Since 2007, rhino poaching has intensified and poaching gangs have become more sophisticated in their operations – and the weapons they use. In response, rhino conservationists have invested in improving security, training and anti-poaching equipment – including firearms – for rangers on the ground. Often dubbed an “arms race”, the perceived “militarisation of conservation” has attracted support from many, but also caused concern. In the pursuit of protecting rhinos, are human rights are being compromised? Could communities sharing rhino habitat become, quite literally, caught in the cross-fire?
Save the Rhino’s position, and the policy adopted by the programmes to which we make grants, is that shoot-to-kill should only be used as a last alternative and in self-defence. Anti-poaching rangers must do all they can to avoid killing a poacher. In the event of contact made between a ranger and a poacher, it would be much more beneficial if the poacher were to be caught and arrested, giving the opportunity to recover valuable information about who has commissioned them, the supply chain and likely smuggling routes. If poachers refuses to throw down their weapons but raise them against rangers, then rangers may fire. Sadly, there will always be the chance that lives may be lost in this exchange.
The militarisation of conservation
Many anti-poaching and monitoring staff protecting rhinos are armed, but a surprising number lack even basic, good quality equipment like good boots or overnight tents, let alone top-range weapons. Rangers working in national parks or game reserves are usually licensed to carry and use weapons, while those protecting rhinos and other wildlife in conservancies (private or community-owned) are often not. Even then, there can be a huge disparity between the training and provisions for rangers in one country to the next, or even between one nation’s wildlife areas. It’s a tough ask to face a poaching gang if all you are carrying is a torch, a phone and a GPS. As the poaching threat has increased, some rhino owners 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 relevant government department to carry out joint patrols.
In Kaziranga National Park in the state of Assam, India, Forest Guards (the equivalent of rangers) were given the right to use firearms in July 2010 and protected under section 197 of the CrPC, which provides them conditional immunity from court proceedings if they are to kill or injure somebody in the line of duty. The issue of indemnity for armed wildlife guards is an important one, as rangers can risk being caught up in lengthy court cases and even prison, while acting in the line of duty. A contact between armed poachers, who resisted arrest, and rangers in uMkhuze Game Reserve on Christmas Day 2014 led to three rangers being arrested and imprisoned until they were let out on bail several days later.
The case of Kaziranga
Kaziranga is home to around two thirds of Asia’s population of Greater one-horned rhinos. The species has made a remarkable come-back from an all-time population low of just 200 animals and now numbers over 3,000 individuals. As a result, the Park is viewed as one of rhino conservation’s biggest success stories. One factor in this success is the commitment shown by the Indian government in protecting the largescale ecosystem – including expanding rhino habitat and securing the Park’s borders. This means that entering the Park without prior permission is illegal for communities living nearby. And as the Park has expanded, entire villages have been relocated, including by force, when the scheme was met with resistance.
But the Assam Government’s hard-line policy has caused concern amongst conservation organisations, the general public and other NGOs. In particular, the lobbying group Survival International, has been particularly vocal in its campaign to encourage the Indian government to rethink its stance. In the recent past, the Assam Government’s position also caused the BBC to cancel donations to conservation work in Kaziranga via its now-defunct Wildlife Fund, for fear of a public outcry.
Tensions reached a head in July 2015, when seven year old Akash Orang, living in a village near the Park, was shot in the leg by rangers; causing a life-altering injury. The incident occurred while rangers were trying to move a rhino which had strayed out of the Park away from a village. Soon after, the BBC visited the Park to film a short news feature on the case which generated headlines, controversially describing Kaziranga as “the park that shoots people to protect rhinos”. Another case investigated by the BBC’s team was the death of Gaonburah Kealing, a man whose family said he had learning difficulties. Goanburah was understood to have strayed into the Park accidentally, and was subsequently shot. The Park authorities said he failed to respond to a warning.
Allegations of torture of suspects arrested by the Park’s rangers, and corruption by rangers involved in poaching themselves, have also continued to surface and provided much of the focus in the BBC investigation. The Indian government responded by banning the BBC from filming in any of its tiger reserves for five years, claiming that the BBC had not fully briefed them about the content of the film, and accused the journalists of biased reporting.
Events in Kaziranga attracted a lot of publicity and ignited fierce debate. Had conservationists gone too far and tacitly supported indiscriminate attacks? Clearly, in both cases outlined above, rangers made tragic mistakes and the Park should take steps to ensure it never happens again. It goes without saying that any claims of torture, corruption, and other illegal activities should be thoroughly investigated and perpetrators held to account. The Indian government’s offer of rewards for injured poachers is also highly controversial. However, in the media storm which ensued, certain factors have been less well interrogated.
Families like Goanburah Keeling’s, living near protected wildlife areas in India and other countries, may have genuine and very understandable concerns about their rights to land. They may feel that they are not responsible for poaching, the global illegal wildlife trade, and the consumer demand which drives it. But it is also untrue to claim that every villager living near Kaziranga National Park, or any other wildlife haven, lives in isolation from the destructive forces driving poaching.
Kaziranga’s rangers are operating near heavily armed militia and political groups, poaching syndicates and agricultural villages – sections of society which can, and do, overlap. The government, and other actors, may scapegoat different groups for partisan reasons, all the while making the picture even murkier. As this one example in India shows, broad-brush descriptions that pit villagers against rangers can risk over-simplifying a complex political backdrop, and in turn fail to truly illustrate the daily dangers faced by rangers protecting rhinos.
