The militarization of wildlife poachers and the subsequent response by the organizations charged with the management of protected areas is one of the clearest examples of the role on natural resource management in the underlying issues of security and human development. It is no secret that current insecurity in Darfur, eastern DRC and Somalia for example, are both influenced by and fueled with financial resources from the direct consumptive utilization of mineral and more recently, ivory, rhino horn and even charcoal. The Kenya Wildlife Service claims that the charcoal and ivory trade are fueling Al Shabab’s continued operations in eastern Kenya and enables their strangle hold on Kismayo, in southern Somalia. Subsequently, the hunt for poachers and other purveyors of illegally extracted natural resources has intensified into a full military and para-military operation throughout eastern and southern Africa.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that these trends have been on a long steady increase since at least the 1980’s, but in recent years, the pressure has significantly intensified due to geo-political maneuvering and poor decision-making by bodies such as CITES who allowed a one-off sale of ivory in 2008 despite the protests of countries such as Kenya which warned of the reigniting of demand. This sale has been repeatedly cited as causing the renewed resurgence in demand for ivory, a contextual detail that matters. In any natural resource grab, the path of least resistance, and therefore the path of least transactional costs, will be the one that is exploited first.
In Kenya, this is indeed a crisis which warrants a full-scale state response in the interest of Natural and inherently National security. However, what is desperately needed is not a knee-jerk military reaction on the part of the national and international security and natural resource management community but rather, a detailed analysis of the drivers of conflict, and the responses to it, which should in turn guide our policy decisions towards a more long-term stabilization of natural resource management decisions, and consequently, national security here in East Africa. The poaching crisis is a symptom, not the disease and the broader picture shows issues in the delivery of humanitarian aid, national development policy, maritime law and the governance of international waters, the management of grazing lands and the control of the border and immigration issues. Like most complex management issues, the current crisis is a huge number of interrelated political and management issues. Solutions must treat it as such and not try and narrow it down to a problem of “Somali poachers”. Failure to take this systematic response will likely continue to entrench the status quo of half-baked approaches, which erode the natural capital of the region while we focus on chasing a few ivory poachers around an area the size of Western Europe. Punitive actions always make us feel good. They give us the façade of justice having been served. However, the small vacuum created by “taking out a few poachers” will undoubtedly be filled quickly and long-term stability, the desired outcome, will be sadly unobtainable.
The transition to a broader approach has been advocated by a few and can be accomplished using common tools such as the DPSIR framework and many others. However, a full situational analysis, accompanied by the development of both policy and legislative instruments in addition to strengthened enforcement mechanisms is desperately needed. Unfortunately, all of what I have just discussed could possibly be overshadowed, if not completely lost on a few ‘meatheads’** (see discussion in the comments section) who lack understanding of basic pragmatism, cooperation, diplomacy and effective adaptive management, advocating instead for full scale military-based solutions. We are currently experiencing the manifestation of those knee-jerk reactions here in Tsavo.
The current crisis has attracted some interesting characters, who often volunteer their time to assist. Whilst volunteering one’s time and expertise is appreciated, it can sometimes do more harm than good, as contextual analysis is often quite shallow. Moreover, volunteers always have an expiry date, often leaving those that have hosted them in the lurch, picking up the pieces and repairing the damage. A case in point is our current cohort of visitors, two former US Navy SEALs.
The two SEALs visiting us have come to ‘advise’ us on our security apparatus in an effort to bolster our current enforcement activities. They are the most highly trained individuals imaginable, on many fronts and one cannot help but be a bit in awe of their physical presence. We all know that we need help as one of the greatest scrambles for natural resources is unfolding all around us. However, ‘help’ is sometimes no help at all. Anywhere else in the world these guys would be known as mercenaries but because they are from the US they are somehow referred to as ‘security consultants’. Their presence has not gone unnoticed by our local staff, nor the Kenya Wildlife Service as their ‘advisory’ role has quickly been self-morphed into a more commandeering role. This has caused obvious friction and some repulsion both internally in the management and externally, amongst the wider community. Whilst regaling us with their exploits in Afghanistan, Iraq and any other number of countries, “splattering brains and guts all over walls…” and “hacking down insurgents with our hatchets, splitting their skulls in half…” these gentlemen have come to epitomize the very things that make many people sick about American contemporary culture and war-mongering. The bravado with which they extol their own exploits, the obvious solutions to our poaching problems which we clearly have never thought of, and the continual massaging of their own egos, does little to ensure the long-term proper management of natural resources in East Africa. Moreover, this same bravado is the number one limiting factor in keeping their often excellent training and problem-solving awareness from being more widely accepted by those they are attempting to train. These chaps are used to popping in to a country, removing or annihilating someone, and jetting back out. Unfortunately, the ideas that is being conveyed, which are largely the ‘American way or the highway’ attitude, have been somewhat unappreciated in this part of Kenya mostly because they fail to see the loss of elephants and rhinos for what it really is…a failure to contain the situation in Somalia, and equally epic failure to apply diplomatic pressure on the markets in the Vietnam and China. In short, for all of their good intentions, these guys are premium meatheads and cannot understand that a long-term systematic analysis of the drivers of commercial poaching, the general insecurity and the socio-economic forces underlying environmental degradation are just as key to the solution as “shooting every poacher in sight”. This is problematic when the drivers of degradation in the environment are much more removed and insidious than a few poachers from Somalia. Those drivers, and dealing with them at a policy and political level, are the key to ensuring long-term sustainable management of our East African landscapes. In this case, a military solution may be needed in the immediate term, but a wholesale gang-war is not. A long-term solution lays only in the realm of sensible policy and regular, systematic enforcement without the bravado of Iraq and Afghanistan. Now back to my two favourite SEALs…
I am a firm believer that we all have more in common than not. I also am a firm believer that everyone has a few redeeming attributes. It is an interesting experience having a conversation with these two gentlemen, who for all of their bluster and bravado are quite congenial fellows. They are normal guys with families who enjoy being out in the bush. However, intensive situational analysis of the operating environment in which natural resource management decisions are made and enforced in East Africa, does not rank among their stronger skills sets. In fact, when I queried them about the greater context of influence on the poaching crisis, the underlying drivers, the market dynamics, the diplomatic and political channels that should be exploited, I was met with ‘hmmpf’ and the another zephyr of wisdom in the form of a one-liner: “we are diplomats, humanitarians and warriors…”. That quintessentially arrogant attitude manifested in the lines such as “we have the answers” (even after our rather shallow and paranoid analysis of the situation) and “if you guys would just fall in line and do what we say, we could take care of this problem” becomes rather unsettling the deeper into conversations that we get. This attitude also perpetuates the falsehood that stereotypical analysis and singular, militarized solutions to natural resource management issues will work for long-term sustainability. There are far too many examples to count that prove this assertion painfully wrong. Unfortunately, my two SEAL friends believe their own dogma far too religiously to see that larger picture. In fact, I don’t think I have actually ever met more brainwashed individuals outside of Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious sects – which brings me to my final point about this entire situation. Natural resource management is a science, not a religion. Being a Navy SEAL is seemingly a religion, and battling the Taliban or Al Shabab or any other ideological enemy, is just another ‘religious war’. However, real tangible long-term solutions to natural management issues are not bound in religious conviction (although they can be aided by those convictions) but rather in tangible, pragmatic, science-based solutions and policy interventions. Until we get that right, our enforcement challenges will only grow, even with the help of the world’s finest warriors.