Research Notes | From global security threats to narwhals & red siskins

Rosaleen Duffy on her recent fieldwork in Washington D.C., interviewing a range of agencies and key players in wildlife conservation.

Rosaleen Duffy recently returned from a week of fieldwork in Washington D.C., interviewing a range of agencies and key players in wildlife conservation. Here she reflects on her experience. 

Like all good fieldwork trips, I left Washington with more questions than answers and with a notebook filled with things to follow up on. The main purpose was to being to piece together the role that security logics play in thinking about the direction of wildlife conservation amongst some of the ‘big players’: US Government agencies, high profile conservation NGOs and media outlets. But, it produced a few surprises and a growing list of things I had not even considered before. Here, somewhat tentatively, I set out some of the themes – but I need more time to think and develop my understanding of them.

Although the links between poaching, trafficking and terrorism have hit the headlines in recent years, I encountered divided opinion. For some the links were clear and credible – that ivory poaching and trafficking is actively used by a range of armed groups as a funding strategy. As far as I could tell this was understood as a security threat on three levels: growing insecurity for local communities caught up in conflicts, potential or actual destabilisation of governments and, ultimately, to global stability because the groups could be linked to wider networks such as Al Qaeda and Daesh/Islamic State. However, this was not a widely shared view. For others the claims about links to terrorism lacked credibility – especially the use of ivory by Al Shabaab, LRA and Boko Haram. Instead there was a feeling of frustration that the terrorism link had been ‘talked up’ to get attention and funding. Some clearly preferred the idea of poaching and trafficking as ‘wildlife crime’ – which could be carried out by organised crime groups but was more often the focus of disorganised, opportunistic criminal activity alongside other forms of trafficking.

This was also reflected in the discussions I had on the best ways of responding to poaching and trafficking. There were clear differences over whether a military-style response was appropriate or effective – and genuine worries about the rise in ex-US special forces operating in a private capacity in anti poaching in Sub-Saharan Africa. Some supported their use for training only, but very few (if any) of the people I met thought their active engagement in military-style anti-poaching operations was a good idea. The development of intelligence-led approaches was more positively viewed – including the development of informant networks on the ground coupled with use of surveillance technologies, data sharing, data mining and algorithms. This approach has been supported and expanded by the growing range of organisations showing an interest in the world of wildlife conservation, bringing with them techniques and approaches from the intelligence community.

The development of new technologies to support conservation initiatives was also a feature of many conversations. This emerging theme in conservation isn’t just about drones either, there are many new innovative ways of using technology to counter poaching and trafficking. A quick glance at the list of 16 winners of the Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge includes the e-Eye® system which describes itself as ‘an all weather, round the clock, solar powered wildlife surveillance system’, and Real-time Global Wildlife Crime Map, Trafficking Routes, and Forecasts which mines open source data from news and social media. Many of the people I spoke to, including those who actively use new technologies for conservation, were keen to point out that while there was much enthusiasm about its potential, the technology on its own is not the solution; rather technology needs to be seen, and used appropriately, in its specific social context.

Above: Information about ivory at the AMNH.

US domestic politics was, understandably, a feature of many conversations. Given that wildlife conservation has strong bipartisan support (the International Conservation Caucus (IC) is the second largest US Congressional caucus), there was some optimism that the Trump Administration would continue to support it. In February Trump issued the Executive Order Enforcing Federal Law With Respect to Transnational Criminal Organizations and Preventing International Trafficking, which specifically refers to wildlife trafficking. However, there were concerns that budget cuts might hit conservation too. It remains to be seen.

The domestic political landscape featured in another more surprising way – the well-intended restrictions on the domestic elephant ivory trade in 2016 has hit Arctic communities. The focus on elephant ivory means that it has become harder to sell carvings of other forms of ivory, such as narwhal and walrus tusks; as a result the Arctic communities which carve narwhal and walrus ivory are finding it harder to sell their goods because traders are becoming more nervous about stocking any kind of ivory. The restrictions have also made it more difficult for museums to buy or display historically significant items made from African elephant ivory. For example, would a museum in Europe or Asia allow some of its collections to go to the US for a temporary exhibition if there was even a remote chance that it could be impounded?

The trip reminded me that we also need to be careful to draw attention to species other than the iconic elephants, rhinos, tigers (and increasingly pangolins). The illegal wildlife trade affects thousands of species around the world, and one example is the red siskin, found in Venezuela and Guyana. It has been trafficked in the past for cross breeding to produce a red canary, but more recently it has been favoured as a pet. The Red Siskin Initiative is working with several locally based partners to develop conservation strategies for the bird; there is a security angle to this example as well due to on-going political upheaval in Venezuela.

So I left Washington feeling that I had a much better grasp of how some organisations are developing their responses to wildlife trafficking, of the complexities of the themes we are trying to address in BIOSEC and with a long list of things I need to delve in to in much more detail. But I also returned home feeling a little anxious: the BIOSEC team have 4 years to research connections between biodiversity conservation and security, but I think we need 10!