However, we can be emphatic in saying that conservation needs community support. Creating a consensus on the value of protecting rhinos in the wild is vital if people living near wildlife are to feel invested in the future of endangered species. Nepal has shown leadership in rhino conservation and community support. To date, the country has almost entirely stamped out rhino poaching with just one incident in three years. Across Asia and Africa, here are examples of practical ways we at Save the Rhino are make sure that protecting wildlife also benefits people, too.
Protecting rhinos endangers lives – and many of these lives belong to rangers patrolling on the frontline. According to the International Ranger Federation, at least 1,000 rangers have died in the line of duty in a decade, with many more unreported casualties. In 2015 alone, 42% of ranger deaths were due to attacks by poachers, compared to the 17% killed by wild animals. In Asia, the vast majority of wildlife ranger fatalities occur in India. This stark figure doesn’t include the scores of rangers living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other mental health conditions, as well routine physical scars.
Whether a ranger is a government employee, recruited by a wildlife conservancy or working for a private land owner, their job is still hugely dangerous. Often, rangers are recruited from communities living on the boundaries of protected habitats. Another line of work open to them could have been poaching – and they will often face pressure and intimidation from poaching gangs to reveal information. Many rangers, despite being government employees, are not covered by long-term health, disability or life insurance. When a ranger is killed or seriously injured, their family is often left without a breadwinner. But regardless of these dangers, perhaps the most fundamental question to ask is whether shoot-to-kill is ethically justified?
The ethics of killing
At Save the Rhino, we don’t feel qualified to debate the morality of taking a human life. We’re not a lobbying organisation, and we have no influence or control over how governments chose to impose their laws. But we don’t believe that injuring or killing poachers is something to be taken lightly.
Worryingly, as poaching has escalated, so too have the unpalatable suggestions we receive on social media, via our website, or even in emails to our staff, about how to tackle poaching. Some comments are particularly graphic and call for sickening “eye for an eye” style punishments. Are people venting their anger and anonymously sharing views in cyber space that they don’t really mean? Or have people’s attitudes hardened as the poaching crisis has deepened?
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-leader who is, very literally, calling the shots.
Killing a poacher will achieve very little in terms of reducing the number of poaching incidents; at best it can only provide a temporary deterrent, or move gangs onto targets perceived as softer. Syndicates can easily find another person willing to take the risk and shoot a rhino.
In South Africa’s Kruger National Park, by 2013 as many as 80% of poaching incidents were attributed to poachers crossing the porous border from Mozambique. Julian Rademeyer writes about the “poaching villages” that have cropped up around the region where “there is deep-seated anger at the deaths and arrests of suspected poachers.” The father of one dead poacher he meets asks, “Why was an animal’s life worth more than my son’s?” In such a poor area, poaching can seem an attractive means by which to put food on the table.
Perhaps a more important question to ask is why we hear so much about poacher deaths, and not enough about prosecutions? In South Africa, a total of 680 alleged poachers and traffickers were arrested for rhino-related poaching offences in 2016, more than double the year before. But of these how many will actually end up being sentenced?
The disparity between sentencing in different countries is great. The law in many countries does not assign long prison sentences to wildlife crime. Botswana’s environment minister, Tshekedi Khama, said in a 2013 interview that would-be poachers needed to know that they might not go home alive, and would be shot even if they surrendered. In Zambia, possession of rhino horn or a conviction of poaching can receive a sentence of 20 years. In Zimbabwe, a men was jailed for eight years for attempting to sell a fake rhino horn. And until Kenya’s wildlife laws were updated recently, penalties for poaching were simply fines that had not risen in to keep pace with the rewards on offer for rhino horn or elephant ivory.
Even where tough laws do exist, for a criminal case, it can be difficult to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that a poacher is guilty. To do so requires DNA analysis linking the rhino carcass, the horn and the poacher. Too often, the expertise or evidence 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 – the ideal scenario, as it means that no rhino was killed – then the charges available to prosecutors are for less serious crimes, such as possession of an unlicensed weapon or 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 awarded bail and abscond, or 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. In Namibia, the government is exploring the option of forcibly deporting any foreign national arrested for wildlife crimes, in an effort to prevent repeat offences.
As always, shoot-to-kill is not a one-size-fits-all solution to the poaching crisis, even if the concerns about such a policy can be overcome. If poachers keep coming, rangers need to have the training and resources to make arrests, secure the crime scene, and feel confident that the laws are in place to convict the kingpins running the illicit trade.
In parallel, if we can secure rhino habitat and continue to challenge consumer’s motivations for buying horn in the first place, we stand the best chance possible of turning back the tide on rhino poaching. For more information on our work with rangers, visit here.
Grasslands of Grey are two very well-researched essays on the challenges and successes of conservation in Kaziranga National Park, which take a balanced view on the BBC’s research and the Indian government’s policies:
Julian Rademeyer’s Tipping Point examines who is driving the illegal rhino horn trade, taking a look at who is poaching, and how well African states are responding to this threat.
Photo credits: Tony Fitzjohn, Steve Robbins, Save the Rhino Trust, Big Life Foundation,