Respecting human rights: the key to elephant conservation

It’s time for a new model of conservation: one that holds human rights at its core.

Mike Hurran
29 March 2017
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Baby Sumatran Elephant. Xinhua/SIPA USA/PA Images. Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Few people on earth have as close a relationship to the forest elephant as Baka “Pygmies”. They classify them into more than fifteen types, depending on age, appearance, sex, temperament and magical status. Many Baka believe that when they die, their spirits travel deep into the forest and walk side by side with elephants, like shepherds tending their flocks. On their hunting and gathering trips, which sometimes take them over 150 kilometres through the forest, the Baka make frequent use of the mokongo (the paths cleared by elephants as they migrate). 

These forests are often considered wilderness by conservationists, but they’re not: the Baka have depended on and managed them for centuries. By creating seasonal camps, they sustain a mosaic of different types of vegetation and have spread pockets of wild yams throughout the rainforest – one of the elephant’s favourite foods.

Because of the distances they travel and the time they spend there, they are undoubtedly the eyes and ears of their lands in the Congo Basin. “We know when and where the poachers are in the forest, but no one will listen to us,” one Baka man told me.  

The stakes couldn’t be higher. The number of forest elephants has dropped drastically over the last 15 years.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. The number of forest elephants has dropped drastically over the last 15 years. Even if poaching stopped today, forest elephant populations would take decades to recover. Yet rather than listening to the environment’s best allies, namely the people who have lived in the forest for generations, conservation organisations like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) are in fact aiding in their destruction.

One morning in 2011, during the wild mango season, a Baka man called Abouti was getting ready to bury his son. Three motorbikes pulled up unannounced, as well as two white cars with the WWF logo on their doors. What happened next would leave two more dead.

Fifteen wildlife rangers emerged, and immediately set to work. Abouti and his family told me that virtually everyone in their village in the northern Republic of Congo was beaten in the raid, including children and the elderly. “They took an old motorbike handlebar, placed it on my spine and pumped up and down, up and down,” Abouti told me. “I should’ve died.” His sister-in-law, who was pregnant at the time, explained: “I was crawling on all fours. They beat me with their guns, pieces of wood, their belts.”

As night fell, the community managed to escape into the forest. They fled across the border and took refuge with relatives in Cameroon. Abouti’s niece, Mayi, died there a few nights later – she was less ten years old. An elderly man, Menamina, died the following morning. Both had been beaten by the rangers. 

In the war against poaching, the Baka are all too often caught in the crossfire. So too are Bayaka “Pygmies” and dozens of other rainforest peoples. They are accused of “poaching” when they hunt to feed their families, or even when they merely set foot inside the conservation zones created on their ancestral lands. They face harassment, beatings, torture and even death at the hands of rangers funded and equipped by WWF and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The two organisations have been aware of this abuse for well over a decade now and still have failed to stamp it out. 

Scores of people in Cameroon, the Central African Republic and the Congo have described the abuse they’ve suffered to Survival International, the organisation I work with. Earlier this year, rangers tortured another Baka girl who was around Mayi’s age. They forced her to crouch down and beat her spine and bottom with machetes. When I interviewed her father, he told me he didn’t know whether she would survive. Another man recounted how he was beaten by rangers and then watched as one of them overturned his bed, throwing his sleeping baby violently to the floor. The baby died shortly afterwards, before his parents even had the chance to choose his name.

Around Christmas in 2015, one man was beaten so severely that he started to vomit and defecate blood. By chance, a passing logging truck was able to take him to hospital where he spent over two weeks in a coma. Another victim wasn’t so fortunate; his friend who was caring for him found him dead in his bed, his sheets soaked in blood.

Three years ago, a former WWF consultant witnessed one of these brutal raids for herself in Cameroon. When asked what would happen if they found a “poacher,” one of the rangers told her: “His skin will come off.” At the local government offices, a senior official admitted: “We torture them when they don’t want to tell the truth.”

“We torture them when they don’t want to tell the truth.”

Physical violence is just one part of the abuse. Rangers on patrol routinely burn hunting and gathering camps to the ground, which is particularly devastating since the Baka believe that their life force (bindongobomo) shrinks when these camps are destroyed. Many women also told me how rangers would steal their possessions, including their pots, machetes, hunting nets and even the food they had gathered.

This is how the Baka and Bayaka are being illegally evicted from their ancestral forests. Many report that their health is plummeting due to poor nutrition, new diseases and the loss of forest medicines as a result of being forced from their lands. A recent medical study in one area found health conditions so grave that they would be considered a “public health crisis” by international health agencies. Many have turned to drugs and alcohol to forget their troubles. 

