COMMENT | The Ethics of Violent Conservation

Dan Brockington and Rosaleen Duffy respond to a recent article advocating militarised approaches to conservation.

*This blog was updated on 16/12/2019 in response to clarification from the authors of the Science article*

Conservation practices and decisions have repercussions for people, and different repercussions for different people. Conservation is inevitably a human enterprise. Conservation itself – if ever there was any foundational form of it – has always been embedded in problems of social justice. Arguments  about conservation that try to separate out ecojustice from social justice are very misguided and could have far reaching negative consequences for people and for wildlife.

When Science published this letter by Guillaume Chapron and José Vicente López-Bao it prompted a mixture of confusion, anger and dismay. On twitter several people suggested that it was actually probably just satire (see here and here). When we explored it, and the authors’ other work, we found that it was a strange mixture of shoddy arguments, outlandish claims and flawed logic (Figure 1). Given the quality of the authors’ other research (which is good) we too suspected it was satire; Dan Brockington then tweeted a thread that explained why.

We presume that this reaction prompted Science and the authors to publish a correction two weeks after the letter was first published. We reproduce that correction in full below.

Correction (11 November 2019): Our Letter “Trophy hunting: Role of consequentialism” (25 October, p. 432) was a response to Dickman et al.’s letter “Trophy hunting bans imperil biodiversity” (30 August, p. 874), which implied that even if trophy hunting is morally “repugnant,” it should be promoted in the interest of conserving biodiversity. That line of reasoning is entirely consequentialist (i.e., an action is judged by its outcome) and can be dangerous because it removes other types of ethical objections from consideration. We tried to illustrate this by demonstrating how it can be used to promote other actions also done for a conservation purpose and which also may be viewed as morally repugnant. Our Letter was deliberately provocative and blended credible discourse with a bit of sarcasm and irony, which may leave readers questioning whether the Letter was intentionally satirical. We expected readers to question whether actions they judge as morally repugnant still ought to be promoted. Although it may be tempting to set aside moral principles when facing an accelerating crisis, it may be precisely during such times that moral principles need to be held. We hope our Letter encourages readers to reflect more on the role of ethics in making conservation decisions on thorny issues.

Unfortunately this correction doesn’t really clear the mess the letter made up well. In the first instant, it corrects nothing, it merely tries to clarify. In the second instance it is not easily accessible. The letter is in the public domain (in front of the pay-wall), but its correction is only accessible to those with a science subscription. The uncorrected confusing letter remains in the public domain. Moreover the authors have not sought to engage, by social media or by e-mail, the confusions which their letter caused. They have not drawn any attention to their correction.

Third, it remains unclear which elements were serious, and which were tongue in cheek. There is too much resonance between many elements of the letter and the authors’ published works to know for certain. Moreover we believe that this letter does not achieve its stated aim. It will not encourage ‘readers to reflect more on the role of ethics in conservation’ in a way which promotes understanding.

The purpose of this essay is to explore, we hope more effectively, the ethical issues that Chapron and López-Bao sought to raise. We will show how hard it can be to discern serious comment from irony in their original letter. We will urge readers to look carefully at the ethical issues of using, and also not using, violence in service of conservation. To make these arguments we draw not only on Chapron and López-Bao’s letter, but other associated works. We will show that their arguments are deeply flawed, but that we cannot reject the ideas which have inspired them because of these mistakes.

People and wildlife live together in Nth Stradbroke Island, Australia (photo credit: Rosaleen Duffy)
People and wildlife live together in Nth Stradbroke Island, Australia (photo credit: Rosaleen Duffy)

Irony, Satire or Deadly Serious?

The scholarship of Chapron and López-Bao’s letter was oddly flawed, and on their most important point. They argued that militarised conservation can be effective. But the examples they chose to illustrate that point were weak, they were not based on peer-reviewed studies which could sustain, in a scientific community, the claims that they were making.

In making such a weak case they may have been writing with their tongues in their cheeks. But while we can see this is provocative we cannot see how it is ironic or satirical. Conservation has a history of not being good at recognising the social problems it can cause. Their writing simply reproduced an established, serious trend.

