One of the trickiest challenges in fighting poaching is the tension between arming rangers to combat poaching which could lead to increased escalation and tackling the problem through disarmament.
World Wildlife Fund staff cited one of the biggest challenges in combatting poaching is the prevalence of weaponry in range states. Conflict zones sometimes overlap with protected areas. This colocation of animals, soldiers/rebels and weaponry, accompanied by strong financial incentives increases risks of poaching.
In order to reduce the risk of poaching, one approach is to reduce how many guns and ammunition are present in these areas. Disarmament programs have been implemented in the wake of peace agreements in order to facilitate the reintegration of soldiers or rebels into society. There is an opportunity to consider this mechanism as an option to undercut the militarization of poaching while simultaneously reducing its severity.
Since 1992, 24 disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) programs have been implemented in Africa. Disarmament is “the collection, documentation, control and disposal of small arms, ammunition, explosives and light and heavy weapons from combatants and often from the civilian population. In exchange for turning in weapons, ex-combatants usually receive remuneration, either in cash, goods or a combination of the two. Common problems during implementation include combatants who make multiple sales in order to reap the financial benefits of the disarmament program and commanders who simply keep their best weapons.
A more recent trend in arms control mechanisms focus on ammunition. Because ammunition requires constant replacement, its sale and distribution represent a compelling opportunity to reduce the significance of weapons in these regions. An Oxfam briefing paper from May of 2012 cited a number of conflicts that were interrupted by depleted ammunition stocks.
It is important to note that there is strong, domestic resistance from the NRA to programs that limit sales of weapons and ammunition. Therefore, any disarmament programs requiring Congressional authorization may face political challenges. With respect to ammunition controls, a small arms researcher notes that “politically, it may be a bridge too far” and that the United States does not support increased ammunition controls.
Currently, the UN is instrumental in running many of the existing DDR programs in Africa. In order to capitalize on and ensure coordination with already-established programs, this policy option proposes providing additional support to UN disarmament programs in range states. The criteria for identifying this expanded funding must include an assessment of poaching prevalence in selected sites. Support should also be available for establishing new programs based on poaching severity, since the existing programs have been established as part of peacekeeping efforts after violent civil conflict.
A disarmament program as part of an anti-poaching campaign has some advantages and disadvantages which are worth exploring.
- Interrupting the cycle of arms begetting arms for the sake of reducing poaching could have important, positive spillover benefits for communities in these regions including overall violence reduction and increased peacebuilding.
- Incorporating poaching prevalence into the establishment criteria for disarmament programs brings additional attention to this important conservation issue, ensuring it remains part of the security conversation.
- If conflict in the region is ongoing, the incentive for individual soldiers or rebels to disarm will be low.
- The prevalence of weapons in range states is fundamentally driven by conflict dynamics, not money-making opportunities in poaching. As a result, implementation of a disarmament program that neglects conflict dynamics in that area could change those dynamics in unexpected and potentially disastrous ways (e.g., disarming one group which is subsequently targeted by another group due to its relative weakness).
- Disarmament is particularly challenging in the absence of a functioning state or where people believe the police or security personnel are “owned” by a particular group. In this situation, gun ownership is essentially “security self-help.” There is significant correlation between weak states and high poaching, which means the implementation environment for this program is not optimal.