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What Central Africa’s War on Poaching Can Teach Us About Fighting the Plunder of Antiquities

A Mi-17 helicopter of the Uganda People's Defense Force during an exercise. Ugandan troops have been accused of hunting elephants from helicopters inside the Congo. (US Army Photo)
A Mi-17 helicopter of the Uganda People’s Defense Force during an exercise. Sent to the Congo to fight the Lord’s Resistance Army, Ugandan troops have been accused of hunting elephants from helicopters. (US Army Photo)

Calls for greater law enforcement efforts to fight antiquities trafficking have been growing ever since ISIS’ profiteering from the trade in looted antiquities became public knowledge in 2014. Two years later, concrete steps are finally being taken.

In May, US President Barack Obama signed a new law banning the import of Syrian antiquities into the United States. In the same month, the G7 nations agreed to combat terrorist financing by calling on all states to crack down on traffic in cultural property and expand the use of international databases to identify stolen art.

Others have advocated escalating the fight against antiquities trafficking even further. Last year Hugh Eakin, senior editor at the New York Review of Books, called for extending the doctrine of “responsibility to protect” to cover inanimate cultural heritage as well as human beings. Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini proposed an “international rapid response force” under United Nations supervision to defend monuments and cultural sites. In February, UNESCO created such a unit in partnership with the Italian Carabinieri. The unit will seek to remove cultural property to safe locations and protect immovable historic sites.

An even more aggressive stance was proposed by the Antiquities Coalition in April. In a report titled “#CultureUnderThreat: Recommendations for the U.S. Government,” the group suggested using the military to protect cultural property and advocated using air strikes to protect cultural heritage sites from being targeted.

Rhino poaching in South Africa, 2007-2015. (source)
Rhino poaching in South Africa, 2007-2015. (Save The Rhino)

Advocates of escalating the War on Looting might do well to examine other attempts to militarize the fight against illicit trafficking. In the past ten years wildlife poaching has exploded in sub-Saharan Africa, fueled by demand in East Asia for elephant ivory and rhino horn. Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that trade in both these items has been illegal since 1973, a single elephant can yield $30,000 worth of ivory while rhino horn sells for $65,000 per kilogram, making it more valuable than cocaine.

These are astronomical sums by local standards, exponentially greater than the GDP per capita of the most poaching-affected countries. The effect has been catastrophic. From 2010 to 2015 Tanzania’s population of elephants was reduced by 60%. In South Africa, the number of rhinos killed by poachers jumped from 13 in 2007 to over 1,000 each year from 2013-2015.

In central Africa a deadly combination of militant groups and unstable governments has produced the most devastating results. Just as militants in Syria profit from the illegal trade in antiquities, groups such as Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the March 23 Movement (M23), the Allied Democratic Forces-National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (ADF-NALU), Seleka, and the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR) fund their activities through trafficking in ivory and rhino horn. Poaching takes place on an industrial scale, with poachers using machine guns to kill dozens of elephants in a few hours.

Map of the ivory trade in the northeastern Congo. From "Ivory's Curse: The Militarization and Professionalization of Poaching in Africa," p. 34.
Map of the ivory trade in the northeastern Congo. From “Ivory’s Curse: The Militarization and Professionalization of Poaching in Africa,” p. 34.

Governments have responded by escalating their use of force. As early as 2001 the Central African Republic authorized militant conservationist and Earth First! founder Bruce Hayse to raise a unit of 400 South African and Rhodesian mercenaries to fight poachers. More recently several countries have hired private military companies staffed by South African, French, Israeli or Australian special forces veterans to train park rangers in military tactics.

One result has been an escalating cycle of violence. In Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo over 150 rangers have been killed in the past ten years. Half of the Congo’s Garamba National Park is controlled by the LRA, who in 2009 staged an attack on the park headquarters which killed 10 rangers. Garamba was home to 11,000 elephants in 1995; by 2012 only 1,600 remained. In 2012 another militia overran a ranger post, killed seven guards, and slaughtered fourteen endangered okapis kept there as part of a captive breeding program.

In response, many governments have adopted shoot-on-sight policies for poachers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, giving park rangers a license to kill without legal consequences has led to abuses of power and mistaken killings, which in turn breed resentment of both the authorities and the foreign conservationists who support and fund them.

Footage taken from YouTube shows Tanzanian soldiers abusing prisoners during Operation Tokumeza. Footage like this went viral in Tanzania, causing additional pressure of the government. (source)
Amateur video footage taken from YouTube shows Tanzanian soldiers abusing prisoners detained during Operation Tokomeza. Footage of incidents like this went viral in Tanzania, creating pressure on the government. (source)

In one of the worst examples, in October 2013 Tanzanian tourism minister Khamis Kagasheki deployed 2,300 soldiers, police, and rangers in an anti-poaching mission named “Operation Tokomeza” (“Operation Destroy”). Ordered by Kagasheki to “execute the killers on the spot,” the operation disintegrated into scandal within a month as the security forces arrested over a thousand people, brutally tortured prisoners, committed multiple rapes, and murdered thirteen civilians. Kagasheki was dismissed from the government for his actions. The nonprofit conservation organization Fight for Rhinos noted the human rights abuses but nevertheless praised the operation as “extremely effective” since only two elephants were killed that month.

