Archive for the ‘Rhinos’ Category

Rob Fletcher and I were asked to write a response to E.O. Wilson’s new book ‘Half Earth’. It was a shocking read, to say the least. Find our commentary online on the Aeon website:


Opinion sized gettyimages 459113790

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Some great news yesterday: my VIDI grant proposal for a project entitled ‘Crisis Conservation: Saving Nature in Times and Spaces of Exception’ was accepted by the Dutch Council for Scientific Research (NWO)! This means I will be able to appoint several PhDs and a postdoc and work together with them on new research in Brazil, South Africa and Indonesia for the coming five years.

The following summary gives an indication of what the project is all about:

This project will study the impacts of the current surge in large-scale resource extraction and wildlife crime, and the conservation responses they elicit. Recent political ecology iterature points at three reasons why this surge differs from earlier ones and why extraction and wildlife crime should be studied together. First, rising levels of affluence in Asian and other ‘emerging economies’ have triggered a sharp increase in the demand for fossil, mineral, timber and wildlife resources. Second, new extractive, military and information and communication technologies have rendered resource extraction and wildlife crime more effective, (potentially) lethal and destructive, and its impacts more visible to global publics. Third, they are increasingly overlapping in reality, thereby (further) blurring legal and illegal practices. The result has been a fertile ground for ‘crisis conservation’: high-pressure situations where urgent action is required to safeguard nature from destruction. The research will investigate and theorize crisis conservation situations as ‘spaces of exception’ where rules, norms and ideas about legality are violated by those perpetrating and those countering the threats. These spaces of exception often include violence and therefore dramatically change environmental governance, but exactly how and with what impacts on people and nature is ill understood.

Employing innovative multi-level ethnographic methods that connect the power and politics of actors through space and time, the project focuses on three countries where iconic species and ecosystems are acutely threatened by globally induced extraction and wildlife crime dynamics: Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa. By investigating and comparing how actors respond to crisis conservation situations in these countries, the project will develop important policy-relevant knowledge on how better to deal with and respond to similar situations of exception while moving towards a novel theoretical synthesis that links political ecology literatures on violence, conflict and environmental governance with influential theories on exception.

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The NRC ombudsman today published his verdict on a complaint filed by the Dutch Postcode Lottery and the Peace Parks Foundation (see this link, in Dutch). They did not agree with the NRC article that critically looked at the Postcode Lottery 14,4 million Euro dreamfund project to ‘save the rhino’ by poisoning their horns to deter poachers and wanted it rectified. According to the Ombudsman, the postcode lottery insisted in the complaint that they did not paint too rosy a picture during the ‘Goed Geld Gala’ award ceremony and that the quotes from Lorinda Hern of the Rhino Rescue Project and Dr. Markus Hofmeyr from South African National Parks (SANParks) in the article were incorrect.

The Ombudsman  concludes that not only was the NRC article correct, the whole story is arguably even more worrisome than initially thought. The reason for this is that the Peace Parks Foundation tried to influence these two informants by making them write emails to take back their quotes. The Ombudsman spoke to both of them personally and confirms that not only were their original quotes in the NRC article correct, but that Lorinda Hern’s opinions about the Peace Parks Foundation are even more critical now, with her stating that “the peace parks foundation threw us in front of the bus once they got the money from the Dutch” (Sunday Times, 14 September 2014).

Last week, the Peace Parks Foundation  already admitted they had ‘gotten ahead of themselves’, and refunded part of the money for horn infusion to the Dutch postcode lottery (see the links in this previous post). This current news about the kind of  practices they are willing to resort to, to ensure that the truth does not come out, however, makes matters even worse. It resembles Dutch Peace Parks Foundation director Mr. John Loudon’s tactics in Nieuwsuur when he insisted that I had not done ‘my homework’ instead of admitting that they themselves had messed up (see my previous post). It seems time for the Dutch Postcode Lottery to critically look at its own practices, and indeed its funding relation to an organisation such as the Peace Parks Foundation. If the postcode lottery is really concerned with saving the rhino it would do well to start working with local grassroots organisations focused on longer-term social and environmental justice around protected areas in Southern Africa rather than working with elite organisations and individuals far removed from the actual problems in the field.

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News just broke that the Peace Parks Foundation has refunded the Dutch Postcode Lottery part of the money they received for rhino horn infusion, see the Dutch NRC article here:


And the South African Carte Blanche insert here:


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Last Saturday, an article came out in the Dutch NRC newspaper critically looking at the Postcode Lottery 14,4 million Euro dreamfund project to ‘save the rhino’ by poisoning their horns to deter poachers (see this link). The article, in brief, shows that the dreamfund project is based on deceptive statements and an unproven method but that these concerns were not mentioned until after the money and associated celebratory media publicity were received. As this article was partly based on my research into the issue I was invited to debate the issue on Dutch national TV news-program ‘Nieuwsuur’ (newshour), see this link. In the program, I debated Mr. John Loudon, director of the Peace Parks Foundation in the Netherlands.


