Is it ever justifiable to shoot on sight? Is this a war? If it is then who exactly is the enemy?
I cannot think of any question that I have to consider more carefully, where my opinion, recommendation, advice or actions could have more tragic consequences if I am wrong.
I have over the years had to make the decision during anti poaching operations of whether my actions would be legally and morally justifiable. More recently however, I have advised governments on when, how and if their rangers, investigators and military can shoot, and the tactics that should be used against poachers in the field and I have trained many anti poaching trainers, leaders and rangers in tactics for dealing with poachers, showing them how by undertaking actual operations as part of their training.
The recent events in the United States, where the country is torn apart by the question of when it is acceptable to pull the trigger, should remind everybody of the importance of considering such a questions extremely carefully. Flippant answers to such questions are irresponsible at the very least.
The recent devastation of wildlife populations across africa, in particular black and white rhinos, and african and forest elephants also means we desperately need the most effective policies and strategies for dealing with poaching. Those need to be both morally and legally justifiable as well as effective. They also need to be politically acceptable, something that is incredibly difficult to achieve.
So, who are we going to kill?
Here is a picture taken by a friend in Central African Republic last year. It shows three children removing meat from the carcasse of a poached forest elephant. So, which poacher would you shoot first? The little girl sitting on the elephant carcasse, or the boy doing the butchering? How about the little girl on the right? She is armed with a machete…
Children butchering poached elephants at Dzanga Bai in Central African Republic.
These children were locals from the area of Bayanga in Central African Republic who accompanied a group of Sudanese poachers who had travelled from Sudan accross the CAR, an area twice the size of Texas, to massacre an entire herd of thirty six rare forest elephants. They were present at the killing and were given the meat by the Sudanese in return for showing them where to find the elephants. Therefore, according to the law, they are poachers. The same children will participate in killing animals if told to do so and will not hesitate. They are hungry, desperate and terrified of the men giving the orders.
Such poaching groups rarely restrict their activities to killing elephants. They are frequently employed by the Séléka and other rebel groups as mercenaries. They also engage in large-scale banditry, blocking roads and then looting, raping, kidnapping and murdering. They have taken part in the atrocities in Darfur and are recognized as terrorists.
Sudanese Séléka mercenaries, typically equipped. When not hired by rebel groups and certain pariah governments they spend their leisure time poaching and raiding in iEastern and North-Eastern CAR.
So are they “just poachers” or are they an enemy that needs to be destroyed? They often move in groups of up to one hundred and are mobile and well equipped, with vehicles and camels, and are armed with assault rifles, propelled grenades, heavy machine guns and often even anti aircraft cannons and armoured vehicles at times. They are a small army. However, they are also poachers. When they encounter law enforcement officers or any perceived threat to their activities, they not only open fire, but will also aggressively pursue the law enforcement officers/rangers/soldiers and will even direct revenge attacks against any nearby civillian settlements. They address the local people as “slave”, which gives a good idea of their mentality.
Can or should we define such people as poachers? Should they fall into a different category? They will certainly not surrender if approached by rangers. Yet we have to be aware that they will be accompanied by others who, although engaged in criminal activities, may be coerced or bullied into participating. Any plans to deal with these groups have to have developed tactics for tackling the worst of these while protecting the innocents amongst them. That is a very difficult task. Perhaps they should be defined by their worst crimes? Ethnic cleansing, murder and slavery. They are enemies of the country and therefore should they not be treated as such and fought as military invaders?
Who poaches, what they poach,why they poach and what they are prepared to do to attain their goal varies enormously. In anti poaching and anti trafficking operations that I have participated in in West, Central, East and Southern Africa it is always different, however, there are certain obvious constants. Most important of which is the clear difference between poaching for commercial gain and subsistance poaching. All too often the poachers themselves are from similar backgrounds and very often motivated by poverty. The great difference though is that in the case of commercial poaching, whether for ivory or meat, there is always someone behind the scenes making buckets of cash out of the trade and it is these people who are the most culpable. When the poaching is an organized criminal activity the whole syndicate needs to be dismantled and broken up. Killing the poacher in the field is just cutting off one of the Hydra’s heads. The beast itself must be destroyed.
