Warning: the following article contains graphic content.
Back in February, we included the story of Kaziranga National Park in our monthly ‘News in Review’. Located in Assam, India, Kaziranga has become known for its controversial take on conservation: here, park rangers will undertake extreme measures to prevent poachers from entering the park, using any method necessary – even killing, if they deem it fit.
Kaziranga’s methods have indeed been successful: at one stage, there were more poachers killed in a year than there were rhinos; more recently, there have been fewer deaths of both animals and humans, proving that the risk of death is, in this case, an effective deterrent. That said, should other sites attempt to mimic such extreme practices?
One of the first countries to adopt a ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy was Botswana. Located in Southern Africa, Botswana is well-known for its phenomenal wildlife and numerous national parks. But with an abundance of animals roaming its terrain, Botswana has also had to face the issue of encroachment head-on. As rhino populations edge ever-closer to extinction, the pressure on national parks has continued to mount, pushing conservationists to take harsher measures in their fight against poachers.
Described as a ‘necessary evil,’ the policy is perhaps the most excessive step towards animal conservation that could possibly be imagined. Yet, such drastic measures may be the only way to discourage poachers from pursuing their kill; those particularly riled by the slaying of animals have insisted that those willing to ‘live by the gun’, should also be willing to ‘die by the gun.’ Guilt, in this instance, is simply not an emotion felt for those who spend their days killing endangered wildlife.
Like Kaziranga National Park, parks throughout Botswana have, too, seen a drop in the number of animals shot dead since the policy has come into play (though, admittedly, it is likely too early to tell if it will have a long-lasting effect – the unwritten policy was undertaken only as recently as 2013 and, as a result, reliable statistics are rather difficult to find.) At the very least, Botswana’s insistence of holding onto this policy shows that it is certainly committed to protecting its wildlife – something which has irked certain groups in Namibia, who claim that Botswana cares more about its wildlife than its people.
Resistance in Namibia could signal the beginning of the end of the argument in South Africa. The nation is currently embroiled in an ongoing debate as to whether a ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy would be effective; similarly, one must wonder about the implications of such a law being passed. Opinions on both side are rather heated, but both raise valid points: while our ecosystems rely, in part, on the survival of wildlife species, is it worth the risk of villagers being caught in the crossfire as rangers aim to keep parks clear of poachers? Conversely, while there is an (unpleasant) argument in favour of trophy hunting (some claim the fee paid to kill one elephant, can pay for the conservation of many more), can we not also say that these beautiful animals are of more value while living, as tourists in their thousands are happy to pay to see them on game drives?
In our quest to protect animals, it is easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to matters which conflict with our own belief systems. It is sometimes difficult to consider consequences: in this case, it may feel as if all prior efforts to seek a peaceful resolution, have been rendered futile; that acting with force is our final option, should we wish to preserve our wildlife.
But what about forest settlers, who are being stripped of their rights and gunned down in their native home? Does the desire to defend elephants, rhinos, and big cats, outweigh our empathy for the families who are being injured or even killed, simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time? It is important to consider all sides of an argument, and with lives on the line (no matter whose lives they may be), the decision for South Africa to move towards a notion of ‘shoot-to-kill’ is not to be taken lightly.
Using Kaziranga as a case-study can be rather revealing. While the situation in India is not exactly alike that of South Africa, the impact of ‘shoot-to-kill’ has been documented for far longer – with plenty of support from active conservation organisations.
Certain prominent organisations, with their robust budgets, have spent their resources on weapons and combat/ambush training for Kaziranga’s guards. While the knowledge of India’s wildlife being protected by specially-trained rangers is somewhat of a relief, it does make one shudder to think about how compliant these organisations may have been (even inadvertently) in some horrific examples of brutality towards villagers: in 2016, three whole villages were forcefully evicted in the buffer zone of the park, as plans to expand were deemed more valuable that the rights of the 300 families resident there. As Kaziranga is expected to double in size, a further 200,000 people are estimated to be displaced.
The loss of land is just one element that villagers need to worry about, as plans to expand loom ever-closer. During the eviction in 2016, police and park rangers were said to have beaten villagers, additionally using tear gas and gunfire. Two villagers were killed; others were left injured, homeless, and stripped of their rights.
This is a major concern when looking towards South Africa’s possible adoption of the ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy: whilst rhinos, elephants, and the like are to be somewhat more protected in national parks, countless families may be forced from their homes, and killed, should they resist. (There have already been reports of such violence taking place elsewhere in Africa.) Like in India, their homes are likely be bulldozed; they may be subject to violence. But what excuse is there for brutality towards villagers, when they could quite possibly be offered support to survive elsewhere?
According to the High Court, villagers are responsible in part for the decline of wildlife species. The court order states:
‘There has been persistent and repeated reporting of poaching of rhinoceros, elephants, and other wild animals. The habitants in Kaziranga National Park would be well-acquainted with the areas and animal movements, therefore they alone would be in a position to do poaching successfully or abet poaching by others. The concept of national park in the Wild Life Act contemplates that there should be no human habitation.’
