Shoot to kill?
(This article was originally published in The Horn: Spring 2012. Author: Laura Adams, Office & Communications Manager, Save The Rhino)
Last year, Save the Rhino received an email from a concerned supporter after a comment on a well-known rhino conservation blog apparently ‘celebrated’ the death of five poachers, shot by rangers in South Africa. What were Save the Rhino’s views on the shooting, they asked? Is it ever OK to defend a policy that can mean the loss of human life in order to protect wildlife?
Save the Rhino’s position, and the policy adopted by most of the programmes that we support, is to shoot-to-kill only as a last act and in self-defence. Anti-poaching rangers must first do all they can to avoid this. In the event of a contact (a ranger meeting a poacher), it would be much more beneficial if they were caught and arrested, giving the opportunity to recover valuable information about who has commissioned them to turn to poaching, information about the supply chain, and smuggling routes. If a poacher fires – they virtually all carry guns these days – and endangers the ranger’s safety, then rangers may fire back, with the chance that lives may be lost in this exchange.
Many anti-poaching and monitoring programme staff in the field are armed but not all. Those protecting National Parks or Game Reserves usually are, while those protecting rhinos and other wildlife in conservancies (private or community-owned) are not. It’s a tough ask to face a poaching gang when all you possess is a torch, a phone and a GPS. Some rhino holders are applying for Police Reservist status, which would allow named individuals to bear arms; others have come to arrangements with local police forces or the government department to carry out joint patrols. Whoever is protecting the rhinos, is it morally acceptable to shoot to kill?
Very occasionally, shoot-to-kill is not only tolerated but encouraged, as a way of sending a very clear signal to poaching gangs, and rewarding the bravery of the rhinos’ protectors. In Kaziranga National Park, India, forest guards receive a cash bonus to their salary if they successfully wound and kill a poacher. This stance has affected funding; indeed this policy caused the BBC Wildlife Fund to pull out of planned funding for the programme a couple of years ago.
Furthermore, in Kaziranga the forest guards will not be prosecuted for shooting a poacher, whether in self-defence or as a pro-active ambush or attack. The issue of indemnity for armed wildlife guards is an important one for many field programmes, whose staff risk being caught up in lengthy court cases and even prison, while acting in the line of duty.
Protecting rhinos endangers lives. Mohammad Hasen Ali, a ranger at Rajiv Gandhi Orang National Park in Assam, India was fatally wounded when apprehending a poacher and declared dead on arrival at the nearest medical centre. His family received $2,000 in compensation. Conversely, a Zambian poacher has just been killed, one of a group of three armed poachers who resisted arrest and shot at rangers in Tshakabika, Sinamatella in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. There are casualties on both sides.
In South Africa, 232 suspected poachers were arrested in 2011. But of these how many will actually end up being sentenced? Why we don’t hear of more poachers going to prison, and why is it so hard to convict a poacher?
- The disparity between sentencing in different countries is great. The law in many countries does not assign long prison sentences to wildlife crime. In Zambia, possession of rhino horn or a conviction of poaching can receive a sentence of 20 years, while in Kenya, the penalty for poaching is simply a fine (and a relatively low fine at that)
- Even where tough laws do exist, for a criminal case, it is difficult to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that a poacher is guilty. To do so would require DNA analysis linking the rhino carcass, the horn and the poacher. Too often, the expertise is not available for this type of sophisticated analysis. Even in South Africa, where this facility is available, many poachers are currently awaiting trial dates, and appeals have been sent out for more evidence from the public to complete these prosecutions. If a poacher is apprehended before an attack, there is very little to prove, except armed trespass
There is general frustration about the prosecution of rhino poachers. It is important to build the political will to ensure that prison sentences are given. Time and time again, poachers are acquitted at trial. If this is the case, then legal measures to crack down on poaching are not working. Poachers who do not receive a prison sentence are free to return to national parks and poach more rhino.
The highly organised nature of poaching syndicates means that the poacher ‘on the ground’ is doing the dirty work, but somewhere much higher up the chain is a criminal gang, very literally, calling the shots. This makes convicting poaching offences harder, and means that killing a poacher will achieve very little in terms of reducing the number of poaching incidents. Syndicates can easily find another person willing to take the risk and shoot a rhino. And that puts those who protect the rhinos in an unenviable position.
Photo credits: Tony Fitzjohn, Steve Robbins