The pumpkins of biodiversity conservation

In most parts of India, it is common to see smashed pumpkins early morning in front of stores. The belief is that negative elements accrued through the day that affects business are captured inside the pumpkin and exterminated at the end of the day. When I came across pictures from news articles about ‘poachers’ being shot in the head in Kaziranga National Park in India, it reminded me of the smashed pumpkins. Apart from the visual similarity between an opened up human head and a smashed pumpkin, both visuals deceive stakeholders into believing that a problem is being adequately addressed. However, if we are to arrest the alarming rate at which wild animal populations are decreasing worldwide, we have to drastically change the current archaic approach. In this essay I contextualise the act of taking human lives to achieve biodiversity conservation goals and try to understand potential proximate and long term processes that have led to the justification of such violent acts. I conclude by suggesting that the conservation movement has to shed its tendency to consolidate power and instead use its resources to invest in strength.


Currently, ‘shoot to kill’ orders are in place in Kaziranga National Park in India. Further, the law enforcement staff of the park are provided additional financial incentives for killing or wounding poachers. Such military approaches to conservation have been increasing in African and Asian forests. To understand the overall context in which killing of humans for conservation is justified, I have drawn from my own experience of living among forest-dwelling communities in Indian forests and from the work of scholars such as Rosaleen Duffy, Roderick Neumann and Trishant Simlai. In contrast to the military approach to forest protection is the policing approach. It could be argued that the distinction between police and military approaches is blurred and they tend to exist in continuum in the real world. Nevertheless, the dichotomisation does not undermine the central point of this article.


The foremost similarity between smashing a pumpkin and killing a poacher is that perhaps it has little or no positive impact on the ultimate objectives of improving business or biodiversity quality respectively. However, killing a human has high social costs and yet has the intellectual and financial backing of international conservation organisations. Hence, it may be worthwhile to invest time to understand the legitimacy of such actions. From a cursory understanding of biodiversity and people worldwide, it is apparent that the overlap between severe poverty and biodiversity is quite high. The chronic poverty ensures a steady supply of ‘Poachers’ who happen to be at one end of the supply chain of animal products. Therefore, as long as there are people who seek things that other consider basic, like food, education, etc. there will be a supply of ‘poachers’. In any case, most of the hunting happens for a consumers in far parts of the world connected through corrupt officials and transnational criminal gangs. So, ‘poachers’ are a symptom of a problem rather than the problem. To borrow a term from medical science, killing these hunters is a symptomatic treatment – i.e. treating a symptom than the underlying cause. It is inevitable that the killing of wildlife will persist in one way or another till the larger structure is dismantled.


The long term impacts of such violent acts can also have grave negative conservation implications. Some of the potential consequence is perhaps driven by the implicit assumption that biodiversity occurs only inside Protected Areas and that Protected Areas don’t have people inside both of which are incorrect assumptions. According to rough estimates, about 100 million people live in Indian forests. Even if this estimate was off by 25 %, it would still be more than the combined populations of Australia and Canada. Wild animals are found in human dominated landscapes exemplified by human-wildlife conflicts. For example, in December 2015, a tiger strayed outside Orang National Park killing village cattle; On 7th February 2016, a leopard entered a school in Bangalore and mauled five people; On February 10 2016, a herd of elephants entered Silugiri town and destroyed human property. Such incidences of human-wildlife interactions are not uncommon. So what is to be done of wildlife that is outside protected areas? Going by the same logic, should we kill animals that are found outside? For a viable population of animals to survive, they have to move across space and people who have co-evolved with biodiversity have always found a way to share space with animals and plants. But increasingly, the dominant paradigm of excluding people from biodiversity has resulted in people’s alienation. Animals are now predominantly being seen as something owned by the state resulting in increasing calls for culling animals that are found outside forests. With additional militarisation, the conservation movement is fast losing the moral ground to expect people to tolerate animals outside forests.


Continuing with the pumpkin metaphor, another similarity between smashing a pumpkin and killing a poacher is that it is likely to result in inaction. The fundamental conservation problem with such symptomatic treatment is that it deceives the public into believing that conservation problems are being addressed. In reality, the underlying drivers of illegal hunting continues while scarce conservation funds are being channelled into activities that are detrimental to biodiversity conservation. Society is perhaps better off investing to find other ways to deal with the drivers of illegal hunting.


I now turn to the social costs of increased militarisation of conservation. Poachers tend to be fit adult males, the death of whom can have severe financial impact on their families in addition to mental trauma. But death is only the extreme consequence of militarised conservation. Huge extra judicial atrocities are carried out in the name of conservation which does not meet the public eye. This would be evident if one spends a few days living among such communities. For those conservationists who influence decisions without being able to spend time on the ground, a few atrocities do end up in documents – apart from murder and rape, torture by conservation agents have been reported from South Africa, Tanzania, and Botswana. Another increasing trend is the use of military approaches in collecting information remotely through camera traps, drones, and acoustic censors. Drones now fly over forests of Africa and India to gather intelligence. Most of forests in India have people living inside for whom forests means more than mere biodiversity. Apart from religious and cultural significance, several daily activities such as defecating and bathing are carried outside their dwelling and in the forests. With rapid technological advancement, it is inevitable that the scope and scale of such technology will also increase in conservation efforts. However, it is important to consider the implications of such military technology on basic human rights of people.


