NEWS | Anti-poaching’s politics of (in)visibility: Representing nature and conservation amidst a poaching crisis

Francis Massé talks about his new article in Geoforum

Francis Massé has recently published a new article in Geoforum, ‘Anti-poaching’s politics of (in)visibility: Representing nature and conservation amidst a poaching crisis’. Here is what he had to say about it.

During my fieldwork living with rangers in the rhino poaching hotspot of the Mozambique-South Africa borderlands, I was continuously confronted with a discrepancy: What I would read about rhino poaching, what was happening, and what was needed to address it by conservation, and especially anti-poaching NGOs, was not matching up with what I was observing on the ground. The story told to a broad audience, largely through social media, was a simplistic representation of the problem and the solutions that were ostensibly needed. This article emerges from grappling with this and trying to understand how and why poaching and anti-poaching are represented the way they are, what is left out, and why such representations matter for conservation practice. I capture this by thinking through the politics of visibility of anti-poaching. As I write in the article: “Which dynamics of poaching and anti-poaching are made visible, which are not, for what reasons, by whom, and with what implications constitutes what I call anti-poaching’s politics of (in)visibility.”

In some ways, the argument and analysis put forward is not entirely novel as it builds on a large body of work that examines and deconstructs representations of conservation and how conservation organizations themselves represent “nature”, animals, people, and the relations between them. Doing such work and highlighting why it matters for conservation practice and policy – and the social and ecological implications this yields – has long been a mainstay of cultural-ecology and political-ecology work on conservation (see for example work by Neumann, Brooks, Igoe, and Adams & McShane). What is different, however, is not only the scale and intensity of the commercial poaching and efforts to address it, but how social media has become ubiquitous and an increasingly important tool for raising awareness and funds for conservation in general, and anti-poaching more specifically. In pursuing this line of analysis I am in conversation with related and excellent work by scholars such as Esther Marijnen and Judith Verweijen, Elizabeth Lunstrum, Bram Büscher, and Bill McClanahan and Tyler Wall, to name just a few. While I parallel many of the arguments made in these articles about the social implications of simplistic representations of poaching and anti-poaching, I hope to bring the ecological implications more squarely into the frame. To do this, I draw on research with conservation managers and rangers to demonstrate how simplistic representations of poaching and militarized responses skew priorities and resource allocation and “risk jeopardizing the mundane ecological and biological management of protected areas.” As a result, I hope the article contributes to further developing a “robust political-ecology of anti-poaching specifically, and of conservation in the current context of heightened commercial poaching and the intensification of efforts to combat it more generally.” Moving beyond critique and an examination of the negative implications of this politics of (in)visibility, I end by thinking about “how a politics of visibility might be harnessed for a more socially and ecologically sustainable approach to addressing poaching.”