WWF and WCS are fully aware that these evictions are illegal. According to international law, any major project taking place on the land of an indigenous people requires that people’s free, prior and informed consent. Conservationists argue that it is their government partners, not they, who legislate for “protected areas” and hunting restrictions, and who employ rangers. When they are brought substantiated evidence of abuse, the conservation organisations supposedly raise their “concerns.”

If this is the case, then these conservation organisations are doing almost nothing to address the horrific human rights violations that fall under their remit. As Survival explained in a formal complaint earlier last year, they simply cannot be let off the hook so easily – governments rely on the financial and logistical support that they provide, after all. Even mining companies have acknowledged their duty to avoid contributing – even indirectly – to human rights abuse, so why won’t WWF and WCS?

Not only is this abuse unequivocally illegal, but it also harms elephant conservation. By supporting a system that scapegoats the Baka, conservation organisations divert action away from tackling logging. In fact, WWF and WCS have chosen to partner with logging companies (or “forest operators” in WWF-speak) in a misguided bid to address the environmental destruction. The idea is that by fostering “good” logging – a concept in which the companies are expected to pay for anti-poaching measures as well as monitor their activities closely – more can be done to confront the poaching issue. The belief – or, justification – here is that there would be more poaching if there was no logging at all.

Yet this flies in the face of the fact that increased logging boosts the incidence of poaching by carving new ivory trafficking routes deep into the forest: By making areas of the rainforest that were previously difficult to access easier to reach, these news roads grant traffickers wider grounds for their business. New networks are set up and are run with the support of local authorities. The population boom made up of logging company employees and their families, as well as opportunistic people seeking to make money, creates a greater demand for bush meat. WWF and WCS may view these partnerships as "pragmatic" simply because rangers are often then deployed to the logging concessions. But, as watchdogs have pointed out time and again, there are no safeguards in place to make sure that these partnerships aren't just "greenwashing" the destruction of the forest. 

However, this approach is simply not working – corruption infiltrates every level of the strategy. Last August, I met rangers charged with patrolling a logging concession that had obtained its permits illegally, according to Global Witness. WWF decided to partner with it anyway. Within thirty minutes of conversation, one of the rangers was already giving me assurances: “I can help you transport anything: leopard skin, ivory. I put on my uniform and accompany you to the airstrip. It’s me who carries the package.” 

Corruption lies at the heart of the illegal wildlife trade, involving rangers, police, magistrates, politicians, customs officials and many others. Yet rather than confront the real perpetrators, the systems set up by WWF and WCS actually end up punishing the least blameworthy. Only in very rare cases are the real criminals are brought to justice: earlier this year, one of Cameroon’s most senior rangers – who has a particularly brutal reputation – was dismissed after he was caught supplying elephant poachers with automatic weapons. However, rangers who are corrupt or guilty of abuse are seldom rooted out.

This particular model of conservation is actually alienating the best conservationists.

This particular model of conservation is actually alienating the best conservationists. The Baka have lived on their ancestral lands for generations, and so by scapegoating them for the crimes of the actual poachers, conservation organisations are excluding the people best placed to effectively safeguard the local environment. Not only this, but rather than seeing it as necessary environmental protection, many Baka have come to associate conservation with hypocrisy, hunger, violence and the idea that animals' lives have a greater value than their own children's.

Conservationists must start afresh. They need to honour the commitments they’ve made and respect the land rights of people like the Baka, including their right to refuse projects that are likely to harm them. Otherwise, as I’ve heard it said many times, they are just waging war.

When I visited Mayi’s village last September, five years after the raid in 2011, I was told that her parents were still too afraid to come home. Those same rangers are still in their jobs, and their names are well known in many Baka communities.

Abouti himself was beaten again earlier this year. His community has written an open letter to all those funding rangers on their land. “We will always live here – we mustn’t flee,” it reads. “We will always bear the suffering of being beaten. But how will our children survive? […] We ask all those who give money to the rangers to come here to establish peace, and ask us what we think. That way we can explain our needs. Otherwise we are lost.”

The Baka and Bayaka “Pygmies” aren’t the only peoples to fall victim to horrific abuse in the name of conservation: tribal peoples’ rights are being violated in the same way and for the same reasons all across the world. The irony is that by targeting tribal hunters, the big conservation organisations are diverting action away from tackling the true poachers – criminals conspiring with corrupt officials. By targeting tribal peoples, they are actually hindering rather than advancing conservation efforts. 

It’s time for a new model of conservation: one that holds human rights at its core, and which will be inherently more successful at preserving the environment as a result. 

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