Should poachers be shot on sight?

This is a very hot topic in Africa right now. Not only are calls for shoot-on-sight policies becoming louder and more vociferous but countries have started implementing the policy, not only in Africa but Asia too.

Is it morally justifiable? Is it legally acceptable? Does it effectively stop and/or deter poaching?
I will also answer, but I am very keen to hear and understand different views and perspectives on this from around the world.

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83 Answers

Rory Young

Is it ever justifiable to shoot criminals 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 in the past had to make the decision during anti poaching operations of whether my actions would be legally and morally justifiable. However, I find myself now advising governments and other organizations and instructing men in the field, on when, how and if rangers, investigators and soldiers can or should shoot. I also undertake operations in the field with these men as part of the training, and am forced to make the same decisions alongside them.

If I get any of this wrong, I am responsible for people’s deaths or the loss of rare rhinos, elephants and other animals at a time when their continued survival hangs in the balance. The pressure is intense and I cannot afford to be anything less than crystal clear about what can and cannot be done in any given situation.

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 questions extremely carefully. Flippant answers are irresponsible at the very least. Whether or not you as an individual agree or disagree is not the only issue. It is very important that the wider general public, including political and community leaders and authorities on ethics and morality, agree or disagree with such policy.

The ongoing 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 carcass of a poached forest elephant. So, which poacher would you shoot first? The little girl sitting on the elephant carcass, 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 traveled from Sudan across 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 Eastern and North-Eastern CAR.

Obviously no one in their right mind is going to justify or approve of killing those children. However, how about the mercenaries? They are nothing less than land pirates, willing to use any means possible to enrich themselves, including recruiting and using children to do their dirty work.

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 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 civilian settlements. They address the local people as “slave”, which gives a good idea of their mentality.

A good friend, Jean-Baptiste Mamang-Kanga fought these groups for 15 years in the CAR. It was warfare, plain and simple.

But, can we or should we define such people as poachers? Should they fall into a different category? They will certainly not surrender if approached by rangers. Once they begin shooting back in an area, should these groups not be classified as bandits or terrorists? 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? I do honestly believe that it is fully justifiable to wipe such groups off the face of the earth.

Yet we also 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 and there are no clichés or blanket statements that will ever apply.

We cannot lump all poachers into one bag and apply an extreme blanket policy to policing them as such”shoot on sight”. 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 West, Central, East and Southern Africa, it is always different from country to country, area to area, and it varies within each area. There are poachers of every ethnic and religious group poaching every species of animal, plant and tree and using every means imaginable, from assault rifles, to steel traps to traditional cross bows. What they kill where and how also differs. In Malawi there is currently a problem with elephant being poached with home made steel gin traps, whilst in Guinea I have worked in an area where warthogs are hunted with AK47s. How do we differentiate. The poacher in Malawi killing elephants with gin traps will usually be moving about unarmed, whilst the Guinean poacher will be armed with an AK47 yet not hunting an endangered species. Who are we supposed to shoot on sight? How can we recognise who deserves shooting?

There are certain obvious constants. Most important of which is the clear difference between poaching for commercial gain and subsistence 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.

Subsistence poachers in poverty stricken areas just cannot be dealt with in the same way as commercial poaching gang members. A subsistence 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 escorted 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 subsistence 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 after being apprehended amongst a group of armed poachers.

Here is another scenario. I was prepared to shoot the man in the picture below. He was armed and was located in a position close 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. 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, realizing that we might not recognize him, backed away, raising his weapon above his head with two hands.

We immediately 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. Their activities become easier.

So aside from the extremes such as Sudanese mercenary/bandit/poacher type militarized units, where there is little other choice but to declare war on them, is a shoot on sight policy generally effective?

The reality is that when you shoot dead a poacher you shoot dead your most important source of information. Any opportunity to find out who is behind the business is gone. Crucial information such as where he came from, how he traveled to and entered the area, who supplied the weapons and ammunition, who the other members of the gang are, where the contraband will be transported to, and, most importantly, who sent him, paid him or who will be buying from him.

I am regularly berated by enthusiastic armchair generals for writing anti poaching doctrine that teaches apprehension and only shooting in self-defense. I have yet to be berated by any anti poaching ranger for this, once they understand and experience for themselves how many more links in the chain can be broken through professional, legal and intelligent interviewing and reactive investigation.

To really stop poaching in an area it is necessary to cripple the whole illegal operation and take down the whole syndicate. Killing the poacher instead of questioning him destroys any chance of that. Poaching 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 the whole industry, 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. The only way to really shut down the poaching is to shut down the whole business. If no one in Asia and America (the second largest market for illegal ivory) purchase ivory then the poachers are not going to bother going after elephants. If it is very difficult to kill, transport and sell bushmeat, it will become a too expensive and difficult an undertaking.