A key element of Mr. Loudon’s debating strategy was to insist that I had not done ‘my homework’ and to stress that everything with the project is just fine and ‘right on schedule’. While he did not ask me about the work that I did to come to my conclusions, I decided to write this blog in order to alleviate Mr. Loudon’s worries and to provide more information for everyone interested to weigh the evidence for themselves. I am completely confident, and hence want to reassure Mr. Loudon, that indeed I have done my homework properly and through this blog want to invite anyone who wants to see the 23-page research report that came out of my work to get in touch with me to – confidentially – receive a copy (buscher AT iss DOT nl). The reason I am not simply putting it online is because I would like to protect some of my informants and it has not been formally peer-reviewed, but I have no problem showing it to people if they promise to keep it confidential.


I also want to give some background to the document and the research that followed. I heard the news of the dreamfund grant while doing research in the Kruger Park in South Africa on the 5th of February, the same night of the big award spectacle in Theater Carré in Amsterdam. Upon studying the award ceremony and the various promises made there, on the postcode lottery website and the next day by Mr. Loudon in the TV program ‘Koffietijd’, I knew immediately from my ongoing field research that some of the stated claims and promises were highly tenuous. But I decided, as a good academic should do, to take my time to work out the issue in full, and hear as many different sides of the story as possible. I spent the next three months researching the issue, which turned out to be entirely compatible with my NWO-sponsored Veni research on ‘Nature 2.0’ through which I was already studying the rhino-poaching crisis. This is how I produced the above-mentioned document (in April 2014), amended only slightly (in June 2014) to include several key issues that transpired afterwards. After concluding drafts of the document in March and April, I sent it to 4 or 5 academic colleagues, several SANParks colleagues and 4 journalists for thorough checking. I told them to take nothing for granted and to weigh the evidence for themselves. They all confirmed that my findings and research were sound. Bram Vermeulen from NRC decided to write about the topic and did his own research, and that is how the NRC article came about, in which all of the statements are based on his own interviews and research.


What I did not include in the document is how the PPF and postcode lottery have now changed their tactics from exclusively talking about horn infusion – as they did around the dreamfund gala early February – to their current, more cautious strategy of ‘looking into’ different ‘devaluation options’, including chemicals, rendering horns ‘radioactive’ or putting GPS chips in horns. I invite interested readers to judge for themselves how the discourse changed radically from positing chemical horn infusion as the key solution to the rhino crisis, which they would use to treat ‘the great majority of rhinos in 9 African countries’, or even ‘the entire world’ (see postcode lottery website, and Mr. Loudon in the program ‘Koffietijd’) to the current discourse that emphasizes the need to do careful research on different devaluation methods and whereby only 2500 rhinos will be treated in one province in South Africa later this year (see Mr. Loudon in Nieuwsuur). 2500 rhinos are of course only a fraction of what they had promised (the great majority of all rhinos on the planet), so it will be interesting to see A) whether this succeeds in the first place and B) whether this is indeed only the beginning and they will treat at least another 10.000 more rhinos in the next year or two to achieve their earlier stated promise. And since rhino horns continue to grow throughout their lifespan, it will be interesting to see whether they will keep following up the issue, and start the whole procedure with every rhino all over again after every 3 years (a full growth cycle).


In any case, these new developments do not in the slightest invalidate my research or Bram Vermeulen’s article. I also do not believe that these new tactics (GPS tracking or radioactive horns) will work in practice, as poachers have become highly inventive to circumvent or deal with obstacles, while I wonder whether rendering horns radioactive can be good for the animals or the environment. But be that as it may, the fact that the PPF and postcode lottery drastically changed their tactics and discourse only strengthens the central conclusion that the postcode lottery money was awarded based on dubious and deceptive promises and can be spent much better. Below, I have copied the last pages of my research report where I outline a different use of the money. But I would like to end the blog by inviting readers to judge for themselves and critically look at the evidence and come to their own conclusions. If indeed, as Mr. Loudon and the postcode lottery maintain, everything is completely on track and the project will be ‘extraordinarily successful’, then they should welcome critical research with open arms, as they would have nothing to fear or hide. But something tells me that – if they immediately start attacking opponents for not doing their ‘homework’ rather than asking them about what they have done to come to this conclusion – this might not be the case…



