I can agree with McCann that rangers are in a very difficult position, indeed, especially in conflict areas where they risk their lives on a daily basis. That is the dominant narrative. But there are other ranger stories we wish to bring to light as our research progresses: the growing levels of stress, the lack of support for rangers suffering PTSD, rates of refusal and resistance because militarized conservation is not what they signed up for.
McCann’s article claims that critics of militarization insult rangers. This couldn’t be further from my intention. We need to understand the spectrum of ranger experiences. To do anything else is insulting.
Militarizing conservation can simply escalate conflict and violence (see research by Elizabeth Lunstrum and Francis Masse; Esther Marijnen and Judith Verweijen; as well as Bram Buscher and Maano Ramutsindela). We should also be aware of the risks that enhanced training and provision of weaponry can be turned back on wildlife, and increase rates of poaching.
McCann refers to the figure of ‘more than one thousand’ rangers killed in action, which originates from the campaigns of the Thin Green Line Foundation; but that is likely to be a significant underestimate — ranger deaths go unrecorded in some cases because of fears of negative publicity. Equally, we do not know how many suspected poachers have been killed. Put simply, these deaths are deemed not worthy of recording.
I can agree that poaching is against the law and is therefore a crime. But the law is not a neutral or apolitical instrument. For example, the argument that wildlife laws are neutral instruments renders invisible the colonial origins of wildlife laws in Africa, which separated wildlife and people in ways that actively produce human-wildlife conflict today (see work by Bill Adams and by Dan Brockington). Projecting a singular model of policing and military approaches across very different situations is also misleading and overlooks the ways that authorities can be involved in poaching and trafficking themselves.
Poverty may be a driver of poaching, but the evidence base for this is thin. In a review of evidence for the UK Government Department for International Development (DfID), we found that the poverty-poaching connection is assumed but not proven. Also, which matters more: absolute or relative levels of poverty? (Freya St John will be running a major study of this connection via her WILDPOV project.)
The argument that wildlife needs to be conserved because it can generate income from tourism is also problematic. I can agree that wildlife-based tourism can be a significant source of income, but we also need to examine where the money goes. There is an enormous body of work that shows that the income from wildlife tourism does not necessarily go to local communities, but is instead captured by elites, governments, and private companies.
It is useful and important to debate the problems of militarization, because this can and should shape policy and funding strategies for conservation. But that debate has to include those of us who question and criticize — this is essential for producing conservation which is successful and socially just.