Security and Conservation: The Politics of the Illegal Wildlife Trade 
by Rosaleen Duffy.
Yale, 329 pp., £25, June 2022, 978 0 300 23018 5
Show More
Show More

In​ 2010, graphs that showed wild rhino numbers in South Africa plummeting towards zero began to circulate among conservationists. The animals were being poached at a rate far above replacement level, in a repeat of the crisis that had nearly wiped them out in the 1970s. Similar figures soon appeared for elephant populations in East Africa. In 2016, the Environmental Investigation Agency described the slaughter for ivory, which wiped out half the elephants in major parks in Tanzania and Mozambique, as ‘industrial’ in scale.

The immediate response to this, now known disparagingly as ‘fortress conservation’, was to militarise – or, in some cases, remilitarise – protected areas. Vast amounts were spent on training and equipping rangers and beefing up perimeter security. Some governments permitted rangers to shoot poachers dead on sight. Philanthropists fell over themselves to supply surveillance drones. The press ran lurid stories about Islamist guerrillas in Somalia trading tusks for Kalashnikovs, and the association between terrorism and trafficking led to British soldiers being deployed to train rangers in Malawi and Gabon. Leonardo DiCaprio produced a Netflix documentary filmed in the DRC called Virunga: Conservation Is War. In South Africa’s national parks, ‘bite dogs’ were trained to pin suspects to the ground. One dog, Arrow, set a parachute-jump world record. Another, called Killer, intercepted 115 poachers and was awarded a Dickin medal for gallantry and bravery in conflict.

Over the last fifteen years, the illegal wildlife trade has come to be seen not as a trade issue – in the 1970s the rhino and elephant crises were largely resolved through international trade bans – but as a crime problem. NGOs demanded that wildlife trafficking be categorised as a ‘serious crime’, which is the technical threshold in most jurisdictions for police to share information internationally. In 2010, Interpol set up an Environmental Security Unit and UN agencies established the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime. There was a new emphasis on ‘intelligence-led approaches’, financial investigations into trafficking networks and calls for wildlife trafficking to be made a predicate offence for money laundering. NGOs drew attention to the corruption – from low-level customs fraud to connections between traffickers and politicians – that helped the contraband get from Africa to markets in China and Vietnam.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which came into force in 1975, became a site of fierce disagreement between those who argued that legalising trade would doom species, and those who argued that legal trade could save them. Pro-trade rhino ranchers tried to overturn the global consensus on an international trade ban, stockpiling horns worth millions of dollars in secret locations, and sued the South African government to end domestic prohibition. The most extreme anti-trade activists talked about lacing horns with cyanide to scare off potential consumers. Others suggested flooding the market with fake horns. Academics discussed the unintended consequences of trade bans, or examined how public health advertising campaigns could be used to discourage consumers from buying pangolin scale tincture, tiger glue and hornbill bangles.

In July 2013, Barack Obama issued an executive order describing wildlife trafficking as an illicit enterprise worth billions of dollars which fuelled instability and undermined security. It transformed the role of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. ‘The State Department, ten years ago they would not have imagined talking about wildlife conservation,’ one USFWS official told Rosaleen Duffy. ‘Having a presidential executive order gave everyone licence to bring it up at a high level. If you are in an embassy you can say, look this is what our president said, this is important. It came up at the G20.’ From 2014, a series of political conferences on the illegal wildlife trade were held in the UK, Vietnam and Botswana, and resolutions were issued by the UN General Assembly, the Security Council and the G7. The big meeting momentum was disrupted by the Covid-19 lockdowns, even though the pandemic itself, with its possible origins in a contraband pangolin at a market in Wuhan, reinforced the idea that wildlife black markets were linked to wider crises.

Duffy, a professor of international politics at the University of Sheffield, sees a problem where others might see progress: since 2008, there has been a successful campaign to portray the illegal wildlife trade as a serious global issue, requiring an international criminal justice response.

