Rosaleen Duffy is a professor of international politics at Sheffield University in the U.K. and a longtime critic of military and law enforcement tactics in the conservation world.In 2021, she published “Security and Conservation” with Yale Press, drawing on anonymous interviews with dozens of conservation practitioners, as well as funders, private military companies, government officials and the private sector.Duffy is currently the principal investigator for a U.K. government-funded project analyzing the links between the legal and illegal wildlife trade in European brown bears, European eels, and songbirds. Rosaleen Duffy has long drawn the ire of those who support a forceful “guns and gates” approach to protecting wildlife. A professor of international politics at Sheffield University in the U.K., Duffy has written extensively about the use of military and law enforcement strategies to stop the illegal wildlife trade, arguing that they can alienate communities whose support is needed for conservation to be successful in the long term.
Last year, Duffy published the book Security and Conservation with Yale Press, which critiques the drift of conservation into the global security sphere in recent decades. In her telling, portrayals of conservation as a war for wildlife being waged against terrorists and dead-eyed poachers may have been useful in grabbing the attention of policymakers, but they’re distorting the real drivers of biodiversity loss. The book covers a wide range of territory, bringing readers into the Balkanized world of private military companies, former intelligence officers, and tech giants that are increasingly present in modern conservation — especially in Africa.
With scandals over human rights abuses by rangers connected to WWF and other groups making headlines in recent years, Mongabay’s Ashoka Mukpo spoke to Duffy to better understand her perspective, and what advice she has for the conservation world. The following interview has been edited for style and length.
Mongabay: Your book is called Security and Conservation. Could you talk a little bit about what “security” means here?
Rosaleen Duffy: The purpose of the book is to look at how conservation, particularly in strategies to tackle the illegal wildlife trade, has turned toward security-oriented approaches like enhanced military training, use of surveillance, use of more classical counterinsurgency-type approaches of intelligence gathering, and so on. And you know, why that happened, and why it was thought to be an effective approach. What I wanted to do was look at how that was changing conservation, and in what ways that might then limit conservation going forward in the future. What I was seeing in the illegal wildlife trade, and then strategies to tackle it, is that these aren’t just the ways things are talked about or presented. It has actual material effects on people on the ground. So, we see human rights abuses, for example, as a result of militarization.
Mongabay: You point out in your book that this process of linking military activities, or intelligence and law enforcement activities, to conservation isn’t new, and that this has been happening for a while. Why is this book important right now?
Rosaleen Duffy: I wanted to be clear that there is a long history of the use of force and conservation in some contexts, particularly in the colonial context with integrating military strategies and the use of force to enforce protected areas, for example. But what I saw was a much bigger kind of wholesale turn toward this [approach] among some conservation organizations, and some national agencies as well. The level of financial support that was coming from the international system from donors, governments and the private sector also, I think, made this a key shift. And I think the technological developments in intelligence gathering and surveillance also meant that this book was important now, although there is a long history of the use of violent force in conservation.
Mongabay: So you feel that in the last, let’s say, decade or so there’s been a particular movement toward these more forceful approaches?
Rosaleen Duffy: I don’t want to say that this is all conservation — absolutely not. There are other initiatives around community-based conservation or working with Indigenous communities, and I don’t want to render all of that invisible. But what I did want to do was highlight that there was this particular shift especially in counter-poaching and tackling the illegal wildlife trade, and to talk about why that was problematic for conservation as a whole. Because at the end of the day, you know, if five or 10 years from now there’s an acknowledgment that these strategies have failed, if communities have been alienated because they‘ve borne the brunt of this use of violent force, military tactics and surveillance, and they’ve been put at risk, how receptive are those communities going to be toward conservationists who then say, “Hey, now let’s do something that’s more community-oriented”?
Mongabay: The response to these kinds of criticisms that I’ve often heard is, there’s no time to be too wishy-washy about all this. We have a biodiversity crisis, we’re losing species, and we need a tough approach to a tough problem. When you hear that, what do you think?
Rosaleen Duffy: That’s a question that I’m often asked. I’m very sympathetic to the argument that this is a crisis. I’m not trying to say that that’s not the case. Absolutely, I think that we do need to do something urgently. But the question is what, and the problem for me with these kinds of strategies is they are very short-term. They might work in a few places, for a short time, and they might save a few animals. But actually, these strategies do nothing to address the underlying drivers of the biodiversity crisis. So, they don’t deal with global inequalities. They don’t deal with economic growth. They don’t deal with habitat destruction or agricultural intensification, urbanization, pollution, and so on.
The second thing is that when I first began doing this work, I actually found that argument more compelling than I do now. Fifteen years ago there was a crisis with poaching rates and it was more convincing to say “We need to do something urgently now.” But to my mind, 15 years in, not much has changed, and in fact lots of things have gotten worse. So that argument has less purchase.
Mongabay: To press you on that a little bit, my understanding is that actually rates of certain kinds of poaching have decreased in parts of Africa, particularly of elephants and rhinos. People might argue that’s partially a result of a greater emphasis on law enforcement and interdiction.
Rosaleen Duffy: That’s a fair enough comment to make as well. I think that’s one example where we could say, to a degree certain kinds of strategies may have worked for certain kinds of animals in certain places. I’m not in any way trying to deny that. It’s really good news that rates of poaching of rhinos and elephants have decreased. But that then takes the focus away from the much bigger kind of losses that we’re seeing. The illegal wildlife trade is more than just rhinos and elephants. They get all the attention, they’re charismatic, everybody loves them. But it doesn’t really address the wider questions about the illegal wildlife trade.