Veterans for Wildlife is a conservation-orientated organisation. If you’re reading this article, you probably know that already. In fact, you will have more than likely seen myriad posts about the poaching crisis, how we are attempting to address the situation, what role you could play and so on. And we’re not the only ones! Poaching is a global concern and its increasing impact is firmly embedded in our collective psyche. The only news more common than the latest statistics on species under threat, is that relating to the innumerable individuals, organizations and collective bodies doing something, anything, to stem the tide.

That statement in itself raises two points for discussion. Firstly, the overwhelmingly bleak picture painted by role-players in the field; and, secondly, the need for far greater collaboration and cooperation by those selfsame role-players. Yet, that is not my purpose here.

Rather, I wish to discuss something altogether different. Bear with me on this as I will take a somewhat circuitous route to get there. The nature of the threat to certain species of wildlife has seen the introduction of military concepts and procedures into the field of conservation. The debate for and against this ongoing development is not only beyond the scope of this article, but frankly irrelevant too! It is a fait accompli.

Now, military doctrine in the land environment states that in order to be successful - in order to win - one must achieve three things:

  1. Seize and hold the initiative.
  2. Shape understanding.
  3. Attack will and cohesion.

For the ‘good guys’, across every sector and operating in whatever capacity, this tried-and-tested recipe presents somewhat of a problem. 

Initiative:

We have none. A simple depiction will more than likely suffice in order to drive my point home. The Kruger National Park in South Africa is world-renowned and at the heart of the fight against poaching and other associated wildlife crime. Situated on the country’s northeast border with Mozambique, the park is comparable in size to Israel or Wales. Without getting bogged down in minutiae, this vast tract of land is ostensibly ‘secured’ by circa 500 individuals. One need not even refer to the statistics for total rhino lost each month in order to appreciate that this number is far too small to make any meaningful impact. Especially when considering the nature of the operating environment from the perspective of a poacher.

Military doctrine, again, likes to speak of Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (IPB), as a means of ascertaining where the ‘enemy’ is most likely to be and what the he is most likely to do. One is taught, amongst other things, to analyze:

  • The physical terrain and how this may ‘channel’ the enemy through certain avenues of approach.
  • The human terrain, focussing specifically on the location and composition of population groups.
  • The enemy’s doctrine and how they typically prefer to operate in any given situation.
  • The current situation and how recent events may inform the intelligence picture.

Thus informed one is able, in theory, to develop a powerful decision-making aide. Directing the focus of one’s attention and resources to much narrower areas of interest. However, irrespective of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park that extends into the territory of both countries, South Africa has an exceptionally porous border with Mozambique. It is far too easy for gangs of two to four people, lightly equipped and moving on foot, to infiltrate South Africa and the park itself. Predicting, detecting and interdicting incursions under such circumstances is exceptionally difficult. At risk of over-simplifying the situation, there is no terrain and no approaches off-limits to would-be poachers.

The point, therefore, is how can the good guys possibly hope to seize and hold the initiative? The impetus for action and the advantage rests very firmly in the hands of their opponents; whilst anti-poaching rangers and other security force elements are left in a purely reactive state.

Of course, there are those who would point to technology and the effective use thereof, in order to tip the balance. This is something we will return to in a moment.

Understanding:

As a consequence of this near unfettered freedom of manoeuvre and action, poachers and those they work to are very much able to set the terms of the engagement. They are sitting in the pound seats and they know it! Recourse to information, psychological and other operations will not prove effective in convincing them otherwise, nor have the desired impact of reducing or eliminating their activities. Indeed, whilst doctrine suggests that manipulating the enemy’s understanding can bring about certain desired behavioral outcomes, this ability is intimately linked to one’s own strength and initiative.

In any event, attempts at communicating perceived failure in the hope of manifesting actual failure, is predicated on the target audience possessing some sort of coherent nature. Many parts of an ultimately unified whole. Utilizing the enemy’s own strength and lines of communication as a vehicle for your manipulative disinformation. A demoralizing superhighway, if you will!

Now we are aware that poachers feed into syndicates, incorporated into organized crime networks spanning the globe. However, the men at the coal face - the trigger-and-machete men - are by no means fully-integrated members of these nefarious organizations. They are, more commonly, disenfranchised and potentially desperate people that have concluded a wholly logical risk-versus-reward analysis. They are contracted to do a job, on an ad hoc basis, in order to make ends meet. And this says nothing of the pressures exerted on said individuals and their families by those responsible for sending them into the field in the first place.

