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The war on poaching: a metaphor to live or die by?

Sara van der Hoeven | 23 December 2020

A photo showing open flat grassland with a few small bushes and white and brown cows grazing in the mid distance, under a partially cloudy sky.
Photo by the author, livestock and wildlife grazing together in north Kenya, February 2020. Photo used with permission of the creator.

The Convention on Biological Diversity, in their flagship publication on 15 September 2020, laid out the dire state of the world’s biodiversity: “Biodiversity is declining at an unprecedented rate … in turn threatening the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and undermining efforts to address climate change.” Similarly, a year earlier, the Global Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) found “an average of around 25 per cent of species in assessed animal and plant groups are threatened … suggesting that around 1 million species already face extinction.” Moreover, the past decade saw a rise in commercial poaching — specifically of charismatic megafauna, like elephants and rhinos for their tusks and horns between 2007-2014 — as well as an intensification of military(-like) approaches to their conservation. Prices for rhino horn, for example, exceeded that of gold and cocaine; and the global trafficking of wildlife parallels the arms and drugs trades in value. Poaching prevention efforts are often described in terms of war, such as the war on poaching, wildlife wars, or rhino wars. Is such a metaphor useful and desirable? And what are the implications of deploying such a metaphor extensively?

The war metaphor simplifies complex issues into a story we can easily follow since most of us are familiar with how wars proceed hypothetically. Often contrary to actual war contexts, the idea of war invoked by the metaphor contains a simple temporality of beginning — identifying the problem of animals being poached — middle — the right approach, the use of force to defeat the problem, enemy-poachers — and end — in which animals thrive, and everyone lives happily ever after. Furthermore, the use of such a metaphor might spotlight and create a sense of urgency around poaching. However, there are several problems with ‘the war metaphor’ in biodiversity conservation. The metaphor does not represent livedrealities and temporalities of war, nor does it cover the complexity of the issue the metaphor is supposed to clarify.

Metaphors are essential in structuring our ideas and affect how we perceive problems and solutions. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s seminal book from 1980 shows that contrary to the common notion that metaphors are only a matter of words, metaphors are pervasive in “thought and action.” They argue that a metaphor we “live by” means it “structures the actions we perform.” In the English language, for example, “having an argument” is structured by a war metaphor. Language and the actions performed while arguing are consequently structured as violent and a win-lose battle:

Text saying "Argument is war: Your claims are indefensible. He attacked every weak point in my argument. His criticisms were right on target. I demolished his argument. I've never won an argument with him. You disagree? Okay, shoot! If you use that strategy, he'll wipe you out. He shot down all of my arguments."
This excerpt from the book on page 4, illustrates the argument.

In the case of “the war on poaching” (as well as the war on drugs the war on terror, for example), “war” is actively declared on a societal problem. However, the complex problem — poaching, biodiversity loss and extinction — is not easily separated from society, and in contrast to the simplified image of war, has no clear beginning or end. A single approach cannot solve it. Nevertheless, in the case of conservation, the war metaphor helps structure action through a simplified policy focused on the militarisation of anti-poaching units and protected area control. Many actors and several researchers support militarisation – they deem the approach necessary to avoid a sixth extinction, calling parks war zones.

However, social science research — from political ecology, geography, and anthropology, to conflict studies and criminology — shows that the war on poaching cannot be cast in such a seemingly simple metaphor. Moreover, they show that an intensification of military(-like) approaches to wildlife conservation in protected areas is problematic, because it tackles the symptoms and not the root causes of poaching, and in the long-term can lead to poor conservation outcomes. Thus, “wicked” problems or concepts, like biodiversity loss and poaching, “are not readily addressed in a theater of war.”

Simplifying the problem at hand through the war metaphor is problematic because it contributes to the diversion of resources. Funds are channeled towards the military and security sectors, and away from other sectors necessary to tackle problems facing biodiversity loss and conservation. Concerning poaching, these include addressing poverty, international wildlife trade, international organised criminal networks, and demand reduction. Funding channels and their direction are crucial for biodiversity conservation generally, since the principal causes of biodiversity loss described in the IPBES report, for example, actually lie outside protected areas and increase in size, such as habitat loss, deforestation for agriculture, large-scale fishing, pollution, and climate change.

Discursively, there is another implication of the war metaphor in conservation, where we move from a focus on animal populations to animal welfare and a focus on individual animals. This focus is accompanied by discourses that humanise wild animals, while at the same time denigrate poachers or residents in and near conservation areas. Roderick Neumann previously argued that this moral and discursive geography, which recycled and engaged notions of African otherness, normalized “human rights abuses and deadly violence against humans in the defense of “biodiversity”” in African national parks. The metaphor structuring actions, thus, has material consequences. For example, this moral re-ordering justified shoot-on-sight protocols, where certain species of animals are humanised, and the people poaching are “othered” in such a way that they become a “legitimate subject of violence.”

While it is unclear how many poachers, people assumed to be poachers, and ordinary civilians died on-sight or suffered from other human rights abuses, the Thin Green Line Foundation reports that 1175 rangers globally lost their lives between 2009 and 2020, of whom between one-third and two-thirds died at the hands of poachers. This high fatality rate goes hand in hand with findings that suggest militarised approaches produce additional stress for rangers. If metaphors structure the way we perceive problems and our actions to resolve them, those actions can also result in death, destruction and poor conservation outcomes in the long-term –becoming a metaphor we “die by”. The war on poaching might be just such a metaphor.


Sara van der Hoeven is a Ph.D. student in peace and development research at SGS. In her research project, she explores the conservation-security nexus in north Kenya’s wildlife sector.


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