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Can a ‘war on poaching’ be just?

A photograph of 5 men in combat uniform with automatic rifles crouching in tall grass. A sixth man is dressed more informally and explaining something to one of the men.

Rangers in Malawi’s Liwonde National Park on a training exercise.

The illegal wildlife trade is worth billions, and is one of the most lucrative crime networks globally. Illegal hunting can have a devastating effect on the environment and biodiversity, with animals being hunted to (near-)extinction in some areas. In response, several countries have adopted policies which allow the shooting of suspected poachers ‘on sight’.

Unsurprisingly, this is a controversial development. Because of the complex nature of the problem, it’s unclear whether these kind of policies are actually effective, and the scope for mistakes (or even abuse) is wide. On the other hand, defenders argue that so-called ‘militarized conservation’ is necessary to protect severely endangered species, or no different from policing in a dangerous environment [cw: linked article contains a graphic photograph of a murdered rhino].

The more fundamental issue at stake here is whether it can be justified to use lethal force against humans, for the sake of protecting (wild) animals. This is a famously thorny issue. One notable critic explicitly takes aim at the idea that it can be acceptable to trade human lives for animal lives. And many in animal rights circles reject the use of violence – for example, the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics will not ‘appoint Fellows who advocate violence’. The idea that killing humans to protect animals can be permissible may also seem quite ludicrous to many in our anthropocentric society. Of course, you might say, aren’t the lives of humans just more important than the lives of animals?

Can defending animals against humans be a just cause?

In a recent paper published in Conservation & Society, Amy Dickman and colleagues analyze the use of lethal force against (suspected) poachers in countries such as Botswana, using a just war theory-inspired approach. Although they are ultimately sceptical of the policy, they are sympathetic to some of the arguments in favour of such policy. Indeed, they note that the ‘instrumental value of the environment to human life, and the intrinsic value of individual [charismatic] megafauna’ is sufficient to meet just war theory’s just cause requirement.

However, this claim is somewhat puzzling. According to standard approaches to just war theory, the only admissible just causes are self defence, defence of allies, and (according to most) humanitarian intervention. It’s unclear how using lethal force to defend something (biodiversity) with mere ‘instrumental value’ can be a just cause from this perspective. The harmful effects of biodiversity loss to humans are not likely to be so great that they warrant the use of lethal defensive force. Yes, if someone was (say) threatening to release a poison into the environment to kill any people present, then an argument for the use of lethal defensive force could be plausible. But the harm to humans that results from biodiversity loss are generally slow, and indirect.

Perhaps we can say that the use of lethal force to defend charismatic megafauna (who, Dickman et al suggest, do have ‘intrinsic value’) from poaching could be considered a kind of humanitarian intervention – or what Alasdair Cochrane and Steve Cooke have referred to as ‘humane intervention’? Even if we accept the controversial premise that harm to animals can constitute a just cause for intervention, this argument only works if the numbers of animals are very great (just as humanitarian intervention should be in response to very serious crimes, such as genocide). But this is not always the case.

Protecting animals or protecting biodiversity?

A further problem with the approach suggested by Dickman et al. is that there is a tension between protecting individual charismatic megafauna and protecting biodiversity: sometimes, charismatic megafauna themselves present a threat to biodiversity. For example, large herbivores such as deer and kangaroo can have a devastating effect on biodiversity when natural predator populations are low. This introduces a dilemma: champions of biodiversity might support killing these animals (through ‘culling’ or by the reintroduction of predators), but if these animals are intrinsically valuable, such killing should presumably be rejected.

(And of course, domestic cats – one of the most charismatic of animals – can pose a serious impact on biodiversity. There is, as always, some debate on their precise impact, though.)

A picture of a grey tabby cat playing with a toy mouse

Hopefully this one sticks to fake mice.

Taking animal lives seriously

The authors of a defence of Botswana’s ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy, perhaps inadvertently, suggest an alternative approach. Goemeone EJ Mogomotsi and Patricia Kefilwe Madigele note that this method is ‘the only anti-poaching method that clearly signals that wild animals deserve to live’. Tricky philosophical questions about the quality of wild animals’ lives aside, this way of looking at the problem points towards a more philosophically interesting – and more consistent – approach.

Josh Milburn and I have recently been arguing that we can take harm to animals seriously in just war theory – and that we should. We have so far focused our attention on indirect harm to animals: for example, we’ve addressed how to include concern for animals in our assessments of proportionality and necessity.

However, an inclusive approach to just war theory would also suggest ways to take account of harm to animals, all animals, in our assessments of the other just war criteria. It is arbitrary to focus only on charismatic megafauna when talking about just cause. We take for granted, along with many of those concerned with animals, that all animals have intrinsic value. While elephants and rhino have intrinsic value, so do the many, many, smaller and less charismatic animals that are also affected by poaching.

Taking seriously the harm posed to animals, for animals’ sake, by poaching, it seems at least in principle possible for a ‘war on poaching’ to meet just war theory’s just cause requirement. It’s not just ‘charismatic megafauna’ like lions or rhinos who are harmed as a direct result of poaching – many animals are likely to feel the effect of their loss much more quickly and much more acutely than humans (especially humans half a world away). But doing so would require departing from a narrow focus on charismatic megafauna or biodiversity generally.

A just war on poaching?

All this does not mean, however, that a ‘war on poaching’ meets the other just war criteria. As noted already, Dickman et al. are ultimately sceptical. This is for several reasons. For example, a just war needs to have a reasonable chance of success, but it’s not clear that the use of lethal force against poachers is effective at reducing poaching.

One further problem is that there are many different groups and individuals involved in what can be perceived as ‘poaching’. While it is undoubtedly the case that many work for international smuggling operations, some poachers are simply hungry locals hunting small ‘game’. Elsewhere, marginalized hunter-gatherer peoples have been abused by anti-poachers.

Poaching also tends to increase and decrease depending on the circumstances. For example, ivory and pangolin scale poaching declined during the COVID-19 pandemic because of the disruption to international transport networks this caused, but illegal hunting and fishing increased. Illegal hunting can even be linked to misguided or poorly implemented conservation efforts, when they have the effect of alienating or even uprooting local populations.

These considerations suggest a wide range non-violent routes to resolve or reduce poaching, such as dismantling international trade networks, ensuring consistent employment, and engaging in less antagonistic conservation. ‘All out’ war on poaching would therefore be unlikely to meet the last resort requirement. This is a crucial requirement within the just war framework, which states that non-violent alternatives must be tried first.

Finally, these considerations also raise questions about who anti-poachers may legitimately target (a jus in bello concern): even if a war on poachers is, in principle, legitimate, is any poacher a legitimate target, even if an occasional or subsistence poacher? And if some poachers are ‘exempt’, then where do we place the threshold? Are poachers legitimate targets only while engaged in poaching, or can they also be targeted while engaged in other activities?

These questions are going to be familiar to those interested in the ethics of counterinsurgency. The question of discrimination in irregular conflict is a can of worms. Any anti-poaching policy that allows for the use of lethal force would be incomplete with an answer.

A photograph of a ranger and a curious black rhino

A ranger and a black rhino.

Josh Milburn provided helpful comments on this post, but all views and errors are mine.

Sara Van Goozen

I am a lecturer in political philosophy at the University of York. My research interests are in global ethics, just war theory and global justice. My book “Distributing the Harm of Just Wars” is out now with Routledge.
I am the editor of Justice Everywhere’s series on pedagogy and the practice of teaching philosophy, Teaching Philosophy in the 21st Century.



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1 Comment

  1. Chris Armstrong

    Very interesting post on an important topic!

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