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Policing Wildlife: Reimagining enforcement to protect the world’s most vulnerable species

Updated: Aug 26

By Lorelei Goodall


Throughout Africa and Asia, there is increasing awareness of the injustices and tragedies enacted by the highly-militarized policing forces that are tasked with protecting the world’s most endangered species. While some forces such as the International Anti-poaching Foundation and the Black Mambas of South Africa have elected for peaceful and community-oriented methods, others, such as the Kenya Wildlife Service, have adopted enforcement models that employ violence-driven methods of protection. In many cases, these models incorporate egregious policies that lead to the intimidation, fear, and unjust loss of human life in surrounding communities. This is troubling and may cast a shadow over the original intent of protecting vulnerable animals. Many of these enforcement models have surprising roots in a system that is also coming under scrutiny right now: western policing systems.


The United States policing system was originally founded in 1636, was based on the principle of loosely enforcing the law, a night watch. Later, in the early 1700s, southern policing forces focused more on shipping protection and “slave patrols” that were intended to catch and return slaves to owners. Slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865, but systematized racism persisted. In the early 1830s both England and The United States created the first formal policing systems surrounding a campaign to “improve public law” and to act as employees of the law. Starting in 1870, Jim Crow laws mandated segregation in the United States and reinforced, and effectively stayed in place until 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. While the dissolution of racist hierarchy marked a turning point in US history, and possibly the history of the world, the outdated nature of the US police system persisted with tactics like Stop and Frisk - a tactic allowing officers to unjustly target minority communities that were officially sanctioned in 2018. Sadly, the US headlines on any month of the year reflect that the biased and violent protocols of American policing are still a problem, so the fact that they are a model for others is likely to lead to extensive challenges.

A particularly stark example of how this violent method of enforcement has spread to anti-poaching forces in other countries is the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). This was founded as a group of park rangers tasked with protecting wildlife, including most notable elephants. Dr. Richard Leaky, chairman of the KWS, established the mentality for the rangers in a similar fashion to American and English police, with the order to “shoot to kill” any potential poachers in protected areas. This excessive militarization of the ranger force in Kenya has led to unjust killings, disappearances, and suppression of information regarding presumed kidnapped or killed individuals. Communities surrounding the national parks in Kenya such as Maasai Mara National Reserve fear for their lives and for their safety because of the known danger presented by the KWS.


This scenario bears a shocking resemblance to the United States, where there have been over 500 incidents of police brutality towards African Americans and protestors - ranging from trampling to physically beating to shooting - in just the past four months. In the United States, there is a pervasive sense of unrest, sadness, mistrust, and tension. Current calls to “defund the police” are sadly over-simplified: the idea behind this movement is to revisit what tasks might require military-style force, such as dealing with violent crimes, and where funds might better be reallocated to preventative programs, such as community enrichment and education initiatives.


So, too, is it time for a change in how we protect the planet’s most vulnerable creatures. There is proven evidence that shows how nonviolent and community-oriented enforcement methods can be used to stop excessive violence of wildlife crime. Founded in 2009, the International Anti-poaching Foundation aims to use community-driven conservation programs to empower underprivileged women and rely on indigenous leadership to protect national parks and endangered species. This kind of collaborative societal and communal protection of endangered species has both benefited communities surrounding national parks and has given jobs to local people. It is just one example of a peaceful enforcement technique that has empowered and encouraged growth around the idea of community collaboration.


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