How money and technology are militarizing the fight against the illegal wildlife trade

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How money and technology are militarizing the fight against the illegal wildlife trade

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Thousands of plants and animals are bought and sold around the world each year in the form of food, medicines, clothing, furniture and even musical instruments. Wildlife seems like big business.

Estimated to be worth at least US$7bn (£5.9bn) and potentially as much as US$23bn, the illegal wildlife trade kills some of the planet’s best-known species, especially rhinos, elephants, tigers, driving a lion. And most recently, pangolins are endangered.

Since 2008, law enforcement has played a sizable role in tackling the illegal wildlife trade, thanks to the support of governments, private donors, conservation charities and businesses. The result was a proliferation of counterinsurgency techniques, such as building networks of informants and contracting private security firms to train rangers in anti-poaching operations using military weapons.

Meanwhile, many conservationists are turning to drones and other technologies to monitor species and implement conservation measures. This creates new business for technology companies keen to build a green reputation.

Countries must find ways to tackle the illegal wildlife trade. However, as a researcher of the international politics of conservation, I believe that the techniques and techniques more regularly deployed by law enforcement and security companies are not the answer.

Rangers in Kruger Park, South Africa.
Wild Snap/Shutterstock

funding issues

Between 2002 and 2018, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service contributed US$301 million to 4,142 conservation projects in 106 countries. Over the past 16 years, an increasing share of the illegal wildlife trade effort has been allocated as part of a shift away from strict species conservation and livelihood enhancement projects.

In 2014, the U.S. Congress allocated $45 million to the biodiversity budget for foreign aid to address wildlife trafficking, $55 million in 2015, $80 million in 2016, $80 million in 2017, 2018. , increased to nearly $91 million in 2019. The government’s Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund has allocated more than £23m of his money to 75 projects between 2013 and his 2019.

The fund had three themes. Developing sustainable livelihood alternatives to poaching (6 funded projects); Strengthening the role of law enforcement and the criminal justice system (62 funded projects); Reducing demand for wildlife products (7 funded projects); project).

The role of philanthropists in conservation funds is growing. An example is Howard Graham Buffet donating his US$23 million in 2014 to help South Africa’s Kruger National Park tackle rhino poaching. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos said in 2021 he will set up the US$10 billion Earth Fund to subsidize conservation initiatives, among other environmental issues.

The funds will help conservationists respond quickly to emergencies. Philanthropists tend to set goals and expect quick, definite, and traceable results in exchange for helpful donations that come from the normal business culture.

But some conservationists interviewed during research for their book, Security and Conservation, said it could put unwanted pressure on rangers and other conservationists. They spoke of hopes for a general pursuit of more aggressive anti-poaching efforts to increase the number of seizures of trafficked goods, obtain more arrests and ensure quick results. did.

technology and security

Conservation groups and technology companies have presented various technologies as cost-effective ways to combat wildlife trafficking. These often include forms of surveillance borrowed from security departments, from drones and satellite surveillance of wildlife to artificial intelligence that boosts the ability of camera traps to identify potential poachers. A public app has also been developed for reporting suspected illegal activity.

A herd of zebras running in unison through a dusty landscape.
Surveillance technology is increasingly being used for nature conservation.
Yost Yelovkan/Shutterstock

Google’s Global Impact Awards, with a US$23 million endowment, recognize “non-profit technology innovators” (as Google calls them) to develop technological solutions to a variety of global challenges, including nature conservation. helped develop. In 2012, he funded over $5 million for wildlife crime technology projects. The project is pioneering aerial detection of poaching in Kenya and DNA sequencing to identify the origin of illegal wildlife products.

These techniques are not necessarily problematic. But the allure of technology can obscure important work in addressing the underlying drivers of poaching and human trafficking, such as poverty and inequality.

The trade is illegal by definition, but treating it as a purely criminal matter ignores the fact that people are drawn into poaching for a variety of reasons. The colonial expropriation of people from the United States has left a lasting legacy. The lack of economic alternatives in such places makes poaching one of the few viable sources of income.

Global inequality is also an important factor. Wildlife is often taken from poorer areas to meet the demands of wealthier communities, such as rosewood traded from Madagascar to China and illegal caviar sourced from the Caspian Sea that supplies luxury markets such as London and Paris. It is often (but not exclusively) taken from

Financial support from governments and charities has been an important component of conservation, especially over the last two decades. But confidence in finding technological solutions to problems that are being treated as security issues will help to ensure the sustainable livelihoods of would-be poachers and the survival of wealthy countries. It becomes difficult to develop and support more effective alternatives, such as reducing demand.