British forces are transferring military skills to Malawian rangers to use in conservation ... the soldiers are adding value to the training of rangers.

These are the words of Bright Kumchedwa, the Director of Malawi’s Parks and Wildlife Department, commenting on the recent deployment of British military personnel to the country. A team of 7 soldiers have deployed to Malawi in order to train 35 of its anti-poaching rangers; the first iteration in what is hoped will be an ongoing partnership and a concept that is swiftly gaining traction across the continent. Indeed, the British military have already been actively engaged in training anti-poaching rangers in Gabon and the Ministry of Defence has gone as far as appointing officers into formal Defence Engagement Counter-Poaching roles.

These developments come in the wake of abortive opinion pieces and commentary earlier in the year that sought to discredit and ultimately undermine what was erroneously identified as the ‘militarisation’ of the conservation sector.

Whether one wishes to acknowledge it or not, the fight against wildlife crime and poaching in particular is already ‘militarised’. One need merely take stock of the number of shooting incidents that occur, the weapons and other equipment in circulation, as well as the relevant tactics employed in the field by poachers and anti-poaching rangers alike. This is not to say, of course, that the paramilitary approach is a standalone solution. As in conventional conflicts, the shooting war seldom (if ever) results in a decisive outcome. Accordingly, the various socio-economic and educational programmes also in action need to be adequately resourced and implemented.

However, such initiatives will take time to bear fruit. Thus, it is absolutely vital that physical security is provided in the here and now, in order to ensure that the animals themselves survive long enough to see that day come.

Another charge leveled by the naysayers is that foreigners have no real value to add when it comes to combatting poaching in the African bush. This, again, is a wholly short-sighted and ill-informed point of departure. Whilst it is absolutely critical that one take cognizance of local nuances, experiences and circumstances, the fact of the matter is that some principles are universal. How to react to contact or how to conduct a hot pursuit are two such examples.

Indeed, Malawian ranger Edward Makupiza said that in the past he had feared being shot by heavily armed poachers, crossing into the country from Mozambique in pursuit of elephants, who were often equipped with assault rifles.  But now, after training with the British Army, he feels confident in his own ability to protect himself and his team members from danger.

More significant than the clear benefit that outside assistance can provide to rangers on the ground, however, is the associated issue of transnational security and international crime.

Viewed in concert with the recent proposal to ban ivory sales in the UK, the deployment of British military personnel in anti-poaching support roles could be mistaken as a decision born out of moral sensitivities and mounting public pressure. This, of course, is a simplistic interpretation.

The overarching aim of defence engagement is to improve the capacity and capability of partner forces, better equipping them to combat threats as they arise overseas. Rather than facing the full force of the threat once it reaches ‘home shores’. And so it is true of defence engagement as it applies to wildlife crime.

Through the work of Interpol, CITES and the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, to name but a few, we are beginning to understand the extent to which poaching is integrated into and supports international criminal networks. It is now the fourth largest criminal enterprise globally, following drug smuggling, human trafficking and counterfeiting; but, in reality, these illicit industries are intimately linked and there are even reports suggesting that the proceeds from wildlife crime are a source of funding for international terrorism.

Considering this state of affairs, it is no wonder that the UK, amongst others, is beginning to take a far greater interest in and far more proactive approach to anti-poaching initiatives in Africa. It is a means to an end - killing the proverbial second bird with the first stone.

Veterans for Wildlife will be following developments in this regard with great interest. As a veteran-operated organisation we are uniquely placed to understand, engage with and potentially support such government-directed activities. And it is this last point which will prove most critical as the British military seeks to deliver effect at ground-level. Communication and cooperation in the anti-poaching sector has traditionally been conspicuous in its absence. Looking ahead, building relationships and exploiting trusted networks is the name of the game.