Conservation, and conservationists, now look very different. In some places the notebooks, computers and sample jars have been replaced with weapons, hi-tech surveillance systems and intelligence networks. It has become harder and harder to distinguish between conservationists and the people and practices normally found in the security sector. Scientists are being replaced by security operatives trained in intelligence gathering, use of weapons and surveillance techniques. The object of their gaze is not the plants and animals, but the humans that might threaten them.

Framing the illegal wildlife trade as a security threat is ‘a key part of shifting issues from the realm of normal politics to that of urgent problems that require exceptional kinds of responses’. The ‘security turn’, Duffy argues, has generated a self-perpetuating security solutions industry.

What Duffy describes as ‘Washington dog whistles’ – the spurious linking of any agenda to the fight against terrorism – were central, she contends, to the legitimation of security-oriented policies. The most notorious concerned the story that al-Shabaab was being funded through ivory trafficking. The claims were first published in 2012, in an Elephant Action League report called ‘Africa’s White Gold of Jihad: al-Shabaab and Conflict Ivory’, and gained traction after the attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in September 2013, in which 62 people died.

By 2015, the report’s central claims had been debunked as a gross exaggeration of the group’s opportunistic and small-scale ivory transactions, which were dwarfed by the money it earned through the straightforward taxation of the basic commodities – such as sugar and charcoal – that passed through its territory in Somalia en route to other markets. But the media and campaigning NGOs seized on the story. Politicians spoke about the issue and assigned resources to stopping the trade. Their statements were repeated by the media and NGOs, and each new iteration helped to legitimate the story. Anyone sceptical of the links between terrorism and wildlife trafficking was fobbed off with the claim that the evidence was classified. Even after it had been debunked, the story of ‘white jihadi gold’ was effective because of its mix of animals in danger, urgent threat and shadowy extremist networks.

Armies, security contractors and tech companies, Duffy argues, have gone into the business of preventing extinction in a calculated attempt to clean up their image, as well as to open up new markets for their products and services. Killer the German Shepherd was trained as part of a programme run by Paramount, a military contracting business based in Johannesburg. Paramount ‘designs, develops, manufactures and sells military vehicles, surveillance systems and weapons systems around the world’ – South Africa’s national parks are among its customers. Training the rhino-saving K9 units played well in the media: it was a ‘means of greenwashing the fact that they are fundamentally weapons manufacturers’.

In other words, linking wildlife trafficking to global security helped make states see it as an important problem, but framing it as a security concern made their response much more likely to take the form of militarised anti-poaching operations and other ‘security’ measures rather than actions that attempted to address the structural drivers of the illegal wildlife trade, including economic inequality. Military contractors, of course, have a clear interest in the success of the security paradigm.

Duffy’s thesis could serve as a neat demonstration of the way well-intentioned attempts to raise the profile of environmental problems can pave the way for eco-fascism. But it rests on an oddly truncated account of the reasons for the explosion of concern about wildlife trafficking over the last fifteen years. Duffy argues that the rhino and elephant poaching crises gave a new urgency to conservation efforts, and that ‘entrepreneurial’ NGOs, afraid money would dry up after the financial crisis in 2008, saw proposals for militarised conservation as a reliable way to bring in funding. Along for the ride were former soldiers, demobilised from wars in the Middle East, and tech companies on a quest to penetrate new markets. (The lines of causality are difficult to untangle: did these actors take opportunities that emerged as a result of broader changes, or did they craft a narrative in order to create those opportunities?)

Christoph Lakner and Branko Milanovic’s ‘elephant curve’, showing the distribution of global growth between 1998 and 2008, tells the story of the economic boom in Asia and the vastly unequal spoils of the neoliberal economic order (the very richest and the global middle class saw their incomes increase significantly; the global upper middle class and the very poorest did not). The depredation of East African elephants and Southern African rhinos followed a decade of hugely accelerated globalisation, which created an economy that was far more efficient at connecting illicit desire with illicit supply, and at forging new geographies of black markets and laundered goods – the historian Nils Gilman calls it ‘deviant globalisation’. The fall-out created panics not only over wildlife, but over labour and sex trafficking, cybercrime and drug smuggling. The mechanisms needed to respond to these crises – national and international; philosophical, ethical and legal – were weak and maladapted, especially in the case of wildlife trafficking.

