Countering the Illegal Wildlife Trade - Reflections on military cooperation in Malawi



In 2018 A/Maj James Cowen led the first British Army CIWT STTT to Malawi.  Leading a team made up of a broad range of expertise drawn from across the Army including Military Police, medics, intelligence analysts and reconnaissance experts he spent 6 months developing the partner force and hunting down poachers in parks across Malawi. We gain his insight into the value of military cooperation across two Commonwealth countries in the face of the illegal wildlife trade.

The global illegal wildlife trade is estimated to be worth between £17-23Bn per year, it is the fourth most lucrative funding stream for organised crime and much of its proceeds end up in the hands of terrorist groups. The criminals running this trade use networks of corrupt officials and agencies to undermine sustainable development and the rule of law, bringing misery to local communities. This in turn threatens jobs, damages tourism industries and undermines development in some of the world’s poorest nations. Before you even get to the emotive issues surrounding the permanent damage to our global natural heritage that is being inflicted, these figures alone justify international and Commonwealth involvement in tackling the illegal wildlife trade.

Money aside, what of the plight of the wildlife; The Great Elephant Census conducted in 2014 showed that the number of elephants in the wild had declined by 30% in the period 2007-2014. This decline is directly attributable to poaching and habitat loss, in line with this massacre the illegal ivory trade activity has more than doubled in the same period. Despite international agreements to curtail the trade; ivory is in higher demand than ever. Even closer to the extinction precipice is the Rhino. All sub species are in critical danger with figures suggesting that a wild rhino is killed for its horn every seven hours, this is an unsustainable loss and as demand sky rockets, poachers are becoming more aggressive and more militarised every day. The Lion, the Cheetah, the Leopard, and the Pangolin amongst innumerable other species are being hunted to extinction. It is a completely plausible (and sadly in some cases likely) truth that our generation will be responsible for some of these species disappearing in the wild.


This pressure on the remaining African wild spaces is being felt most by the foot soldiers in the fight against Illegal Wildlife Crime; the Park Rangers. They are the last line of defence between the relatively blissful ignorance we live in today and the looming reality of having to describe an elephant to our grandchildren rather than be able to show them one. In 2017 100 wildlife rangers were killed in the line of duty, many at the hands of poachers who will stop at nothing to get their hands on the high value animal products they are after.

It is in this context that in 2016 the British Department for the Environment, Forests and Rural Areas (DEFRA) took the lead in delivering a UK Government Commitment to act on the Illegal Wildlife Trade. Part of their efforts was to fund the training and deployment of a British Army Short Term Training Team (STTT) into the National Parks of Malawi to train the ranger force there in interception tracking with a view to improving their ability to find and detain poachers operating in their parks. This would be a sub-tactical delivery of the most basic of soldiering skills aimed at improving the very base competency of the park rangers.

It is important to dispel a pervasive myth at this point, best encapsulated by this often-heard quote, paraphrased here; “Is it not utterly ignorant, bordering on arrogant to assume that the British Army has anything to teach African park rangers?”. The irony of this misgiving ought not be lost. It carries with it an even more grave assumption; that in 2020 the training audience in Africa is made up of accomplished bush men, untouched by all the advances of the last one hundred years. Of course, this is not the case, most park rangers are recruited from the communities bordering the parks, immersed as they are in modern habits, there has been little room for retaining traditional bush skills and the demand for training is high.

As a stand-alone grass roots initiative, these counter poaching STTTs (there have now been 4 iterations with more planned) have had a measurable effect in raising the standard of the park ranger. They have grown in confidence and ability, demonstrated by evidenced reductions in successful poaching events in those parks that have benefited from international training. The commonalities shared by the Malawian park ranger and British soldier, frameworked as they are under the Commonwealth Charter and those precious bonds that bind the Commonwealth, invariably improve the success of such efforts. The lasting tension, however, is that counter poaching operations address only the very front line of the problem but their impact pales into insignificance against the wider backdrop of the global illegal wildlife trade.

The operational and strategic effort must be cohered to ensure robust action all along the chain of the illegal trade. Military training should be matched with alternative revenue programmes in local communities. This would remove the financial lever applied by criminals to gain access to parks or to buy local consent (or even participation) to criminal activity. This must also be matched by education schemes to reinforce the importance of wildlife to the fragile ecosystems that these communities live amongst.

Stepping back another level, police mentoring at key trade hubs could be incorporated to attack the network where it is most vulnerable. This area must also attract private sector support, Barclays Bank for example have established algorithms that detect financial activity linked to the illegal trade, by following the money the hope is that lynchpins in the trade can be removed and pressure eased at the lowest level. Equally ,shipping companies, dockers, and all the links along the chain should be incorporated. This requires international effort, and through its vast network the Commonwealth is ideally placed to lead the way. The deployment of British troops to support our partners in Malawi saw military cooperation at its most enduring and successful. The UK has the opportunity to work with our friends to cement the Commonwealth community as a world leader in CIWT. Collectively we should consider not only the opportunities to defund criminal and terrorist organisations, but to exercise the moral obligation of all counties to intervene now to prevent some of our most precious natural heritage from disappearing for ever.

James Cowen is a serving Officer in the British Army


*Views expressed are those of the author

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