglers they catch. But while even proponents of green militarization often agree that demand reduction is the single most important response, it is vital to do so with cultural sensitivity so as to avoid the appearance of yet another western imposition. We have an historic opportunity to rethink conservation. There is an opportunity to make it less exploitative and more inclusive of the needs and perspectives of communities that often suffered injustice when parks were carved from indigenous lands.
More broadly, because poverty is routinely a driver of poaching on the supply side, we are reminded—once more—of the need to address global inequality. There are precedents to addressing similar challenges. One is the ongoing South African struggle against coal mining waged by low-income rural Zulu women, climate activists and conservationists (including progressive lawyers) against two Johannesburg corporations on the borders of the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Park, Africa’s oldest. This was also the site where white rhinos are generally considered to have been saved from extinction. The Save our Imfolozi Wilderness campaign represents a version of eco-feminist climate strategy, with the women of the Fuleni area demanding that capital and the state leave the coal in the hole, so as to:
- save local women from displacement, and their land and water from being poisoned by strip mining;
- save the world from increased climate change resulting from that mining and subsequent burning of coal;
- and save nearby rhinos from the increased poaching threat that mining represents.
South Africa has other successful precedents for fighting militarization and markets, including campaigning by local social movements and their global allies—using sanctions against corporations profiteering from racism—to end apartheid 25 years ago. A decade ago, non-violent protests by civil society ended the patent control by big pharmaceutical companies over AIDS medicines, resulting in a subsequent rise in life expectancy from 52 to 62 in South Africa alone.
Saving wildlife could be just as feasible if movements are quickly built in the spirit of the Fuleni women—movements that avoid militarized and market paths and rely on socio-ecological values.
Libby Lunstrum is associate professor of geography at York University, Toronto; Patrick Bond is professor of political economy at Wits University , Johannesburg.