The final argument probably worth considering on this point is that of our own very bourgeois interpretation. For those ‘in the know’, the notion of conservation and the preservation of animal species for their own sake is so obvious that we cannot countenance an alternative view. But this is a privileged and detached position, easy to take when sitting in Johannesburg, London or San Francisco. What is altogether more difficult to appreciate is that there are communities that:

  • May not hold wildlife in such high esteem.
  • Do not recognize manmade boundaries imposed on their ancestral territory in the last 50 - 100 years.
  • View the wildlife in question as inherently belonging to the land and, by association, the individuals who eke a living from that land.
  • Simply do not understand the longterm implications of their actions.

Again, there are proponents of mass education campaigns directed at these communities as well as end-users of poached wildlife commodities in far-flung parts of the world. Such initiatives are undoubtedly important and must form part of a multi-faceted strategy for arresting this crisis. However, whilst a more detailed investigation of this topic is beyond the scope of what I wish to address, we must also be honest with ourselves. Altering the mindset of entire population groups is a monumental affair that requires generations to pass before a significant change can be observed.

Will and cohesion:

Will is the determination to persist in the face of adversity. It has two aspects: intent and resolve. Both can be influenced, attacked and undermined. The enemy’s intent is thwarted when they believe that their aim is no longer achievable, and so desist from their course of action. The enemy’s resolve is their strength of will. It is overcome when they are demoralised and no longer have the desire to continue. It is intimately linked to the cohesion of the force.

As we have seen, the will of the poachers and their associates is strong. Very strong. And, although I have argued that their cohesion on the proverbial frontline is lacking, this is not true the further up the chain of command one looks. The transnational, global criminal networks pulling the strings are complex and highly organized organizations involved in a multitude of crimes in innumerable territories. The real tragedy is that the mid- to senior-level players in this sphere are often known to authorities. Yet, due to rules of engagement and legal process, they are often untouchable. In different circumstances we could remove the head of the beast and deliver a death blow to their cohesion.

But this is currently not an option - leaving us on the back foot.

I would argue, though, that we can reverse this situation. Protecting and further developing our own will and cohesion is the key! Troops who have moral cohesion stick together: they continue to fight despite adversity and local reverses. This relies on leadership, perception of success, confidence and trust that forces will be supported and sustained.

So, yes, whilst cutting-edge technology can play a role in support of the good guys, it is ultimately only a tool. A tool that requires the right calibre of people to exploit effectively; a tool that can only ever better position the ‘fighting troops’ in relation to the enemy. The hard truth is that these troops, the anti-poaching rangers in the field, still have an exceptionally challenging job to do at the end of the day.

Keep friendly forces’ ‘will’ in the back of your mind, as this is what I will return to shortly, and the ultimate discussion point of this article. For now, we turn to the tangible practicalities.

Despite best intentions - and actually often quite by purpose - there is very little cohesion amongst those seeking to thwart wildlife crime. The sheer number of role-players, layers of responsibility, areas of operation and individual land concessions complicate the issue exponentially. In a recent video for Veterans for Wildlife, our Ambassador Jason Fox touched on this very point. Reflecting on a long and demanding military career, he posited that in order to win one needs to communicate! And that is one of the biggest challenges in the contemporary environment. Too often, poachers are detected and tracked up to the point where they cross into another area of operations, at which point they are lost, either because the unit in pursuit has no cross-boundary authority or simply because they have no open lines of communication to the neighbouring property. Thus no hand-over / take-over of the operation can occur. This situation persists for one of two reasons: a lack of capacity to implement what everyone is aware needs to happen; or, misinformed actors zealously seeking to guard their fiefdom at the expense of all others. What secrets they may be seeking to conceal is anyone’s guess.

This nonsensical situation is only exacerbated by the working conditions rangers find themselves operating under. Certainly no one does this sort of work for riches and fame! The pay is generally poor, the living conditions are typically extremely basic, the hours are long and physically demanding, rangers are usually separated from their loved ones for prolonged periods, and there are no perks. One has to be passionate about the task at hand, or desperate for work. And, unfortunately, the latter is far more common, which is a reflection on our society more broadly rather than the individuals in question. For one cannot doubt the affection rangers have for the animals in their care and the seriousness with which they view their role.

Setting the scene:

The critical question, however, is how do we effectively transform something that is “just a job” at the end of the day, into an unwavering will to succeed? Where, despite all the challenges and hardships, the men and women deployed in the field fight on. Where, after 8 hours in the field, they choose not to ignore a set of fresh tracks. Where a thin green line standing between vulnerable species and extinction is reinforced into an unrelenting and immovable barrier. A bulwark for conservation, irrespective of the failings and shortcomings of other mandated role-players.