I now turn inward to the world of conservationist and conservation scientists to understand why they have so much distaste for ‘poachers’ that they allow a conservation argument to take human lives specially when killing wild animals is not new. I have come across taxonomists who kill animals in the name of science; I have across conservation scientists who killed wild animals for food during research expeditions because they didn’t want to spend money on hiring labour to carry meat from towns; I have read about trophy hunters who pay a hefty amount to kill an animal; I have read about sport hunters who have legal right to kill; There are numerous examples of hunters who have been hailed as conservationists. So, killing of wild animals is not new and in most above cases, it is celebrated. Recently, a scientist from the American Museum of Natural History killed a Kingfisher in Solomon Islands that had not been documented by western scientists for over 50 years. So, it is not even about the worry of a species going extinct that drives conservation minded people to call for human lives. Could it just be the nature of similarity and dissimilarity between the two groups? There are many similarities between a conservation minded scientists and a poachers such as intricate knowledge of species or their financial dependence on biodiversity (although the extent may vary). Could a typical characteristic of the poacher hold an answer? The typical poacher who gets shot by enforcement agencies is almost never Caucasian; is poor; is male (although some female do get affected); is limited with professional choices. Or could it be that the poacher has been reluctant to come into the large conservation umbrella which seems to fit almost anything and anyone. Or could it be in the way the two groups ‘consume’ wildlife? While ‘consumption’ of wildlife by scientists still largely leaves it for its consumption by others, the way the hunter consumes wildlife permanently changes it character.


Whatever the proximate reason, it is important to understand the processes’ through which a conservation argument is now a justification for taking human lives. Conservation solutions tend to reduce a problem to simplistic understanding such as the ones seen in recent discussions on Natural Capital which attempts to reduce biodiversity loss by equating nature’s services with money value. While such reductions are useful academic tool, it may not be best equipped to address real conservation problems which are poorly defined and are situated in complex non-static contexts. The hunting of wild animals for trade is a result of complex social, political and economics processes. Killing the hunter is the easiest action as opposed to dealing with systemic corruption and global networks of trafficking. On one side, conservation organisations employ army veterans of ‘poacher hunters’ from the developed countries to catch poachers in Africa while trophy hunters mostly from developed countries pay exorbitant amounts to shoot animals legally. It does seem extremely vulgar that people from richer parts of the world come to Africa to shoot people and wildlife. Of course, part of fee paid by trophy hunters are used to fund conservation activities and therefore are seen as partners in conservation. It gives the impression that our conservation world is not transparent now and that the real enemies lie in the shadows. If we are to appear serious about dealing decisively with animal trade we have to be prepared to go beyond simplistic solutions.


Reading the history of modern conservation movement from the 17th century shows that the conservation movement had more to do with the consolidation of power rather than with biodiversity. It has been about one dominant narrative over-writing a meeker one. The French philosopher, Michel Foucalt, argued that the defining characteristics of exercising power was the juridical means to take life. It is indeed strange that a conservation argument has become so powerful that it now has juridical authority to take human life, that too without prosecution. Some elites may cheer from the galleries, but is this power good for biodiversity conservation? There are real threats to biodiversity globally which require society’s serious engagement. If not power, what should we base our biodiversity conservation paradigm on? The conservation story is so depressing that, for inspiration I looked to a five word phrase in a poem (if I may call it a poem) by Arundhati Roy in which she vaguely refers to the difference between power and strength. Whole truth, instead of partial truth; Transparency instead of opaqueness; including narratives rather than erasing them; can be thought of as attributed of strength. Although subtle, the difference between the two is profound and perhaps shunning power and investing in strength is the way to take.


If we were to invest on strength in the biodiversity conservation discourse, where might we start? Power is so pervasive in the conservation paradigm that we can barely see it anymore. In his critique of authority, Jacques Derrida says that language is intrinsically bound with power. This power-language relationship can be observed in the narrative of ‘discoveries’ and ‘re-discoveries’ of species. It is quite common for scientists who describe species to claim that ‘this species was never seen by anyone before’ or ‘this species was not seen by anyone in the past so many years’ and yet a foot notes is likely to have a reference to how local people showed the species to the scientists. That certain people are ‘nobody’ in the conservation language is a remarkable show of power. Perhaps considering all humans as humans will be a good starting point.



Further readings:

Duffy, Rosaleen. “Waging a war to save biodiversity: the rise of militarized conservation.” International Affairs 90.4 (2014): 819-834.

Meet the Badass Female ‘Poacher Hunter’ Turning Africa’s Scummy Predators Into Prey

Neumann, Roderick P. “Moral and discursive geographies in the war for biodiversity in Africa.” Political Geography 23.7 (2004): 813-837.

Newman, Saul. “Derrida’s deconstruction of authority.” Philosophy & Social Criticism 27.3 (2001): 1-20.

Roy, Arundhati. The cost of living. Vintage Canada, 2010.

Simlai, Trishanth. Conservation ‘Wars’. Global Rise of Green Militarisation Vol. 50, Issue No. 50, 12 Dec, 2015


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