Extinction does not usually affect GDP, and wildlife, or biodiversity, was not, until recently, considered relevant to global stability, development, peace or human rights – the usual reference points that give rise to international action. The arguments for the relevance of trafficking were more varied than just the possible links to terrorism, though the involvement of organised crime networks (evident in ivory and rhino horn trafficking, more doubtful in other cases) was important, as was the corrosive effect of the corruption that facilitated both the extraction and the movement of contraband. Every possible human-adjacent issue was also adduced, including the risk of zoonosis, though this was considered unimportant until Covid-19 hit.

Since​ at least the 1980s, in the face of indifference from law enforcement, NGOs have argued that the illegal wildlife trade has broader importance than animal welfare and requires criminal investigation. It is only in the last fifteen years that their appeals have been taken up. Tony Juniper’s book about the extinction in the wild of the Spix’s macaw, and subsequent attempts to reintroduce it, describes conservationists in the 1980s practically begging police to confiscate some of the last remaining wild birds from the homes of known traffickers.* Attempts to reintroduce captive Spix’s macaws to their natural habitat largely involved trying to persuade the criminal collectors who had plundered the bird to extinction to lend their specimens to breeding schemes. They were allowed to keep their ill-gotten gains and profit from their breeding. Such a situation is inconceivable now that there is more legislation concerning the illegal trade in endangered species, and greater will to invoke it.

It is unlikely that the US government would have gone to the trouble of prosecuting Moazu Kromah, the Liberian trafficker recently convicted in New York for elephant and rhino poaching, without the institutional shifts heralded by Obama’s 2013 executive order. Since 2016, rates of ivory poaching have dropped sharply: the reasons for this include China’s closure of its domestic ivory market in 2017 and the arrest of several key figures in different trafficking networks by the Chinese, US and various African governments. Many of the arrests required co-operation between several branches of transnational law enforcement. Practicalities aside, the political calculation was made that the arrests were worth the resources expended, and the risk of failure. It has been argued that such actions have reduced the pressure to militarise the work of game rangers. Following the exposure of major abuses, the US and other aid donors now set human rights conditions and require risk assessments for their protected areas programming.

Duffy distinguishes between criminalisation and securitisation, which frames problems as being above politics and requiring extraordinary, even extra-legal action. Criminalisation, by contrast, is a function of law and law enforcement, and policing is within the realm of ‘normal politics’. But having made the distinction, Duffy goes on to argue that ‘intelligence-led policing’ is really a form of military strategy, which turns communities close to wildlife populations into objects of intelligence extraction; the more conventional interpretation is that it is an attempt to get police forces to do more than pose next to their latest pangolin scale seizure. And while Duffy contends that focusing on crime lets elites off the hook, she is also suspicious of attempts to address corruption – another Trojan Horse, in her view, used to justify militarisation. She acknowledges that there is an unspecified role for criminal justice, but it’s unclear what scope she thinks there is for tackling trafficking directly.

In many parts of the world, conservation faces a crisis of legitimacy with deep historical roots. Fortress conservation is a colonial model, based on enclosure and dispossession, and the enforced, often violent separation of people, culture, land and animals. Western conservationists are also accused of essentially extractive practices (or ‘parachute science’), and of sidelining, suppressing or stealing Indigenous knowledge and livelihoods. The recent militarisation of anti-poaching efforts has further alienated local communities, and seems to regard local people who ‘stray’ into a park – which may well have been established on their ancestral land without their consent – as ‘enemies’ of conservation. New laws around poaching, as applied in ‘wilderness’ areas, ignore the already fraught relationship between local communities and law enforcement, and have often been imposed with a violence that undermines their claim to legitimacy.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences