Militant exploitation vs. militant conservation – how far will this go?

By SdS

Protecting nature can be dangerous and messy. Two recent reports bring to light what seem to be flipsides of the same coin. On one side are those who heroically fight and even lose their lives defending their homes, wild places, and wild animals. Then there are those who take lives, for the same purpose. August 12th is World Elephant Day. Normally, I would say something about elephants. But I already did that in the last post. So today I want to reflect on the people who protect wildlife, in one way or another.

It’s been on my mind a long time, but particularly since a conference I attended a few years ago. It was supposed to be an academic conference, but the audience was a mix of scientists, conservation practitioners and activists. Alongside the sessions people would huddle around in their little cliques, chatting about the state of affairs on the ground. Some of the conversations were depressing, there was no hiding it. Here we were free to speak truth out loud, in an atmosphere of urgency that everyone present acknowledged. I had a palpable sense that some (perhaps even many) of those present acted as though we were at war. It was a mindset that people stewing in, breathing in, day in and day out. I imagined that this was not unlike how reporters felt, who had spent too long embedded in war zones – a creeping feeling that far from the comfortable lives that most of our colleagues and acquaintances led, an epic battle was raging.

I was glad to leave the conference and found myself questioning whether I would ever attend another of those again.

A report released this year by the nonprofit Global Witness confirms that this is not exaggeration. It is not merely a psychological phenomenon reflecting people who have been in the metaphorical “trenches” for too long. It is real. Between 2002 and 2017 1558 environmental activists have been killed worldwide, outnumbering the number of soldiers from the UK and Australia that have been killed in actual war zones and about equivalent to half the number of US troops that have been in killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to one study. The difference is that these environmental defenders are for the most part not soldiers – they are civilians from diverse professions and ethnic groups, many indigenous, who have been trying to protect their land. They are also rangers and wildlife law enforcement officers. The number doesn’t even include casualties of actual armed conflicts and territorial disputes over natural resources. But their lives are taken by an increasingly brazen and weaponized mafia benefitting financially from the exploitation of species and ecosystems – together with their corporate partners.

According to the study, there was regional variation in the reasons behind the deaths, with poaching-related deaths most frequent in Vietnam and the Democratic Republic of Congo whereas industries like mining claiming the most deaths in Philippines, Colombia and India. A country’s rule of law was the key variable that correlated with these death rates, unsurprisingly. 47 of the 50 countries in which deaths occurred could be quantifiably classified as “highly corrupt.” We will come back to this below.

These numbers give me pause. They reflect an unseen war, waged for the most part far from the eyes of the consumers that benefit from it. As in any war, there are collateral victims.

Here I turn to another mind-blowing exposé, this time by Buzzfeed news, that forest guards funded by WWF were responsible for torturing and killing people in their quest to protect wildlife. These were not high-level poachers and traffickers, but poor villagers trying to eke out a living on the periphery of the protected areas that they had long called home. The most damning accusation is that the conservation NGO with the cuddly panda logo was not only aware of these practices, but actively shielded the perpetrators from prosecution for fear of demoralizing the frontline officers. In one instance, Buzzfeed claims WWF staffers were even involved in attempting to facilitate an arms deal.

WWF, the World Wildlife Fund or (AKA Worldwide Fund For Nature) is perhaps the best known conservation nonprofit. But it is not alone – several other nonprofits partner or work very closely with law enforcement agents to patrol and protect wildlife habitats and species. One may wonder why WWF was acting like an “global spymaster” when its personnel are neither trained nor authorized to do so. I think the answer to that is simple – in a corrupt environment, some of these NGOs see themselves as bulwarks against the chaos that would consume and destroy the fragile ecosystems that they are battling to protect. They not only fund, but co-manage reserves that should not be managed by international conservation agencies at all. They fill the vacuum left by weak or corrupt governments. Given the statistics above, it is easy to see why. This does not condone what they have done.

So the difficult question “why” arises again – could it be otherwise? Robert S. McNamara, the former U.S. Secretary of Defense who presided over the disastrous Vietnam War, famously wrote about the “Fog of War” when seemingly rational reasoning turns into rationalization in a fuzzy downward spiral of poor decisions that end with disastrous outcomes.

But I tend to think there is a much deeper problem. This is not just about poor decision-making under tough circumstances. It is about a pervasive structural tendency to disregard and discriminate against rights of those the already marginalized. A de-sensitization to the human condition and suffering of others. An interview with one group of villagers near Chitwan National Park in Nepal by Buzzfeed reporters is telling – they are desperate to be spoken to, consulted. Whereas they could have been allies for conservation, they are instead sidelined or worse: caught between the enforcers as much as the traffickers. Both mafias equally terrible.

These types of situations manifest what has been called “Fortress Conservation“. One could also call it militant conservation. It is not without opposition, by those who point out the long trail of human-rights violations that result from the mindset that humans are the enemy, no matter who they are. It is this casual disregard to human life, the end result of a battle-weary and hardened mindset, that is the poison slowly consuming some parts of the conservation community from within. Years ago I found myself bemoaning yet another animal tragedy. It’s easy to slide down a very cold and slippery slope – to think “What is the value of one human life, when there are more than seven billion of us? Should it count as much as that of this other creature, of which there are a precious few…” I caught myself thinking along these lines. But then I realized that to lose empathy for your fellow humans is a numbingly dark and dangerous hole from which you will be lucky to ever recover.  It also makes you a hypocrite; the targets of your disdain are usually groups perceived as “the other.” We all consume the goods produced in the end so let us not consider ourselves any better. We are all responsible.

I can’t help but view everything through a gendered lens. When I see some of my colleagues posing next to armed patrol officers, smiling as though they were all having the time of their lives, I feel an involuntary internal shudder – perhaps they look just a little too happy? Funders are also all too happy to pay for expensive technology – drones, night-vision goggles, etc. even if not the weapons themselves. Boy toys to be displayed with swagger and bravado. Is it just so much more difficult to pay for communication and sensitivity training? It is more difficult to invest in trust and relationship building?  To cultivate a culture in which one learns to listen before speaking? These are so-called “soft skills,” traditionally relegated to the feminine. But they are the essential missing ingredients. The opposite of fortress conservation is community-based (or community-driven) conservation.  Would the latter model even stand a chance of triumph under the most difficult circumstances? I tend to think it would, if only there were more investment in it. There are numerous examples of it – many led by women.  One particularly inspiring example is that of the Mali Elephant Project, which reported that none of the young people recruited as community scouts recruited into their  program joined militants, despite strong economic incentives.  Consultation and dialogue with local communities was the key. The people are powerful allies, if you have them on your side.

It has never been easy and it never will be, but there has to be a better way. I try to remind myself that we are not only fighting for the souls of others, but also for our own – it begins with empathy.

For more about our work with communities, read about The Coexistence Project (#CoexistenceProject).

Support the Coexistence Project here.


E is for “Endangered”

Or why we shouldn’t take those large odd-looking animals for granted.

E is for Endangered

Step into any nursery or play room, take a quick walk down the isles of your local bookstore or library. Or just look at the clothing and toys we surround children with. They are full of images of iconic animals – giraffes, rhinoceros, hippos, lions, elephants…

We use these animals to teach the alphabet, and cherish them as beloved characters in our story books. They adorn everything from birthday cards to blankets.

What would the world be like without them?

Last week the IPBES released a monster report detailing how biodiversity today is threatened by human activities. A splashy number that grabbed a lot of headlines – at least ONE MILLION species are at risk of extinction in coming decades through human activities.

But actually, elephants might not be among them. Good news?

Unfortunately, not if you dig deeper.

Traditionally, a species’ risk of extinction is determined by modelling how likely populations are drop below a certain number within a policy-relevant time frame, say 100 years. The trouble is that elephants and many other iconic large-bodied species can live a long time (if they aren’t hunted), and breed relatively slowly.  While this can make them extremely vulnerable and sensitive to disturbances, the effects need not be visible for a long. LONG. Time.

That means we may fail to recognize that some animal populations are in trouble if we only rely on their risk of extinction.

In a study just published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology & Evolution, we argue that for long-lived slow-breeding species, we need a better way of assessing their vulnerabilities. We propose the concept of a “demographic safe space” based on the idea that there are few crucial biological variables (birth and death rates) that govern whether populations are growing or declining. When these rates are healthy, populations are within the boundaries of the safe space. When they are not, it is a call to action. They key is to measure those variables, also known as vital rates, in the wild.

Elephants are good example of this.

Our long term study at Udawalawe showed that most females typically have just one calf every six years or more, and that they have about a 5% chance of dying even after reaching adulthood. They also mature slowly, typically breeding at around 13 years of age. Contrast this with a species like tigers, in which females are capable of reproducing within just a few years and can produce litters of several kittens per year.

Only around 1.5% of Asian elephants have tusks, all of which are male. Habitat loss, poaching for skins, parts and capture of live animals are leading threats, alongside accidents and human-elephant conflict. Healthy females and calves are keys to the survival of elephant populations.


Through a series of simulations, we tested how threats like habitat loss and hunting could affect elephant populations. Our new study shows that elephants are extremely sensitive to changes in birth rates and the mortality rates of females and calves. In the best case scenario, they can tolerate no more than a death rate of 8% among adult females. Male mortality, on the other hand, has very little effect because only a few males are required as breeders. But even populations that are in decline may not go extinct right away if they are large – it’s more like a slow-motion train wreck that happens over hundreds of years. In smaller populations the effects are more dramatic

The study highlights a little-appreciated fact: the biggest threat to Asian elephants is habitat loss, followed by illegal trade in live animals and body parts (see here and here).  The demographic consequences may be hidden, and take a long time coming but they can be insidious. Many elephant populations in Asia are already so fragmented that they number in the tens or hundreds. The way to recover these populations is to focus on improving the survival of females and calves, as well as their breeding rates, To do that, we need to address issues like land-use change alongside illegal trafficking. Conservation efforts also need to place much greater emphasis on the distinct populations that constitute a species, and whether they are healthy, than on ballpark estimates of how many individuals of the species there are throughout their range. The idea of “demographic safe space” helps to identify which populations are healthy, and which ones aren’t.

The data for this paper come from just a handful of studies – for most elephant populations, we have no idea whether they are within their demographic safety limits. Indeed, we don’t know if this is the case for many of slow-breeding iconic species, especially those large enough to be called “megafauna,” and many of which are herbivores like elephants. Think: Giraffes, Rhinos, Hippos. This paper urges that we are desperately in need of assessments for these threatened species, before the demographic train plunges off an unseen cliff.

Demographic inertia is like a train – very hard to reverse course once it gets going downhill.

There is good news here though – by measuring and identifying the vital rates that are most in need of improvement, we hope that the wildlife managers, conservationists, policy makers and the public can rally together in time to save these beloved species.

Call Combinations Differ Among Living Elephants

The living elephants – Asian elephat, African forest elephant and African savannah elephant.

Guest post by Michael Pardo

Ask most people what sound an elephant makes and they are likely to think of a trumpet. In reality though, elephants produce an incredible variety of different vocalizations. The most common call is a deep, pulsating rumble, so low-pitched that human observers sometimes feel it more than hear it. Elephants also roar—powerful, bellowing sounds that carry across the landscape. And sometimes, they give combination calls, in which one or two rumbles and roars are stitched together with no pause for breath.

I visited Udawalawe in 2014 to work with the Udawalawe Elephant Research Project, and was especially fascinated by these combination calls. Combining meaningful units into sequences with an additional meaning is a key component of human language, but there are relatively few examples of this phenomenon in other species. Listening to the Udawalawe elephants, I was struck by the fact that they nearly always produced combination calls in the same order: a single roar followed by a single rumble. Why was this? Could it be analogous to grammatical rules in human language? Or could it be as simple as an anatomical constraint that made it difficult for the elephants to produce a rumble before a roar? Continue reading

The Patels Visit Udawalawe

Guest post by Yogi & Nikita Patel

We traveled to Sri Lanka to work with Trunks & Leaves in support of schools surrounding the Udawalawe National Park. We first arrived in Negombo, Sri Lanka where we were met by Deepani, who works with Trunks & Leaves, and her friend Jocelyn. We traveled by car to Udawalawe where we were joined by Sameera, the project coordinator. We visited the first Montessori preschool, operated by Sameera’s sister, Chathurika. She was gracious in showing us the school, which was closed for the holidays. She had been hard at work painting furniture and cleaning the classroom and play area for her 18 students. Her school, which is attached to her home, is surrounded by many fruit trees. Her family members supported her passion for educating children in her town.

Our next stop was school teacher Shiromi’s home. We met with Shiromi who greeted us with her family and offered the most amazing homecooked treats. We chatted about her work in the village and her school, Dimuthu preschool. We met with Shiromi again the following day, where we observed the children in her classroom. The parents were very supportive of Shiromi and came to the school with their children even though they were supposed to be on holiday. We got to sing and dance the “hokey pokey”.

Deepani, Yogi and Sameera with the first cohort of preschool teachers whose schools received support from Trunks & Leaves’ sponsors (photo courtesy of Yogi Patel).

Continue reading

The Brief Life of [T212]

By SdS & USW

All looks peaceful…


…until you look closer.

He looked as though he were sitting down, surrounded by grass and reeds, his back against the intense blue sky, reflected in the mirror of the reservoir. Countless people had passed by, assuming he was just resting as he ate. You could see him easily from the road, just a few tens of meters from the electric fence along park boundary, close to the spillway.

But hours later, when he still hadn’t moved, someone realized something was wrong. Continue reading

Stake-out, Part 1: Where did all the elephants go?

by SdS

A lone male at the reservoir was all we saw…

Back in 2007, 2008 and 2009 UWERP devoted intensive effort to surveying all parts of the park in order to make an estimate of the elephant population. Ten years on, it is time to re-do this exercise. What that means is that for a few specific months each year, we have to try and cover the park more evenly in space and time than we normally do when studying behavior. The trouble was, the elephants were missing. For much of the preceding weeks elephants had been scarce, so much so that guests were leaving annoyed. This was not unusual – I remembered that during the hottest and driest months, elephants usually stayed in the shade until late afternoon even back then. I supposed they were resting and conserving their energy until nightfall. But we could never know for sure. Continue reading

Investing in The Next Generation

By SdS

Students at Kalawelgala elementary school can now learn in peace thanks to the metal grilles installed on the windows, which prevent monkeys and other animals from getting in.

Back in June we held a crowdfunding campaign to support our work with some of the villages bordering Udawalawe National Park and the Wetahirakanda corridor. Thanks to our sponsors, we were able to raise $6000 for improvements at five pre-schools (Montessories) and an elementary school. We re-visited each of the schools in July to confirm their needs. In August it was my pleasure to visit with each of the teachers in order to provide the initial installments of funds. As the schools were on break, we visited several at their homes. Each teacher undertook individual accountability for showing that work was progressing and funds were being spent as intended.

Ms. Lakshimini accepts the sponsorship.

The first stop was with Ms. Lakmini of Pubudu Pre-school. Continue reading