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 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.

There is also the question of whether shooting poachers in protected areas actually acts as a deterrent. 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. The people who really need to be deterred are the kingpins and they are not the ones who get killed. 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. They will keep coming because the kingpins have an inexhaustible supply of desperate ex-soldiers, rebel fighters, professional criminals and even unemployed rangers. In one small district in Zimbabwe where we were trying to put an end to the elephant poaching, we discovered that there were at the time 52 unemployed former rangers and scouts with firearms and anti poaching training. They had been laid off when the tourism that funded the conservation efforts in Zimbabwe dried up. It was only inevitable that we found that most of the poaching in the area was by men from those ranks. That said, many others volunteered to assist in anti poaching ops for no pay, even though they had no income to feed their families.

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.

Most importantly, once a shoot on sight policy is implemented the stakes are raised dramatically and thereafter the poachers will also begin to use more aggressive tactics to ensure they are on the winning end of any encounter. More rangers are killed and wounded than before. Shooting dead subsistence poachers on sight is also completely unjustifiable and counterproductive. The community will take their revenge on both the wildlife and the rangers. And we can’t even differentiate between subsistence and commercial poacher much of the time!

It is popular to call this a war. Yet has a war ever been won by just killing the soldiers on the ground? No country fights a war purely tactically, a war is first planned and fought for strategic reasons. In this war, the greatest enemy is not the poacher, it is the crime lords and to win this war pressure needs to be applied to every link in the poaching, trafficking and selling process, from source to market, disrupting the trade at every step and making it simply too costly to undertake and the rewards to too low.

Shooting in defense of human life is unquestionably justified. 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, in defense of the whole population’s lives in the area they operate, as well as the lives of the rangers sent to stop them. That situation does not apply to a poacher working for a criminal organization. Both ethically and objectively it is important to capture him.

The obvious question that follows is whether it is even possible to capture poachers. Yes, it is. 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.

In order to win, departments need to develop doctrine, methods, skills, tactics and strategies for safely investigating, locating and apprehending poachers and traffickers in the field. Officers need to be trained to use these methods as safely as possible and to use the information gathered from proactive and reactive investigation to then bring down whole syndicates. We have been successfully doing that. It is not a new concept and it works.

Reducing demand and taking down the whole syndicates or networks driving the industry is the only way to bring the levels of poaching down.

 

Rangers arresting a syndicate leader. This man was arrested after three levels of arrests and interrogations. He led a large network in three countries yet to all appearances was a moderately wealthy man by local standards. He was popular in his home town for being very giving to others..

Whilst it is crucial to bring down the demand and fight the illegal retailing and wholesaling of wildlife products, such as ivory in Asia and the US, and the sale of bushmeat in the cities of West and Central Africa, someone still needs to hold the fort in and around the protected areas and follow up on information from arrests made there.

We have trained over 100 directors, instructors, investigators, unit leaders and rangers in the last year and have successfully 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 all over Africa. Feedback from the field pours in constantly. Where occasional arrests or contacts were had in the past, the men we have trained now regularly report whole syndicates including foreign nationals being arrested. The system works to effectively halt poaching and that is our goal.

 

Officers learning how to age tracks so as to ensure no approaching poachers are too close from the rear.

The key is the adoption and use of a complete and comprehensive doctrine, including all the strategies, methods and skills necessary to investigate, analyse, plan and execute effective operations at all parts of the illegal process so as to put pressure on all parts of the networks. We teach those involved not only how to coordinate tracking, observation and ambush teams to apprehend poaching gangs in the field, (and if necessary how to correctly and effectively return fire), 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 authorities and many more.

Not only are the meetings invariably successful 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, along with information from other sources,  give us all the vital information needed to apprehend 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 the protected areas. One arrest leads to more arrests and so on and on.

 

Officers in Malawi applying information from interviews and other sources to determine poacher movements and especially choke points so as to be able to mount effective apprehensions.

In conclusion, shooting someone dead creates a very final “dead end” and, if the aim is to gather information so as to bring down the whole network, it is therefore not only a tragic but a stupid action. 

Only in exceptional circumstances and with a clear legal mandate, can a shoot to kill policy ever be used. 

To stop and deter poaching the syndicates and networks need to be torn apart. That requires an intelligent, 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. Chengeta Wildlife is one organization that is proving that on the ground in the front line and in the communities in West, Central and East Africa. It can be done and we are showing the world how. Our in-operations training and advice to anti poaching units and National wildlife and forestry departments as a whole, is having an impact far beyond the small donations we have received in order to do our work. Every penny has gone into the field. We are proud of our achievements so far and are confident and determined to escalate our work exponentially.

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