Subsistance poachers in poverty stricken areas just cannot be dealt with in the same way as commercial poaching gang members. A subsistance poacher is often both more desperate, driven by hunger, and less culpable as he has limited choices. If we are truly going to stop poaching, then we need to look as seriously at helping these people find other means of survival as at apprehending and punishing them. These people are also the most likely to be deterred by a shoot on sight policy. To shoot starving people would be an appalling crime.
Here is another picture showing women and children we apprehended early this year being escortied out of the protected area. They were part of a group of over forty people poaching buffaloes by shooting into the air and shouting so as to herd them into long lines cable snares. All those who were unarmed were released immediately after interviewing them and taking statements. Sadly, there were both armed women and children in the group. This was a mixture of commercial and subsistance poachers. Commercial poachers came into the area and offered a share of the meat to villagers in return for participating. Should we have shot those women and children on sight?
Women and children apprehended as part of a large-scale poaching operation being carefully walked out of an area for release under guard to ensure their own safety as well as the rangers in case of signalling to other armed poachers.
What about mistakes?
Here is another scenario. I was prepared to shoot the man in the picture below. He was armed and was located at a position to where we had just pursued a group of poachers. As you can see, he is not in any way dressed as a ranger. He is wearing a red T-shirt and shorts and is barefoot. My team and I were convinced that we had one of the poachers in our sights.
The man was actually a ranger. He was part of a team in a boat positioned to cut off any attempt by the gang we were trying to outmanoevre, by cutting off any attempted retreat across a large river. The boat team had encountered the vessels used by the poachers to access the park. These poachers had laid fish nets before moving inland to poach big game. Their intention and past MO was to sell ivory, meat and illegal fish. They had large boats and were well equipped by a backer who expected to make good profit on all the different contraband. If they didn’t get lucky with ivory or meat, they would at least return with four boats full of illegal fish. Our ranger had changed his shirt on encountering the nets as it is dangerous to have buttons when working with nets.
He had swapped his uniform bush shirt and trouser for the soccer shirt and shorts and because he didn’t want to get caught in a net and drown and he needed to wade through the water and mud to get to the bank where he and his comrades hoped to intercept the team we were driving towards them. He had also removed his boots.. The rangers are not equipped with radios and instead use their personal cell phones to communicate (and pay for the air time out of their own meagre salaries). Unfortunately this was a spot without cell coverage and he was unable to advise that he had changed clothing and position.
We spotted him behind a large termite mound from a distance and prepared to shoot him if he raised his weapon to shoot at us. He had made a mistake. If there was a shoot on sight policy in place he would have been history as soon as he had been seen by our team. We shouted at him to drop his weapon.
The ranger in question believed we were shouting at a poacher on our side of the termite mound that he could not see. Fortunately he did not raise his weapon and instead, realising that we might not recognise him, backed away, raising his weapon above his head with two hands.
We immedaitely saw from its outline that it was an M16, something the poachers do not have access to in that area, and lowered our own weapons.
There is absolutely no doubt that ranger would have been riddled with bullets from the team if a shoot on sight policy existed. He would be dead dead dead. His children would be fatherless. The rangers would be demoralized. The poachers win.
Is a shoot on sight policy effective?
Congratulations! You just shot dead your best source of information! That is exactly what happens when a poacher is shot dead. Any opportunity to find out who is behind the business is gone.
To really stop poaching in an area it is necessary to cripple the whole illegal operation. It is a complex crime, requiring many participants and numerous steps. People have to fund the expedition. Someone has to supply weapons and ammunition. The poachers need to be transported, with all their kit to the area, sometimes guided in. Porters as well as poachers/shooters are needed to carry the ivory and meat. Officials, such as police officers, customs agents and even rangers have to be paid off. Different steps require different specialists, including shooters, buyers, smugglers, financiers and so on and on.
To effectively cripple poaching activities in an area, pressure has to be applied at all steps and to all the different individuals involved. A poacher is not going to poach if he has no ammunition for his weapon, cannot pay porters and has no one to supply and has his own ass in a jail..