The weaknesses of their argument does not make it necessarily wrong. It was established long ago that violence and force can serve conservation goals. There is a voluminous literature here. To take some examples, Jacoby’s and Spence’s history of conservation in the US made clear that conservation was one weapon in the wars against Native Americans, and that conservation restrictions were imposed on rural people. In East Africa Dan Brockington’s work demonstrated that forceful conservation could be effective with respect to specific conservation goals such as creating rhinoceros sanctuaries and Rod Neumann has shown that wilderness could be imposed (see here, here and here). Jane Carruther’s history of the Kruger National Park showed it was intimately involved in the violences of apartheid. Because this violence could also be unjust, the conservation movement began to take the problems of social injustice much more seriously; in 2003 the World Parks Congress in Durban proved to be something of a turning point.

But if the effectiveness of violence is an old point, how can we object to the author’s argument that violent conservation is a good means of coping with current conservation dilemmas? Do we need a more militarised conservation given the rapid escalation of poaching?

We do not doubt in principle that more firepower makes a difference. One of the few studies that has interviewed poachers (of which we are aware) makes clear that poachers were not driven by poverty, but seeking higher levels of prosperity. The threat of increased violence will undoubtedly alter the mixture of costs and benefits that they have to consider. More personally, Dan Brockington’s own father-in-law served as a game guard in Tanzania and was forced to flee the role because of the poaching gangs’ superior firepower in the crises of the 1970s. Weapons change minds.

Salt lick lemur (photo credit: Rosaleen Duffy)
Salt lick lemur (photo credit: Rosaleen Duffy)

But the fact that violence and arms can reduce poaching does not mean that it is the best means of doing so, either in terms of conservation outcomes, or in terms of cost-effectiveness, or in terms of unintended consequences and social justice and so on. The claim that ‘militarised conservation works’ cannot, if it is to be taken seriously at all, be made in isolation. We have to know that it is better than available alternatives.

And here the literature is surprisingly weak. Consider one of the most iconic and important cases – rhino poaching in Africa. There are those who argue that greater levels of enforcement, including use of firepower reduces poaching (see here and here). But there are also claims that community-based measures work well (see here, here, here and here). There is, however, no study of which we are aware that shows under which circumstances what forms of anti-poaching effort produce what results, compared to different forms of community-based attempts. Such a study would have to control for all sorts of variables (infrastructure, government oversight, proximity of conflict, population density). But, given the restricted number of sites where rhino can be found and the high availability of data about levels of protection and community support, it would be possible to do. In its absence, our empirical basis for assessing the effectiveness of militarised approaches compared to other options is lacking.

Here we come to a central gap in Chapron and López-Bao’s argument. First, they assert, that ‘viable alternatives’ to militarised conservation are lacking. But researchers have oddly failed to consider how viable different alternatives might be. Second, they observed that militarisation might meet ethical objections from some people but ‘conservation policy that is not based on science threatens habitat and biodiversity.’ It is a strange remark, but we take it to mean that the authors seem to be arguing that there is an empirically strong evidential basis to show that militarised conservation works. However that evidential basis is not as strong as they believe; they cannot make the comparative claims that they want to. A review of the evidence has in fact shown that it is hard to show that militarisation worked. If conservation policy is to be based on ‘science’, then much more science needs to be done.

Once again it is possible that the authors were being satirical in their claim that good conservation policy must be based on science. But that would seem to make a mockery of much of the spirit animating their own work. It is certainly a view that would be taken seriously by many in the conservation community, which still comes overwhelmingly from a natural science background. It is hard to know what to take seriously and what not to.

A second curious area of lapse scholarship was the letter’s discussion on evictions. Chapron and López-Bao claimed that ‘Displacement is another ostracized conservation tool’. And in doing so (and in only citing a now outdated work from 2003) they demonstrated considerable ignorance about the role of displacement in conservation. Research here has shown that there are different forms of displacement – economic and physical with the former likely to be more prevalent. Social scientists have spent much effort understanding the impacts of eviction in part because they recognise that it is inevitable in some cases. They have therefore examined how to mitigate the diverse costs evictees incur.[1] It can even be done well; it is possible, but extremely rare for eviction for conservation to make former residents more prosperous.

Here again Chapron and López-Bao may be employing irony. But we think that this again falls flat. After all they are simply wrong to say that displacement is ‘ostracised’. Protected areas the world over depend on eviction and exclusion. It is written into the legislation. Displacement in diverse forms is one of the most common experiences of conservation that rural people know. And given that eviction is one of the most violent acts that a state can inflict on its law-abiding citizens it is indeed a strategy, if it is ever necessary, that needs to be used cautiously.

Jaguar project sign Belize (photo credit: Rosaleen Duffy)
Jaguar project sign Belize (photo credit: Rosaleen Duffy)
Wild dogs Crossing place Zimbabwe (photo credit: Rosaleen Duffy)
Wild dogs Crossing place Zimbabwe (photo credit: Rosaleen Duffy)


The Ethics of Violence for and against Nature

The problems we have just highlighted are serious, but they are not our main objection to Chapron and López-Bao’s letter. The errors of scholarship and interpretation of sources that we just discussed should not have appeared in print. But they would also be relatively easy to clear up with basic editing and a modicum of reading. Much more intriguing are the stances that Chapron and López-Bao took in their writing about the contributions of social science, conservation science and ethical considerations to conservation policy. These stances require more careful consideration because at bottom here is the prospect of broadening our conception of justice at work in conservation so that we do not only consider justice for people but also for nature, in the broadest possible sense of the term.

The case for this has been well put in a different paper lead by Haydn Washington, with Chapron as a co-author. This work observes that it does not make sense to privilege people over other life forms, or even other forms of nature because we simply could not exist except as part of larger collectives. Our very bodies can only live because of the bacteria that lives inside us. We can only sustain ourselves because of the broader trophic webs and ecosystems of which we are part. As these authors put it, drawing on Baird Callicot’s work:

‘The upshot of this is that if we fail to attribute ‘moral worth’ to collectives – we are ourselves of no worth . . . Attributing value to ecological collectives is called ecocentrism; upholding our moral duty to consider such value is called ecological justice. (page 368)

A purist approach to social justice which only focuses on people is nonsensical, because there is no such thing as the purely human. We are all fusions of the human and non-human.

But what practically needs to change, based on this observation? How might a concern for ecological justice be pursued in practice? How could this thinking be turned, practically, into new ways of tackling conservation decision-making – or indeed the governance and goals of our economies? Here Washington and colleagues, and Chapron and López-Bao, are much less helpful. Their arguments use muddled concepts in a confusing way and simply fail to see key challenges to which they have to respond.

Recognising the claims of ecojustice, Washington and colleagues argue, means

‘recognizing nature has its own interests . . . implies that conservation is no longer a process between people and about nature, but between nature and people, and justice has to be achieved between both.’ (page 372)

And how might this be achieved? Here the authors argue, drawing on the work of Stone, Gray and Curry, call for a form of ‘eco-democracy’. One way of realising that may be

‘by appointing a ‘Human guardian’ acting in nature’s best interests . .  Human guardians could fulfil (sic) roles such as . .  voting proxies for non-humans’ (page 372)

Thatch collectors near Matopos Zimbabwe (photo credit: Rosaleen Duffy)
Thatch collectors near Matopos Zimbabwe (photo credit: Rosaleen Duffy)

These arguments face two major problems. First, all human interests are lumped into one. ‘People’ are undifferentiated. But it is crucial for any concept of social justice to understand how different aspects of social justice (distribution, process and recognition) affect different people differently. The failure to recognise social difference will not improve conservation practice.

Moreover overlooking social difference is simply neither necessary nor indeed at all helpful when advancing eco-justice. Eco-justice is not, necessarily, an alternative to social justice. There is no ipso facto reason why they should compete. Indeed evidence is emerging which suggests that they are necessarily intertwined. We can be concerned about the distribution of fortunes and misfortunes, of conservation policy among people and wish to see that purview expanded into the realms that eco-justice seeks to populate.[2] We do not suggest the two will be in harmony – but precisely because they can conflict they both need to be considered.

The second problem with the eco-democrat’s arguments is their understanding and conception of Nature. Their arguments do not recognise the complexities of representing non-human nature. Nature, to be brutally simple, is rather big and complex. Do we, for example, lump together birds, animals, plants, fish, and insects? What about small organisms, like anthrax, small-pox, ebola, rinderpest or canine distemper? Or, at the other end of the spectrum, should we take a landscape approach and consider how these different things fit together into ecosystems, or river basins? And what about rivers or soils or things which may not be alive, strictly speaking, but without which life is impossible?

Chameleon Madagascar (photo credit: Rosaleen Duffy)
Chameleon Madagascar (photo credit: Rosaleen Duffy)

It is not at all clear how these authors expect all this diversity to be represented by their championing of ‘eco-democracy’. Yet the complexity of Nature is going to make it hard for representatives to speak for all of it. Nor is it clear if there will be multiple representatives for the different facets – and if so how many will there be? Or whether there will be one representative for all of them – and if so how will they balance these competing aspects. How will these representatives represent?