Footage shows a Tanzanian anti-poaching officer beating a suspected poacher during Operation Tokomeza. (Legal and Human Rights Center, Dar-es-Salaam)
Amateur footage shows a Tanzanian anti-poaching officer beating a suspected poacher during Operation Tokomeza. (Legal and Human Rights Center, Dar-es-Salaam)

“I have met numerous conservationists who never question any human rights abuses, strong-arm tactics by authorities, or the power structures in which conservation exists, as long as there is a semblance of animal protection,” said Kenyan journalist Gitau Mbaria in an interview. “My experience is that most conservationists are indifferent to the resentment that this provokes … But they have the dollars, so they can influence the shape wildlife law and policies take.”

Operation Tokomeza is perhaps the most extreme example of the dangers of pursuing a strategy which prioritizes animals or inanimate cultural property over the lives of human beings who live in the same areas. Sadly, such an attitude has infected the debate over the current crisis in Iraq and Syria. When western observers obsess over the fate of antiquities in Palmyra to the exclusion of concern for the people living nearby, when headline writers produce titles like “Why it’s all right to be more horrified by the razing of Palmyra than mass murder,” and pundits call for military intervention solely to protect ancient sites, they are engaged in a neo-colonial discourse which places the greatest value on things that educated people in developed countries care about the most, namely exotic ancient artifacts and adorable wildlife, while overlooking the very real needs of the people who come into regular contact with these things and have much more directly at stake.

This attitude is not only callous but also misguided. Escalating enforcement is likely to backfire, because in the 21st century the network always wins. To use terms coined by military theorist John Robb, both Syria and the northeast Congo are currently ‘bazaars of violence’ featuring dozens of armed groups fighting governments as well as each other in an ‘open source war’ in which they are all constantly innovating and learning from each other.

The state cannot adapt fast enough to counter such groups, for their decision-making process is many times faster than any government bureaucracy. Eventually the groups form a sort of emergent intelligence, as one group inevitably finds a weakness in the state’s tactics which the others copy. As Robb put it in his 2007 book Brave New War:

You can’t kill their leaders, because they don’t need them. You can’t reliably prevent future attacks, because they’re small scale, dispersed, and unpredictable. You can’t outmaneuver or outsmart them, because their innovative organization system makes that nearly impossible. Welcome to the open-source war.

Rangers with an elephant killed by poachers (source).
Rangers with an elephant killed by poachers (source).

Past experience suggests that an enforcement-centric approach to banning the trade in antiquities is about as likely to be effective as similar efforts to stem the trade in narcotics, illegal guns, human trafficking, and wildlife. Networks adapt. Illicit items flow through the global marketplace. Despite spending massive resources, governments cannot keep up because they cannot adapt quickly enough. Between 2004 and 2014 the US military threw $7.6 billion towards eradicating Afghan heroin production only to see it increase exponentially. Realistically, what hope do we have for eradicating the global trade in looted artifacts with much less resources dedicated to the goal?

There is another possible way forward. Focusing solely on looting or poaching ignores that these things are but symptoms of a larger maelstrom of poverty, violence and political instability. In a 2014 essay “Virtues Impracticable and Extremely Difficult: The Human Rights of Subsistence Diggers,” Sam Hardy argued that instead of trying to outgun looters, cultural heritage professionals should ensure their projects have a positive economic impact on local communities and conserve sites as a sustainable economic resource so that there is no longer any motive to loot them.

Kenya has generally eschewed militarized park policing since the 1990s and has instead embraced a community-based model. Conservationists seek to win over the locals by gathering input from herders before making land-usage arrangements, giving community elders seats on conservancy boards, hiring rangers from local tribes, allowing local groups to start their own tourism initiatives, and generally promoting community ownership of conservation. The result has been a 53% decline in elephant poaching in Kenya since 2012 even as rates have increased elsewhere on the continent.

Other countries may be taking notice. In the aftermath of the Operation Tokomeza scandal, Tanzania’s deputy communication minister January Makamba opined that: “The villages that surround these sanctuaries have to somehow be taken care of in a manner that people do not feel that ‘we have to help poachers to poach so we can make a living’,” adding that “If local communities see benefits of conservation in their livelihoods, they can be the first defenders of wildlife. Otherwise, if you take an approach where it’s necessary to bring an army and local communities look at them with suspicion, they’re part of the enemy — you occupy with the villages. That cannot be of benefit.”

Robb argues in Brave New War that the only way to counter an open-source war is to build counter-networks. Participatory, adaptive, and networked organizations can form what Robb calls ‘resilient communities’ which are adaptable enough to ensure their own security against other networked groups. Kenya’s community participation model for wildlife conservation takes many steps in this direction. Hopefully, other projects seeking to conserve both antiquities and wildlife will find it a useful model as well.

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