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

Thousands of animals and plants are bought and sold worldwide every year as food, medicine, clothing and furniture – even in the form of musical instruments. It seems that wildlife is big business.

The illegal wildlife trade, estimated to be worth at least $7 billion (£5.9 billion) and possibly as much as $23 billion, drives some of the most well-known species on the planet – notably rhinoceroses, elephants, tigers, lions and, more recently, pangolins – heading for extinction.

Since 2008, law enforcement has played a significantly greater role in the fight against illegal wildlife trade, thanks to support from governments, private donors, conservation organizations and businesses. As a result, counterinsurgency techniques such as developing networks of informants and hiring private security companies to train rangers in anti-poaching operations with military-grade weapons have proliferated.

Meanwhile, many conservationists are turning to drones and other technologies to monitor species and enforce protective measures. This in turn creates new business for technology companies looking to build a green reputation.

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

Two military-style rangers with rifles.
Rangers in Kruger Park, South Africa.

The financing problem

Between 2002 and 2018, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service donated $301 million to 4,142 conservation projects in 106 countries. Over those 16 years, an increasing share was allocated to tackling the illegal wildlife trade, as part of a shift away from strict species conservation and livelihood improvement projects.

In 2014, the US Congress allocated $45 million in its foreign aid budget to biodiversity to tackle wildlife trafficking, rising to $55 million in 2015, $80 million in 2016 and nearly $91 million in 2017 , 2018 and 2019. The Government’s Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund allocated more than £23 million to 75 projects between 2013 and 2019.

The fund had three themes: developing sustainable livelihoods that could replace poaching (six funded projects), strengthening law enforcement and the role of the criminal justice system (62 funded projects) and reducing demand for wildlife products (seven funded projects) .

The role of philanthropists in financing conservation is growing. Examples include Howard Graham Buffet’s $23 million donation in 2014 to help South Africa’s Kruger National Park tackle rhino poaching. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos established his $10 billion Earth Fund in 2021 to provide grants, among other things, to conservation initiatives.

With this money, conservationists can respond quickly to emergencies. Philanthropists usually come from a corporate culture where it is normal to set goals and expect fast, clear and traceable results in return for donations, which can be beneficial for planning effective action.

But some conservationists I interviewed while researching for my book, Security and Conservation, said it could put unwanted pressure on those doing conservation work, such as forest rangers. They spoke of expectations to increase seizures of trafficked goods, get more arrests and generally pursue more aggressive efforts against poachers to get quick results.

Technology and security

Conservation groups and technology companies have presented a range of technologies as cost-effective ways to tackle the wildlife trade. These often involve forms of surveillance borrowed from the security sector, from drones and satellite monitoring of wildlife to artificial intelligence augmenting the capacity of camera traps to identify potential poachers. Apps have even been developed for the general public to report suspected illegal activity.

A herd of zebras running together on a dusty landscape.
Surveillance technology is increasingly used in conservation.
Jost Jelovcan/Shutterstock

Google’s Global Impact Awards had a $23 million fund to help “non-profit tech innovators” (as Google called them) develop technology solutions for a range of global challenges, including conservation. In 2012, it awarded more than US$5 million to the wildlife crime technology project, which has pioneered aerial poaching detection in Kenya and DNA sequencing to determine the origin of illegal wildlife products.

These techniques are not necessarily problematic. But the pull of technology can overshadow the vital work of tackling the root causes of poaching and human trafficking, such as poverty and inequality.

While the trade is illegal by definition, tackling it as a purely criminal matter ignores the fact that people are drawn to poaching for a variety of reasons. The colonial-era expropriation of people from places now designated as national parks has left a lasting legacy. A 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 (but not exclusively) brought from poorer areas to meet the demand of wealthier communities, with rosewood smuggled from Madagascar to China and illegal caviar from the Caspian Sea serving luxury markets in London and elsewhere. Paris.

Financial support from governments and philanthropic foundations has been an important factor in wildlife conservation, especially over the past 20 years. But confidence in finding technological solutions to a problem treated as a security problem makes it more difficult to develop and support the alternatives that could be more effective, including sustainable livelihoods for would-be poachers and reducing demand in wealthier countries. .

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