Moreover it is not just the existence of these different facets of Nature’s collectives that make things complicated. The way we think about them, and their implications for conservation, are hotly contested by different conservationists. For example, consider the recent advocacy of ‘compassionate conservation’ which argues against using non-lethal methods to control invasive species like rats that threaten endemic islands birds. This has seen strong and impassioned rebuttals from others who point out that Nature cannot be left to its own devices. Alternatively consider the disputes about the re-wilding of Dutch polders. This saw the introduction of large herds of cattle, horses and deer, but no predators. The resulting population boom and then starvation saw rival camps spring up with some people wanting to intervene to reduce suffering, and others wanting to let things run their course.

Poor waste disposal harms urban wildlife, in Washington DC (photo credit: Rosaleen Duffy)
Poor waste disposal harms urban wildlife, in Washington DC (photo credit: Rosaleen Duffy)

The point is that there are always multiple views and interpretation of what Nature is, what it needs and how we should best conserve it. This is simply not recognised by Washington and colleagues. For them the problem of representing nature is not the plethora or values or interpretations it contains. It is an issue of ‘adequacy’, by which we understand they mean the question of authenticity, of being able to speak truly on behalf on another being’s interests:

‘A more practical challenge is how humans can adequately represent non-human entities, such as a tree, a river or soil. Gray and Curry (2016) suggest that the methods of the ‘Council of All Beings’ workshops – a process designed to help participants step aside from their human identity and speak on behalf of another life-form (Macy and Brown, 2014) – could be drawn on, although some fine-tuning would be needed to adapt the application of such an approach to the more traditional political setting.’ (page 371)

But this proposal to have natural guardians denies the possibility that we always see, think and act on what we think about Nature through culturally constructed lenses. It simply does not mention it at all. The knotty problem of which nature, whose nature, and whose ideas about nature would be articulated by these representatives is ignored.

Fisherwomen Nosy Be, Madagascar (photo credit: Rosaleen Duffy)
Fisherwomen Nosy Be, Madagascar (photo credit: Rosaleen Duffy)

The author’s silence on the varieties of what Nature might mean to whom is loudest when these authors discuss the selection of these representatives. That is not discussed. But this will have to involve a politics of nature – it will have to involve different contested views as to what sorts of nature to protect, conserve and promote and how. None of this messiness, this difference, is countenanced by these ideas. They are impossible to operationalize.

We do not, therefore, support Washington and colleagues’ proposals. But we also do not think that it is fair to conclude that, just because these suggestions seem half-baked and half-witted, that the prospects for eco-justice must diminish. The impossibility, as we see it, of ‘stepping aside from our human identity’ does not diminish the moral worth of collectives. But a more sophisticated approach to the problems raised by these issues will hinge upon the work of social scientists and philosophers who work on problems of representation, justice, environmental and social movements, politics and democracy.

But it is with respect to social science that Chapron and López-Bao, and Washington and colleagues appear to be least convincing. In their letter to Science Chapron and López-Bao allege that

‘social science, which has a growing importance in conservation . .  is becoming more concerned with social justice than with an objective understanding of social systems.’

This bold claim was based on a weak paper published in The Wall Street Journal. It is problematic because social science is just rather a big thing. It includes sociology, anthropology, geography, demography, media studies, politics, international relations. urban studies, architecture, business studies, law and numerous other subjects. It is foolish, to put it nicely, to make such a claim on the basis of such flimsy evidence. One wonders if the Science editors had a click-bait quota to fulfil.[3]

Once again this may well be a deliberately ironic, satirical or merely provocative statement. But, it is remarkably similar to a statement by Washington and colleagues. They claim that because of the insidious influence of critical social science,

‘conservation seems to increasingly be more about social justice than about conservation itself’ (2018: 327)

This is peculiar. It suggests that there is a single true version of conservation – that there is such a thing as ‘conservation itself’, and that this version of conservation is somehow polluted by concerns for social justice.

Ilakaka Madagascar (photo credit: Rosaleen Duffy)
Ilakaka Madagascar (photo credit: Rosaleen Duffy)

We believe the authors are mistaken. Conservation practices and decisions have repercussions for people, and different repercussions for different people. Conservation is inevitably a human enterprise. Conservation itself – if ever there was any foundational form of it – has always been embedded in problems of social justice.

As we have tried to argue above recognising the important questions of social justice do not preclude considering issues of ecological justice. Promoting human interests over the non-human, failing to use force to impose conservation, does not avoid the ethical problems if in doing so we deny the worth of the moral collectives which sustain us. However Chaperon and López-Bao’s approach just cannot help us to resolve those issues. Consider again that extraordinary statement about ethics, science and conservation success:

‘Although some people find these approaches [ie militarized conservation] unethical, conservation policy that is not based on science threatens habitat and biodiversity.’ (2019)

As far as we can interpret these words at all these authors seem to be stating that conservation policy must be based on empirical evidence of what works best for conservation goals. This is what they mean by ‘science’. As we have seen the quality of that evidence is weaker than they think it is.

Bleeding Heart Baboons Simien mountains, Ethiopia (photo credit: Rosaleen Duffy)
Bleeding Heart Baboons Simien mountains, Ethiopia (photo credit: Rosaleen Duffy)

But if that reading is correct then it means that good empirical data can refute ethical objections. If conservation is unfair, or unjust, or abuses people, then this is irrelevant if it can be shown to work. But this must also apply to disputes over the ecological justice of conservation policy. If one set of conservation policies (compassionate conservation) impedes another (the preservation of flightless endemic birds) then the ethical objections of each to the other are over-ruled by the success of one or the other. Rights and wrongs have nothing to do with it. Might decides.


We hope that it is clear from the above that the letter that was submitted to Science was hard to interpret. Chapron and López-Bao work was flawed in its reasoning and scholarship. It does not advance debates, improve our insights or help our understanding. A letter of that quality does not chart a way forward through murky waters; it tempts protagonists to jump into the mud and wrestle.

We do not enjoy that sort of interaction. We have tried to raise the tone of the discussion. Despite its weaknesses, at the heart of the letter are important ethical questions as to how we live with Nature –  especially beings which are not human. We think these deserve more serious consideration in conservation discussions. There is a danger however that this letter from Chapron and López-Bao will put people off openly exploring issues which deserve more attention.

But we have shown that this letter, and the publications with which it is associated are not a good way to explore these issues. There have been some strange decisions taken by Science and Biological Conservation in affording mainstream status to weak thinking and writing. It would be interesting to know what these journals will learn from the mistakes they have made.

The ethical issues raised by writings like Chapron and Lopez-Bao’s  letter to Science deserve much more careful consideration; in this essay we reviewed some of the the ardent supporters of these positions and conclude that they do not give sufficient attention to the ethical issues their arguments raise.  The prospect of recognising claims for eco-justice and not only social justice has, we believe, to be taken more seriously than the works we have discussed allow.

Figure 1: The letter and its weaknesses


[1] M.M. Cernea, ‘ Impoverishment risks and reconstruction: a model for population displacement and resettlement.’, in M.M.Cernea and C. McDowell (eds). Risks and Reconstruction: experiences of resettlers and refugees. (World Bank, Washington DC, 2000), pp; M. Cernea and K. Schmidt-Sol. ‘The end of forcible displacements? Making conservation and impoverishment incompatible.’, Policy Matters, 12,  (2003), pp. 42-51; Michael M. Cernea, ‘Concept and Method: Applying the IRR model in Africa to Resettlement and Poverty.’, in I. Ohta and Y. D. Gebre (eds). Displacement Risks in Africa. Refugees, Resettlers and their Host Population. (Kyoto University Press, Kyoto, 2005), pp; Michael M. Cernea and Kai Schmidt-Sol. ‘Poverty Risks and National Parks: Policy Issues in Conservation and Resettlement’, World Development, 34, 10 (2006), pp. 1808-1830.

[2] One of the nonsensical claims made in Washington and colleagues work was the idea that ‘a theory of justice must rank ecojustice as at least equally important as social justice. A meaningful justice will mean that at certain times and in certain places, ecojustice must supersede social justice in order to protect the remaining natural world.’ (page 371) Aside from the contradiction between the two sentences (ranking as important is not the same as superseding), it is not clear why this domination of one by the other is necessary.

[3] There is a worrying pattern in academic journalism of problematic papers being published whose only value seems to be the attention they will generate. The infamous ‘Case for Colonialism’ paper is another example. Controversy can be good for journals – it was instrumental in the history of Nature’s rise – but constructive controversy that enlightens and click-bait are different things and need to be recognised as such by editors.