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Response to the article by Prof. Rosaleen Duffy, “We need to talk about the militarization of conservation“, Green European Journal, July 20, 2017

Written by Dr. Susan Canney, Director of the Mali Elephant Project[1] and Research Associate at the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford. 

This is our official response that has been submitted to the Editor of the European Green Journal, and we await word from them concerning how and when they will publish it. 

It was alarming to read the manner in which Professor Duffy presented the Mali Elephant Project (MEP). She both mis-represented the project and grouped it with examples of other and unrelated anti-poaching efforts characterized by shoot-to-kill policies, abuse of local people, and pure fortress conservation. This is extraordinary because the project’s philosophy and practice is the very opposite of fortress conservation. The MEP is widely acknowledged for being nature conservation achieved through community-based natural resource management (CBNRM), of which she professes to approve. If further evidence is needed, one has only to see that the MEP is among the winners of the 2017 Equator Prize (United Nations Development Programme, UNDP) for excellence in CBNRM.

While there are certainly problematic examples of the militarization of conservation, not all enforcement approaches are the same. When done well, enforcement can actually help local communities. In the case of the Gourma Region in Central Mali, where the MEP operates, it was the eco-guardians from the local communities who requested armed backup. The area is too dangerous for government forest rangers to operate without military accompaniment. In response, a multi-sectoral anti-poaching unit has been developed through a consultative process and is receiving training from Chengeta Wildlife based on developing skills in local intelligence, tracking, and nurturing good relationships with local communities.

The aim of Mali’s anti-poaching unit is not to “stabilise the security situation” as Professor Duffy states, but rather to prevent elephant poaching. The APU does not presume to “provide security for those defined as civilian populations”, but it does represent the presence of government to local people many of whom have seen no evidence of any kind for five years. Just the presence of this unit is a relief for local communities yearning for peace while trying to continue their daily lives in a lawless zone rife with attacks on innocent civilians, robberies, IEDs and worse. The APU also has a medic and provides free, much needed, and warmly welcomed care for local people. This care is seen by the local people as a sign that the government is doing something about at least one aspect of the lawlessness, and it further encourages them in their “elephant-based” community natural resource management.

This model of CBNRM requires communities to act together, in solidarity, and for mutual benefit. When lawlessness is unfettered and chaos ensues, individuals fear that community conventions will fall apart and they may be tempted to act in their own, immediate self-interest, thereby creating a milieu in which extremism thrives.  Reinforcing collective efforts in ways which bring benefit to all participants fosters solidarity which, in turn, promotes the healing of the social wounds caused by the years of conflict. As one eco-guardian said “when you sit talking around a fire after working all day building fire-breaks together, you realise that everyone has the same problems”.

Providing local benefits from “elephant-based” natural resource management deters the great majority of the population from engaging in poaching, but there is always a criminal element that requires an enforcement response. By talking about “militarised conservation” as a single entity, Professor Duffy commits the same error for which she criticises others, namely unhelpful and blunt categorisation. It is neither difficult to observe or conclude that, as the illegal wildlife trade has become the focus of organised crime, new actors have been drawn into the arena, requiring a different response. The same thing has occurred over the past 20 years as increasing human pressures, coupled with poverty and inequity, have rightly required the involvement of social scientists in nature conservation.

Professor Duffy is correct to point out that there are instances of bad practice, and mal-adapted anti-poaching doctrines conducted in ignorance of (and often detrimental to) local conventions and context. But surely, all of us looking for solutions to protecting nature and empowering local communities should focus on identifying best practice, and investigating how best to design enforcement so that it targets the real criminals behind the trade, protects wildlife, and supports local communities, rather than condemning as problematic all use of enforcement.

[1] The Mali Elephant Project is a joint initiative of the WILD Foundation and the International Conservation Fund of Canada



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