Of course, the High Court have neglected to acknowledge that villagers have resided peacefully in the park for decades. Generations of families have been born and raised on the land: to be told to vacate with minimal notice is egregious; to use weapons to get their way, is harrowing. Further to that, there is little evidence that the villagers have been offered compensation for the lack of their home – something which the peasant rights organisation has been keen to point out and fight.
The above is a quote from the organisations’ founder, Akhil Gogoi. He also points out that compensation should be given before eviction; that alternative land should at least be available for those left without homes. Should the government have provided ample time and support for the villagers, Gogoi believes that they would have departed willingly, without confrontation.
One could perhaps observe the situation in Kaziranga as a cautionary tale; one which the governments throughout Africa should heed in their quest to protect their wildlife, particularly when it comes to the proposed ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy. At the very least, one could question exactly why the notion of such a policy needs to be considered at all: while poachers do exist, and animals are so cruelly slain, shouldn't the root cause of the issue be tackled first, or at least in tandem with this proposed new law?
The above statement from the High Court made no secret of the blame they place on villagers. It is suggested that, through the villagers’ knowledge of the land and their access to the animals there, they are the ones at the root of the issue. And, perhaps, there may be some evidence to back that up – maybe some villagers are party to poaching – but why does the government fail to ask why? Consider the desperation of those who could be involved in the location and murder of India’s (or indeed, Africa’s) wildlife – these are incredibly low-wage individuals, with starving families and a limited ability to alter their circumstances. By leading poachers to the wildlife (or even committing these murders themselves), it is unlikely they will receive much payment at all – but a pittance may be a better option than seeing their loved-ones waste away to nothing.
These villagers may not even be given a choice. They may be threatened with violence if they’re unwilling to comply; they, too, could be shot dead if they refuse to take part. (And it’s not just the adults who are caught up in such callous crimes: children, through a fear of poachers, can also be conned into leading gangs to herds of elephants.)
(A ranger observes the removed feet of an elephant killed by a poacher, Africa)
While it is impossible to prove that this is the case for a majority of villagers, it is certainly something that needs to be pointed out – and the governments need to focus their attention in other areas, should they truly want their wildlife to survive. By allowing rangers to shoot poachers dead on sight, they are literally killing off any opportunity to obtain valuable information about commissioners, supply chains, and smuggling routes. For want of a better term, are they not jumping the gun? Shouldn’t the death of a poacher be the final resort; an extreme reserved for violent situations which are already out of hand?
The fight for conservation can, at times, be a tremendously difficult one – the debate over ‘shoot-to-kill’ is evidence of that – but it does not go to say that violence is the sole, definitive answer.
Nepal’s situation is a curious one. With China to the north and India to the south, the country is caught between two nations with highly-conflicting ideals when it comes to wildlife: while Kaziranga in India goes to great lengths to protect its rhinos, Chinese poachers will risk it all to obtain the ivory they deem so worthwhile; a precious commodity for the elite, and a ‘key’ element used in medicines throughout history. For Nepal to have had zero instances of poaching for 365 days (twice, at least: in 2011, and in 2014), is rather unusual – made all the more interesting by the Himalayan country’s geographical position, and the sharp contrast of cultures surrounding them.
But how have they managed it? The answer may be: national attitudes, and governmental agenda.
Unlike China (and perhaps India and Africa, too), official bodies are united in a mutual goal. Conservation agencies, the police, and the government all see eye-to-eye on not only the issue of poaching, but in the way that they seek to remedy it. 23% of the country has been designated to national parks (10), wildlife reserves (3), and conservation areas (6) – that’s 13,000 square miles of protected land, which also spans over the Terai Arc Landscape. Shared with India, the Arc is one of the most biologically important areas on earth.
Government officials also have a vested interest in the protection of animals: for example, the Prime Minister of Nepal is also the chairman on the National Tiger Conservation Committee; the Wildlife Crime Control Coordination Committee is led by the Minister of Forests and Soil Conservation (it also has representatives from enforcement and security agencies, such as the Nepal Army and Nepal Police); and the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau is represented by enforcement agencies, whose 16 district cells have improved in order to stop poaching.
In addition to higher powers playing a bigger role throughout Nepal, approximately one-third (28%) of the country’s forests belong to local communities – rather than forcing natives out of their homes, the government have encouraged communities to take care of their forests and wildlife, and poverty levels have dropped as a result. By trusting people to take care of their homes, and incentivising them to look after Nepal’s biodiversity, the government has enabled the nation to flourish.
Finally, Nepalese children are being raised in a world which understand and respects its wildlife. Around them, Eco-Clubs continue to spring up, with over 500 in the country as of 2015 and around 80,000 children in attendance. By developing a positive point-of-view early on in life, the people of Nepal care deeply about nature – other countries across the globe (such as South Africa, India and China) could surely learn a lot from them.
The issue of 'shoot-to-kill' is a topic to inspire passionate points-of-view across the world of conservation, as well as in the realm of both human and animal rights - what do you think about this topic? Are there any points you would have added to this article? Let us know in the comments below.
UPDATE: Since the time of writing, an adult female rhino in Kaziranga National Park has been killed by poachers seeking her horn. Two more rhinos were killed earlier this year in the same park, and last year, 18 rhinos were killed inside the park. You can read more by clicking here.
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