By shooting dead all the poachers instead of professionally and legally questioning them to find out details of who is doing what, where and when, the authorities play into the hands of the brains and money behind these crimes. A dead poacher means nothing to the people who sent him other than they may have to pay a few nickels out of their millions of profits to send another one…
Killing professional rhino and elephant poachers will certainly deter some. However, will it deter enough to drop the levels of those willing to take on the job enough to reduce poaching activity at all in an area? I’m afraid not. It may temporarily deter gangs from a particular area, in favour of easier pickings, but it has not worked as an effective deterrent against rhino poachers. The first country to issue order to shoot on sight and to indemnify rangers against prosecution or civil suits in the courts was Zimbabwe in 1989. Rangers had already killed 89 poachers in just one area of the country, in just a few years, before the shoot on sight order was given. After the go ahead was given, more poachers died and more and more came. It failed. It was clear that for every poacher who was killed another ten were ready to take his place.
So, who really benefits from a shoot on sight policy?
Killing poachers, rather than arresting them, benefits one group more than any other and that is the people who send them to poach. It also benefits the people who supply the weapons and the ammunition, and the equipment, the transport and so on. Instead of the whole criminal enterprise being brought down, the poorest and usually least educated of the criminals is silenced. He is easily replaced.
When is shooting justified?
In defense of human life. In the case of the Sudanese brutes I mentioned earlier, they need to be defeated militarily to protect the population and resources of the country. That is clearly justified warfare. That situation does not apply to a poacher working for a criminal organization. Both ethically and objectively it is important to capture him. Many countries in Africa, especially Central Africa, no longer differentiate between terrorists, bandits and rebels/terrorists. It is unnacceptable to treat subsistance poachers as terrorists.
Is it realistic to capture, interrogate and imprison poachers, rather than shoot them on sight? Is there really an effective way to control poaching in a given area?
The tactics necessary to shoot a poacher without putting the ranger’s life at unnecessary risk are virtually the same as those necessary to apprehend a poacher. Poachers cannot be apprehended in pursuit, they have to be ambushed or surrounded and surprised. Rangers killed by poachers have usually invariably been trying to catch them or attack them in pursuit from the rear and have themselves been ambushed.
Our organization specializes in developingfor safely investigating, locating and apprehending poachers and traffickers in the field. We train rangers to use these methods to as safely as possible and to use the information gathered from pro active and reactive investigation to bring down whole sysndicates. We have trained over 100 instructors, investigators, unit leaders and rangers in the last year and have succesfully taken down whole syndicates and entire networks as part of the in-operations part of our training. We have worked with organizations this year such as UNOPS, The European Union and different National wildlife and forest departments, military special forces and law enforcement units.
Officers learning how to age tracks so as to ensure not approaching poachers too closely from the rear.
We teach these organizations not only how to coordinate tracking, observation and ambush teams to apprehend poaching gangs in the field, but also how to positively engage with the community to educate and sensitize them and build up relationships that everyone benefits from and which provides the necessary information to go after the people behind the commercial poaching. The most important asset in the fight against commercial poaching is the assistance of the community. They provide information on movements into and out of the area and other illegal activities.
Officers meeting with community elders in Guinea.
During in-operations training officers visit villages surrounding the protected areas and meet with community and religious leaders, hunting brotherhoods, political groups, officers from other authrorities and many more. Not only are the meetings invariably succesful in terms of teaching the communities why the protected areas are important and how they can benefit from protecting them, but the same communities provide the information on all the commercial poaching operations in the area and allow us to plan arrest operations. The interviews of those arrested give us all the information needed to aprehend the criminals those suspects work with. Further arrests lead to even more arrests and so on and on. The same applies to arrests of poachers in theprotected areas. One arrest leads to more arrests and so on and on.
Shooting someone dead creates a very final “dead end” and, if the aim is to gether information so as to bring down the whole network, it is therefore not only a tragic but a stupid action. To stop and deter poaching the sydicates and networks need to be torn apart. That requires an intellignet, necessarily complex and thorough doctrine that addresses the problem in its entirety. Shooting poachers in the field does not tear apart the networks, it simply protects them from discovery.
The devastation of Africa’s wildlife can be stopped and stopped a lot more easily and for a lot less cost than most people imagine. Our organizationis proving that on the ground in the front line and in the communites in West, Central and East Africa. It can be done and we are showing the world how.
Sorry for the horrific and sad pictures. I often need to take a break from all of this and just remind myself why we have to win this. I will leave you with an image of how it can be..
How can we allow such scenes to be replaced with stinking, rotting carcasses on barren ground?