Nature & environment

Shades of colonialism in the war on poaching

Nature reserves in southern Africa are being militarized at a fast rate due to increasing rhino poaching. This ‘green violence’ in the name of nature conservation fits into a colonial tradition of wealthy white nature conservationists against black poachers, says development sociologist Bram Büscher.
Albert Sikkema


The poaching of rhinos in South Africa reached a new low in 2013 when more than 1,000 animals were killed. Poachers struck mainly in the Kruger National Park, part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park on the borders of South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The Kruger Park houses the largest population of rhinos in Africa and is said to attract a lot of poachers from neighbouring Mozambique. Since the establishment of the ‘peace park’ after the fall of the apartheid regime, there are no longer any fences between the countries, making it easier for poachers to operate in the border zone. In efforts to combat poaching, the management of the game park is being militarized. In a joint study with Maano Ramutsindela, professor of Environmental Studies in Cape Town, Büscher places this ‘green violence’ in its political-historical context.

The Limpopo park is supported by the influential Peace Park Foundation, an NGO set up by the South African billionaire Anton Rupert, the Dutch prince Bernhard – then chair of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) – and Nelson Mandela. The latter used the ‘peace park’ as a conciliatory gesture towards neighbouring countries which had suffered from the apartheid regime. This was because during the apartheid era, nature and wildlife conservation was used in the ‘war against communism’ in those countries. The South African security service took part in anti-poaching operations. Those operations, in which Prince Bernhard was involved too, on behalf of the WWF, combined training of anti-poaching units with intelligence gathering for the South African secret service, in order to combat the illegal trade in ivory and rhino horn. The South African security service under the apartheid regime also misused the war on poaching in neighbouring countries in order to destabilize these countries, say Büscher and Ramutsindela in the journal African Affairs.

There is a strong racial element in the battle between nature conservationists and poachers in South Africa.

There is a strong racial element in the battle between nature conservationists and poachers in South Africa, claim the authors. The prosperous founders of the peace park wanted to conserve the pure African wilderness. That white dream of continuing to govern parts of Africa through the apolitical peace parks was disrupted by (mainly black) poachers. Worldwide, in this ‘war’, more than 1,000 park rangers have been killed by poachers, who in turn have been eliminated by park rangers and with increasing frequency by ex-soldiers and commandos hired by private parks. This linking of security services and nature conservationists has been reinforced in recent years by the – often incorrect – assertion that the poaching for rhino horns and ivory is in the hands of terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab.

The authors wonder whether nature organizations should make use of this armed combat to pursue their goals. They run the risk of, albeit unconsciously, sanctioning extrajudicial killing of poachers by park rangers in ‘peace parks’ in southern Africa. What is more, this green violence resonates on social media, where mainly white wildlife conservationists applaud the killing of African poachers. These activists are pursuing the same dream as the founders of the African game parks, note Büscher and Ramutsindela.

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