The global award in photography and sustainability

Brent Stirton

Disorder in the natural world is man-made. Nature itself is always in balance, with animals as the innocents. Rebel groups manifest in wild spaces because they can hide there from authority, all the while exploiting the environment around them. In the Democratic Republic of Congo conservation Rangers battle multiple paramilitaries inside Virunga National Park. This is Africa’s first national park, a place that has been called the most dangerous conservation space on earth. There are 11 official paramilitary groups, a rebel army and the Congolese army, all inside this park. In these circumstances, 170 Rangers have died in the last ten years.

Wildlife crime is often seen as a misdemeanor, not to be taken seriously. That’s a failure of understanding and a broader failure of leadership. Wildlife crime today is a security issue, with wide-ranging implications beyond the immediate loss of animals. Ivory poachers operate in large, heavily armed groups, crossing international borders to act with impunity against the resources and people of other countries. Rebel groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army now find most of their financing through ivory and mining in protected spaces, trading ivory for guns and ammunition. The security forces necessary to combat these rebel groups cost hundreds of millions to keep in place. Rhino horn’s biggest fight is happening on the South Africa/Mozambique border. Well-armed groups, mostly experienced former fighters from the civil war, are illegally entering South Africa and clashing with the South African military, installed because the rangers themselves are hopelessly outgunned. Organized crime syndicates finance weapons and protection for literally thousands of African poachers, spreading corruption across the continent. Surely these are not just “wildlife issues.”

Losing animals means losing tourism, vital to the economies of many African countries. Alongside this chaos, the way we manage wildlife is changing. Species survival is increasingly pragmatic. Nowhere is this more controversial than in the canned lion hunting practices of South Africa. This is legal in that country, an uncomfortable fact and one that may soon include Rhino breeding for commercial horn purposes. We are seeing a huge rise in the trade of lion bone for Asian pharmacology. This is happening because the Asian world surges with new wealth as global tiger populations continue to plummet. What does this mean for the future of lions and indeed for the future commercialization of all wildlife? Disorder seems an appropriate word.