Armed eco-troops might be Mother Nature’s last defense
Ranger Kalibumba stood no chance. Five bullets tore into his chest and abdomen as he attempted to intercept a fleeing gunman who’d just stolen a motorcycle and killed its owner. A wildlife ranger based in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kalibumba died shortly after being shot. He was 36 years old and left behind eight children.
Kalibumba is the latest in a long line of rangers to perish while defending the Congo’s abundant wildlife and rich ecosystems, and the latest victim of a disturbing global pattern of killings, violent attacks, and persecution of those working on the front line of environmental protection.
According to the International Ranger Federation, more than a hundred national park wardens, rangers, and wildlife and forest guards have died or been seriously injured in recent years across Africa, Latin America, Asia, Europe, and the United States. The dossier reads with disturbing monotony: “killed in firefight with rebels”; “shot by loggers”; “murdered”; “assassinated”; “shot in armed robbery”; “[shot] with his own sidearm.”
In response, nongovernmental organizations, aid organizations, law-enforcement agencies, and governments are scrambling to train, equip, fund, and better organize rangers and wardens. Increasingly, that’s meant providing arms and military-style training, particularly to those in conflict-ravaged regions.
Recent years have seen a number of private “eco-militias” established in several African countries, often with the tacit support of governments that find themselves unable to effectively police their natural resources.
Bruce Hayse, a U.S. doctor and environmental campaigner, sparked headlines in 2001 after the president of the Central African Republic granted him permission to raise a mercenary force to combat poachers decimating the country’s wildlife and terrorizing villagers.
Hayse, a founding member of the radical Earth First! network, set up Africa Rainforest and River Conservation to train and equip a 400-strong, fully-armed militia force, which, as well as patrolling the country’s borders and wilderness areas, was tasked with fixing roads, building health clinics and schools, and advising locals how to use natural resources in a sustainable manner.
The militia, comprised in part of hired guns from South Africa, was given permission to shoot on sight and engage with illegal hunters and wildlife smugglers. Despite some initial successes, including military operations targeting a number of elephant-poaching gangs, the practicalities of effectively maintaining a private army quickly proved problematic.
Potential funders began to get cold feet, increasingly concerned by the legalities of being linked to a U.S.-funded paramilitary outfit operating with no accountability in a relatively lawless country. Supporters from within the environmental movement also began to backtrack.
There were still vivid memories of a similar venture undertaken in the Central African Republic in the 1980s by Frenchman Jean Laboureur.
Heavily armed, Laboureur and his team attacked and reportedly killed more than 30 ivory poachers in their early operations, burning down dozens of poachers’ camps and recovering massive stockpiles of ivory. Poaching diminished and elephants began to return to the region. Following the shooting death of an innocent game warden mistaken for a poacher, however, Laboureur was arrested and jailed for murder. Although he was eventually released, the incident led to a diplomatic falling out between France and the African nation.
Despite the failure of both projects, they captured the attention of the environmental movement, sparked a clutch of similar, smaller-scale operations elsewhere, and put the concept of proactive military action firmly on the map.
Karl Ammann, a veteran Swiss conservationist turned journalist and undercover investigator, has been instrumental in carrying out several wildlife-protection and enforcement initiatives. “You’re in countries where [poachers] are coming in, heavily armed, there’s no jails, no effective administration, and they’re massacring the country’s wildlife, which should be a resource for the people of that country,” Ammann says. “In these circumstances I agree absolutely with the use of force.”
Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, recently in the news for confronting the Japanese whaling fleet, says the development of an armed, highly mobile, fully international military unit that can strike quickly is an urgent need.
“We want to see an Interpol-style eco-police force that can operate anywhere in the world, and that’s aggressive, proactive, and equipped to hunt down [perpetrators], arrest them, and bring them to trial,” he says.
Sea Shepherd is engaged with the Ecuadoran authorities in a long-term program to train and equip a dedicated environmental task force to protect the Galapagos Islands and their unique flora and fauna. The group is also providing arms to park authorities on Cocos Island, a world heritage site off the coast of Costa Rica.
Similarly, the International Ranger Federation is attempting to build global support for the idea of a multi-national “green-helmet brigade”—modeled on the U.N.’s blue-helmeted peacekeepers—that would have a wide-ranging remit for intervention in serious environmental crises.
Some U.N. missions have had such issues incorporated into their mandates. Take Liberia, where the looting of the country’s natural resources, particularly forests, bankrolled the now-deposed regime of Charles Taylor. The current U.N. mission operates a dedicated environment and natural resources unit.
In a 2007 paper for Ethics and International Affairs, political science professor Robyn Eckersley of the University of Melbourne examined how the world could look if policies of eco-interventionism and eco-peacekeeping were adopted on a widespread, intergovernmental level. The use of armed force to intervene in environmental disputes—over water or oil reserves, for example—could increase as resources dwindle and populations expand, she argues.
“I think it’s a reality that we’ll see, out of necessity, a body at some point—call them the ‘green berets’—formed with the primary purpose of protecting ecological assets,” Eckersley says. “Not necessarily with a shoot-on-sight policy, but very much equipped as a last stand to protect forests and species.”
For now, back in Africa, the funeral of Virunga National Park ranger Kalibumba is over. Pictures of his coffin and funeral congregation have appeared on blogs. There are lots of comments and condolences; one, by an anonymous poster, reads: “Within a few years there may be no gorillas left . . . if things continue, there’s going to be no rangers left either.”
Andrew Wasley is a journalist and producer at Ecostorm, an investigative agency specializing in environmental, human rights, and animal welfare issues. Excerpted from the Ecologist(June 2008); www.theecologist.org.