Nir Kalron is the chief executive officer of Maisha Group, a risk and security consultancy.
James Dutton is president of Maisha Group, a retired Royal Marines officer and a former deputy commander of the ISAF in Afghanistan.
Imagine an expert zoologist fresh out of the University of Oxford specializing in the majestic bongo antelope. Conducting research in the Central African Republic, she suddenly encounters a group of heavily armed rebels making their way through the park as they prepare to attack a densely populated area. She throws down her GPS, notebook and binoculars, standing horrified at the prospect of imminent death, rape and kidnapping at the hands of some of the most brutal armed groups on earth: The Lord’s Resistance Army, Boko Haram, ex-Seleka and Fulani herdsmen (declared the fourth-deadliest group in the 2015 world terrorism index). This supposedly fictional scenario is in fact an increasing occurrence in sub-Saharan Africa, turning wildlife conservationists, like aid workers before them, into de facto front-line civilians.
Conservation groups in sub-Saharan Africa, notably in the Sudano-Sahelian belt, have not ignored these threats and have taken it upon themselves, with the help of both government and private donors, to create what we call “conservation protection enclaves,” or CPEs. Staffed with security professionals, fully equipped with aviation assets, vehicles, clinics, schools and alternative livelihood schemes, CPEs were artificially created to help preserve wildlife species and maintain a notion of territorial integrity for the countries within which they operate. These CPEs act as semi-autonomous regions, at times wholly privatized by certain conservation groups and at times managed in tandem with the local authorities. In a region plagued with continuous armed conflict, trafficking of various contraband and increasing growth of radical Islamic groups such as the Nigerian-based Boko Haram or the Mali-based al-Qaeda in Maghreb, CPEs create opportunity for stability and sovereignty, essentially acting as a state within a state both for humans and wildlife.
But is this hybrid of security and conservation really sustainable? Does the cost-benefit calculation actually add up?
While a definite answer to these questions is yet to be established, a closer look at this new conservation approach will help shed some light on the complexities, risks and potential gains.
Sustaining these CPEs from a strategic long-term perspective will require continuous and substantial funding and will not be achieved without a burgeoning toll in human lives (according to the World Wildlife Fund, more than 100 rangers were killed in Africa and Asia in 2018 alone) and environmental degradation. Moreover, maintaining CPEs will require continuous technical advancements (for example, the use of air and land-based reconnaissance such as ground sensors and drones all feeding outputs to sophisticated predictive-data-science systems and algorithms, all of which have become commonly used in conservation circles) and financial investments, which in essence are the paradox of modern conflict. That paradox manifests itself as a constant confrontation between a highly funded, tech-savvy, well-equipped force of professionals versus a rogue group of local armed gangs, driven by ideology mixed within a criminal hierarchical element, a terrorizing effect on the local population and a highly efficient guerilla-based tactical approach.
To better illustrate this claim, we should examine the case of the Taliban in Afghanistan, a sophisticated guerilla force with immense local fighting experience whose tentacles engage in drug trafficking (mainly heroin), extortion, kidnapping and regional “sympathizing regimes.” In response to the Taliban’s multifaceted threats, the U.S.-led International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) supported and trained the Afghan army and security services, providing advanced aerial, terrestrial, intelligence and logistical assets. The reality of this asymmetrical situation is that once the substantial security component was removed from the equation (in this case, the ISAF) due to various reasons, such as unsupportive political and public opinion or growing national debts versus a continuous and massive expenditure, there is no equally powerful sovereign state actor to replace them; a power vacuum is created. This vacuum brings back the same threat it set out to eradicate in the first place, and the wheel goes around and round.
In light of the above, CPEs can be compared to small “Afghanistan” models. Some of sub-Saharan Africa’s most potent challenges – lack of water and grazing resources, desertification, and poverty – are entwined within the geo-political context of armed groups. Thus, the long-term outlook for a CPE model is both unsustainable and likely to fail.
However, from a different perspective, one cannot overestimate the importance of CPEs in the present context. Similar to ISAF’s presence in Afghanistan, CPEs offer short- and medium-term stabilization for communities (both human and wildlife) that suffer greatly on a daily basis. These CPEs offer hope and, if active in regions experiencing improvement in governance, the economy, and rule of law – empowered through more “Africanized” staff and connected to the cultural-traditional sensitivities – they may just turn the tide. This is not a quick solution: We will need to sustain this effort for many years.
The rapidly evolving environmental, geopolitical and socioeconomic conditions tamper with the romantic notion of an “ideal solution” and demand constant flexibility and adaptability. To provide a secure and open environment for the bongo antelope specialist or the elephant sounds researcher, we must channel our conservation, security and economic growth efforts in a supportive and non-ethnocentric framework to the sovereign countries in which we operate, seeking their leadership, trust and support.
The global implications of environmental degradation are yet to be fully grasped. They affect us all wherever we are on this globe, be it in the Central African forest or the Canadian Arctic shelf.