‘Shoot to kill’: Does killing in the name of wildlife conservation actually work?
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‘Shoot to kill’: Does killing in the name of wildlife conservation actually work?

A SEVEN-YEAR-OLD boy from a local tribe was badly injured recently after being shot by a park ranger in Kaziranga National Park in northeast India, infamous for its “shoot to kill” policy to curb poaching activities.

According to local reports, the boy, identified as Akash Orang, was shot in the leg by a ranger, who claimed that he had been trying to scare a rhino away, thinking it might wander into a nearby village.

The rifle allegedly misfired after the guard accidentally touched the trigger, causing the stray bullet to hit the boy.

The guard who shot Akash, as well as another guard, were suspended after the boy’s tribe protested against the incident.

According to Survival International, an NGO protecting tribal people’s rights, the shooting raised “serious concerns” over the effectiveness and suitability of the “shoot to kill” policy, accusing park officials of harsh mistreatment of local tribespeople, including beatings, torture, and even death.

Poachers … or innocent villagers?

Kaziranga park, which employs some 1,200 rangers, is home to two-thirds of the world’s one-horned rhino population and has the highest density of tigers in any protected area in the world, reported The Guardian.

With rhino horn worth up to US$300,000 per kilogram on the black market, it’s no wonder that park rangers have their hands full dealing with poachers.

Under the policy, park rangers are given license to carry firearms and are said to receive a cash prize if they successfully wound or kill a poacher. They are also legally protected from being prosecuted for injuring or killing someone in the line of duty.

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A one-horned rhinoceros wades in water as a forest guard stands watch inside the Kaziranga National Park. Pic: AP.

The park’s official statistics revealed that since 2007, some 67 “poachers” have been killed, but human rights activists have alleged that providing monetary incentives and legal indemnity to park rangers have led to indiscriminate action taken against innocent people.

A report published by the Hindustan Times revealed that the forest department and state police appeared to be carrying out unjustified, extrajudicial killings of locals, many of whom had only strayed into the park to retrieve cattle or collect firewood.

Responding to Akash’s incident, Survival International director Stephen Corry said: “It’s time for a global outcry to stop innocent tribal people being shot and killed in the name of conservation. It’s no good pretending this is an isolated accident, it’s an integral part of the murderous regime running this reserve.”

Only as a last resort

It may seem like a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario for park rangers – while calls for urgent measures to deter poaching have increased over the years, the implementation of the “shoot to kill” policy at various national parks across the world have been on the receiving end of strident criticism.

Even for many conservationists in support of the policy, shooting poachers should only be in self-defense and as a last resort.

Conservation NGO Save the Rhino International chimed in on the issue, stating that as most poachers carry guns these days, rangers should also be armed, so that they can defend themselves if they are attacked.

However, the organization added that it would be more beneficial if poachers were caught and arrested instead, as it would give rangers the opportunity to “recover valuable information” about the supply chain and smuggling routes.

They also questioned the effectiveness of the policy on the grounds that killing a poacher would not achieve much in putting a stop to poaching, as one would only be replaced by another.

“The highly organized nature of poaching syndicates means that the poacher ‘on the ground’ is doing the dirty work, but somewhere much higher up the chain is a criminal gang calling the shots,” said the group.

Community-based conservation: another alternative

In a 2014 paper published in Environmental Economics, an analysis of anti-poaching techniques used in Africa concluded that parks which utilized the “shoot to kill” policy saw “reduced poaching at a faster pace than any other method, as poachers feared for their lives when caught poaching”, adding:

“Of all the methods tried up to date it is the only one that can give a clear signal to poachers that rhinos deserve to live.”

But Survival International believes in the merit of community-based conservation, which allows local tribes to live on reserve land in exchange for their cooperation and expertise in conservation efforts.

According to the group, between 2010 and 2014, the tiger population in the BRT Tiger Reserve in Karnataka state grew to almost double its initial number, from 35 to 68.

The NGO said that this was proof that “militarization is not necessary for successful conservation”.

In 2011, an Indian court made a landmark ruling to recognize the Soliga tribe’s right to stay on the reserve’s land, as many members of its community stake their livelihood on forest produce, such as honey.