No matter how serious a crime, it is generally accepted that everyone has the right to a fair trial. Executing suspects without even arresting them is considered a hallmark of the worst regimes on earth.

Sadly, there’s one field in which too many people are willing to throw away this fundamental legal principle and call for the return of completely arbitrary justice: protecting wildlife from poachers. Beneath almost any online discussion on the subject, you will find comments like these:

“Damn right it is acceptable to shoot humans to protect rhinos!”

“Poachers should be flayed alive and then shot. I would volunteer to do this for free. They are the scum of the earth.”

“Poachers deserve to die, there’s no two ways about it, shoot them on the spot, saves the long drawn out court cases that fail to deliver justice.”

Now, I would never seek to deny that killing animals for their ivory or horn is a serious crime, and a real problem in many parts of the world. No one wants to see endangered species wiped out for the sake of profiteering criminal gangs and corrupt officials. And the sight of rhinos or elephants killed and stripped of their horns and tusks is deeply harrowing. I also understand that urgent action is required to preserve these species.

But throwing away all principles of human rights and the rule of law to do this is absurd. Even the vilest authoritarian regimes go through the pretence of a trial when bringing suspected criminals to justice.

Moreover, it is obvious that extrajudicial killings have not helped conserve wildlife. Far from it, in too many cases, it is easy and profitable for the forest rangers to turn poacher themselves. At the very least, it is easy for them to be paid off, to turn a blind eye, or to help in trafficking the valuable animal parts to where there is a demand for them. As poaching becomes more profitable and the gangs that control it grow in power, wealth and influence, calls from European and American conservation donors for better-armed guards grow louder. The result is violence and corruption on a massive scale, often in some of the poorest and most politically unstable parts of the world.

The dominant worldview

In July, forest guards at the Kaziranga National Park in Assam – which is home to the endangered Indian one-horned rhinoceros and has an uncompromising shoot-on-sight policy, as revealed in this 2014 report
by the park’s director and in a BBC documentary in February – shot a seven-year-old boy, maiming him for life. The child, Akash Orang, was walking near his village close to the park’s unmarked boundary. The park authority called the incident regretable, but did nothing to amend its inhuman policies. Kaziranga is considered a flagship for conservation efforts worldwide. Plans are afoot to implement similar policies across India. They are already in place in much of Africa. It’s not hard to find people willing to speak up in their defence.

The underlying narrative, popular in conservation circles, is that the world is gripped by a human-animal conflict. According to this worldview, humans, whether hunter-gatherer tribes living perfectly sustainable lives or city-dwellers, are not to be trusted around nature. It is apparently inevitable that we kill, destroy, consume and waste, so we have to be forcibly kept apart from as much of nature as possible. The line that is often parroted is a crude statistical juxtaposition: there are seven billion humans on the planet and only (for example) around 30,000 rhinos – therefore, we can afford to lose a few humans if it means protecting the rhinos. Whether the humans who are sacrificed in this process are corrupt poachers or seven-year-olds playing near their homes doesn’t matter, endangered species are sacrosanct and must be protected at all costs.

There are many flaws in this argument, which ought to be obvious. First, while it is not Survival International’s place to comment on global population growth, there is no necessary reason why species like the rhino or tiger cannot co-exist with a larger human population. They are poached for specific body parts that are valuable in East Asia, not to make room for human settlement. It isn’t the indigenous people who use their body parts, or drive environmental degradation around the world.

Second, in India, Africa, and elsewhere, human beings and wildlife have co-existed peacefully for millennia. Many tribes, such as the Soliga in southern India, have a deep reverence for species like the tiger. And those like the one Orang hails from, the Oraon, who were moved to Assam by the British to work on tea plantations, have no innate hostility towards the region’s rhinos. Their mostly sustainable lives do not threaten the rhino – criminals conspiring with corrupt officials do.

Finally, and most importantly, these views expose an ugly and misanthropic strain in conservation thinking. There is a tendency for vengeance, the necessary slaughter of humans to atone for our sins against the planet. This is not the way to get people behind environmental causes. It is also fundamentally immoral.

Smarter solutions needed

My fear is that conservationists suffer from a lack of imagination, of understanding how to address social, political and economic problems – the real drivers of poaching. Rather than resorting to crude medieval justice, or the laughable simplicity of fencing in endangered animals and posting armed guards around the perimeter, we need to be smarter in tackling poaching.

We need to address the demand for products like rhino horn in certain parts of the world, explore ways to contain trade in such products. We need to go after the people at the top of the poaching food chain, rather than just killing suspects outright.

And we also need to respect the knowledge the indigenous peoples have of their environment and build partnerships with them.

Sadly, all these options, while more effective, are quite difficult. It is easier to shoot a few people and claim you are tackling poaching. It is also easier for conservation supporters on the internet to direct their fury at impoverished people in the global south, rather than think of ways to genuinely protect the environment. It’s not the children of conservation biologists, executives of non-governmental organisations, or donors in Europe and America who have to die to “make room for wildlife,” or their communities that end up being dominated by armed guards. Green colonialism marches on.

If the environmental movement is to succeed, it needs to be savvy, and humane. It needs to stop seeing humans and animals as being in conflict and switch on to the most effective protection measure of all: tribal land rights. Alienating communities and imposing cruel and arbitrary justice solves nothing.

These communities have been dependent on and managed their environment for millennia. They should be at the forefront of the environmental movement. In them, we already have a huge team of skilled people, ready and willing to assist in conservation efforts. Shooting them dead only creates conflict and horror. The big conservation organisations are partnering with industry and tourism and destroying the environment’s best allies. It’s time for a change of approach, and Survival International is leading the fight, not only against abuses in the name of conservation but in favour of a model that respects tribal people.

Lewis Evans is editorial director at Survival International, a movement for tribal peoples’ rights.