Final paragraphs from my report about what else could be done with the money:


“So what then about the rhinos and the poaching crisis? Clearly the money from the postcode lottery could be used in better ways than to have the Peace Parks Foundation (PPF) try to push a contested, impractical and in any case temporary ‘solution’. The very first thing to acknowledge and emphasize is that magic bullets for a complex issue such as the rhino-poaching crisis do not exist. The way in which the PPF posits rhino horn infusion as the solution to the crisis reminds one of the saying that ‘if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is’, which in fact goes for most of PPFs activities and promises.[1] The rhino-poaching crisis should be recognized as an extremely complex political-economic, social, cultural and ecological issue, with many dimensions and embedded contradictions. In fact, it could be argued that the poaching crisis resembles a ‘perfect storm’ whereby different elements, in particular the changing dynamics of wealth and poverty across the globe and the interactions between them, come together to make this a truly complex and contracted problem (Duffy et al, in preparation).


If the rhino-poaching crisis is a complex political-economic, social, cultural and ecological problem that resembles a ‘perfect storm’, then this should be the basis of potential ways of dealing with it. This is the opposite of the current militarized and violent approach to tackling the crisis, which arguably will only worsen the situation (Lunstrum, 2014). As one informant, the director and founder of a private anti-poaching company – who, tellingly, makes his money with militarized approaches to combatting wildlife crime – argues: “Unfortunately everyone wants to thrown guns and killing against this issue, but every time we kill someone we turn a whole community against conservation, so we dig an ever bigger hole! Poachers are seen as robin hoods: stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, so they hate SANParks, etc”.[2]


Hence, the ultimate solution to the crisis lies in creating a social and political-economic situation in which poaching becomes something that is not beneficial, attractive or interesting but extreme, unattractive and undesirable. It means seriously dealing with the historical legacies of parks and protected areas (see Brockington et al, 2008), redressing historical and contemporary inequalities and seriously looking at bilateral and multilateral relations based on cooperation rather than cut-throat capitalist competition. These obviously, are no easy things to accomplish, but unlike the supposed magic bullet solution of the PPF they at least truthfully respond to and deal with the complex, integrated and contradictory problems of our times, one manifestation of which is the rhino-poaching crisis.


A far better use of the postcode lottery money could then, for example, be used to do research on the enabling conditions to allow these objectives to come about, while stimulating those grassroots initiatives that tackle inequality, redress historical injustice and support local and regional environmental justice initiatives. These – to be sure – will never be perfect, and whenever money from outside is thrown at a problem, it is likely to create as many problems as it aims to solve. The major advantage vis-à-vis the PPF approach, however, is that the money would bypass the wealthy elites that the PPF consists of and that support the organisation – many of whom are deeply implicated in and have hugely benefitted from creating the social and environmental problems they say they aim to address through the PPF[3] – and instead goes directly to those actors that could benefit from external support. That would, in line with the mission of the Dutch postcode lottery’s dreamfund, truly be ‘new, courageous and path-breaking’.”



[1] See the earlier quoted literature on this.

[2] Interview, 11 February 2014, Hoedspruit, South Africa.

[3] I refer to the Rupert family who founded the PPF, as well as PPFs ‘club 21’, consisting of wealthy elites and corporations that combined have a rather poor track record when it comes to their environmental and social impacts. See, again, the quoted literature on peace parks in Southern Africa.

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I have been in South Africa since December and should have posted something long ago already. I guess I have been enjoying fieldwork too much to post anything online – which is weird considering that my fieldwork is a combination of studying online and offline conservation dynamics. Perhaps it is because when you are in ‘fieldwork mode’ it is simply more interesting to listen to and learn from others than to broadcast your own thoughts. Be that as it may, I have been listening to a lot of people, online and offline, over the last months, in particular in relation to THE biggest conservation issue in South Africa today: the rhino-poaching crisis. I guess we all know about it: rhinos are being poached in increasing numbers in South Africa and last year the teller only stopped at 1004. The first months of this year do not show a reversal of this trend. In response, a massive mobilization has taken place and the diversity of this mobilization is truly amazing. Everything in South Africa these days is ‘for rhinos’. Here are some of the more interesting ‘… for rhinos’ that I have found (not limited to South Africa…):





And related: naked skydive for rhinos





running for rhinos

– and if running is too exhausting, you can join the groupwalk for rhinos

Acting for rhinos

Recipes for rhinos

Mountainbiking for rhinos

Horse racing for rhinos

Drumming for rhinos

– and of course, at Woolies you can always shop for rhinos


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