Why militarized conservation may be counter-productive: illegal wildlife hunting as defiance



In response to the past decade's surge in the illegal hunting of rhinoceros for the global trade in their horn, conservation authorities in southern Africa have increased the securitization of protected area conservation. Political ecologists have warned that violent, militarized approaches are counter-productive, because they fail to address the root causes of "poaching"and may provide the moral justification for those already marginalized by conservation to hunt wildlife illegally. This is a powerful set of critiques, but scholars have yet to provide an empirically derived explanation of how and why militarized conservation might contribute to, rather than prevent, environmental harms. This lack of explanation emerges from a concerning scarcity of scholarly attention to the people who are actually living with militarized conservation. In response to the increased monitoring and arrests that accompanied the securitization of Mozambique's Limpopo National Park (LNP), Park residents expressed fear, anger, and resentment. Yet they continued to engage in the illegal subsistence-based practices of fishing and hunting in the face of mounting enforcements against these practices. In interviews and public demonstrations, residents consistently questioned the legitimacy of rangers' actions and authority, neutralizing the problem of their own potential involvement in illegal activities by focusing instead on the unjust and morally questionable behaviors of rangers. According to defiance theory, environmental harms will increase as the legitimacy of conservation policies, tactics, and authority decline. As defiance figures into and informs residents' decisions to continue to engage in subsistence-based practices, it may also motivate and justify people's involvement in the more lucrative and harmful activity of hunting threatened and endangered wildlife for the global trade. This article demonstrates why there is a need to fundamentally rethink the increased securitization of protected area conservation and addresses the need for improved understandings of human agency in the face of militarized conservation.

Keywords: illegal wildlife hunting, defiance, Limpopo National Park, Mozambique, human agency

How to Cite: Witter, R. (2021) “Why militarized conservation may be counter-productive: illegal wildlife hunting as defiance”, Journal of Political Ecology. 28(1). doi: