Illegal wildlife trade has been an incessant headache for wildlife conservationists, and is continuing to overturn all that has been gained by preservation and conservation efforts around the world. In India, Poaching threatens the last of our wild tigers. In 2016 itself, 76 tigers were killed, which is a staggering number. 41 out of these were a consequence of human intervention. Twenty seizures were also registered. Ivory estimated to weigh more than 23 metric tons was seized in 13 seizures of illegal trade in 2011. Illegal hunting also accounts for the majority of Rhino deaths in African and Asian nations.
What has been cited as an extreme measure, but has also garnered much applause, is the use of armed rangers in Assam’s Kaziranga National Park under the ‘zero tolerance’ conservation policy, wherein since 2014, the guards have the authority to shoot and kill alleged/suspected poachers, with little or no concern for law of the land. This seems to be the last nail in the coffin for the poachers, whose intrepid advances in the reserve have obligated such distressing measures.
As per the detailed story by BBC, reported by journalist Justin Rowlatt, 50 poachers have been killed since the order was promulgated. Rangers are rewarded and even guaranteed legal indemnity for killing ‘suspected’ poachers. And many tribal individuals have been caught in the fire, often with fatal results, because they stray into the forest areas in search of food and water. While arguing the cause of the animals, whose conservation is of extreme importance to the legal system, what does not evade our cognizance is the simple question of whether poachers need to be killed.
Events necessitating the killing of poachers, in the scenario of an armed conflict between them and the rangers can still be justified. No one deserves death, yet it would be ethical, and even to the benefit of larger social responsibility, to respond with greater force, but only when engaged. Killing of men, for an illegal activity for which there is recourse in law, tantamount to murder. This does not imply that human life is of graver import than an animal’s life. But for every illegal activity, if the liability to take a call lay with men guarding the fences, who are as human as the next person and susceptible to error in judgment, would be unwise.
Every crime has a history behind it. The demand for ivory, tiger skin and other animal products comes from a market that is tied to the tether by either cultural superstitions or opulence of those with power. Instead of order raining down bullets on the poachers, it would do us well to try and eliminate the structural forces that drive them to become perpetrators of this heinous crime. Poaching as an organized criminal activity requires that the whole organization be pulled apart instead of one lonesome killing of a poacher. On the other hand, subsistence poaching, as Rory Young describes, done “in poverty-stricken areas just cannot be dealt with in the same way as commercial poaching gang members. A subsistence poacher is often both more desperate, driven by hunger, and less culpable as he has limited choices.” It then becomes imperative that we address the issue from a more tactical perspective, which can eliminate the root of the problem. Such conservation methods are building up to a clash between officials at the park and the peripheral tribal communities.
Poachers don't view rare animals as the wealth of the nation and the ecosystem. Their actions deserve to be penalized in a court of law. But do they deserve to die for it?
There have been arguments which state that the death of law-breaking individuals, to enable the protection of an entire species of animal from human inconsideration, is enough of a justification. But in killing a poacher, we inherently admit that the life of an animal is more important than a human being. The only scenario in which use of force is justified is when there is a threat to the guards and the likelihood of an armed retort. The weapon then becomes the justification for a deadly response. But the act is not, and should not be.