On Animal Rights Activism

Earlier this year I saw a talk about armed conservancy. The talk centered on nature reserves in northeastern Central African Republic where conservancy groups employ armed teams to patrol the grounds for poachers. The act of hunting hunters is really fascinating, and it’s actually not that uncommon. A lot of African countries have shoot-on-sight policies regarding poachers in order to protect the wildlife (and therefore the tourism industry). But what was interesting was that some of the anti-poaching men Lombard talked about were not from Africa. There was a Frenchman and a couple of Russians who were active in these groups either for ideology or for the money. It reminded me Battleground: Rhino Wars .

Battleground: Rhino Wars is a mini-series that follows four U.S. ex-military as they work to stop poachers. I haven’t seen it, I’ve only seen commercials and that video linked above. But it’s not hard to see what happens on the show. They wander the preserves looking for snares and other traps, they go into markets looking for ivory, and they try to arrest poachers. Animal Planet is documenting the horrors of poaching and showing the more extreme ways to fight it, with a heavy dose of neo-colonialism throughout (like in this video, for example, but that will have to be another post). It’s not too different from a more popular Animal Planet show, also about the more militant types of halting illegal animal trade: Whale Wars.

Whale Wars is a program that’s been around for a few years now. The show follows the crew of several ships that are part of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an environmental and animal rights group that the U.S. had designated as eco-terrorists, as they work to interrupt Japanese whaling vessels. The group has done a lot in its history, but the series concentrates on its action against Japanese whalers. On the show, I’ve seen them lobbing jars of butyric acid at ships (to taint the deck with odor so they can’t work) and try to break the propellers of ships while at sea. The Japanese ships usually respond with water cannons, sound cannons, or flash-bang grenades. It’s direct action, as to whether it’s violent – judge how you want. It might be worth noting that these shows don’t cover violence against people, but rather attacks on the infrastructure and ability to make the animal trade financially nonviable.

But whenever I think about environmental activists and their extreme actions, I wonder where the line is. Raiding a poachers’ camp and boarding a whaling vessel are disputed, but they’re at least accepted enough to serve as entertainment on a television program.  But when animal rights activists firebomb a research clinic or environmentalists burn down construction sites in new, expensive neighborhoods, people are quick to label them terrorists (again, your call). These acts also attack property and infrastructure, trying to make it more difficult to abuse animals and more expensive to clear forests for the rich. What changes our understanding of these acts? Is it the escalation of the attack, from stink- and smoke-bombs that render a ship’s deck unfit for whales to fires that actually destroy? Are people less likely to object to Whale Wars and Rhino Wars because they take place outside the U.S., and so it has less to do with us? Is it merely because it’s on television, so it seems somehow less real? Better question: how would people react if activists sabotaged the Keystone XL pipeline?

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5 thoughts on “On Animal Rights Activism

    • Thanks, this article looks interesting. I do find it worth noting that these shows are all about Westerners going off to keep foreigners from killing animals in foreign lands. There are a lot of Africans that work as anti-poachers (some of them like this article’s subject, former poachers), but Animal Planet had to fly four Army guys out to stop the savagery. Alas, American television.

      • Excellent point.

        It would be interesting to get a conservation biologist take on this. Much of my role in EG this January was working with endangered monkeys, and the biologists were extremely concerned about the bushmeat market – different than big game like elephants and rhinos, but poaching all the same. Lack of local buy-in to conservation efforts is part of the issue, and I’m sure they’d have more to share.

        Concerning the sensationalized television, the environmentalists I know would be horrified. Removing traps and snares is a quick fix for their much larger problem and sooner or later the poachers get smart, devising new ways to conceal their handiwork. Back to square one. Also the rambo-style citizen’s arrests and ship vandalism are bizarre. I’ve not heard of either of the shows you mention, but I wonder how well they were received? What demographic(s) was/were primarily interested?

        Both shows seem to operate on the assumption that their actions are within legal bounds, or at least they will reasonably be able to get out of trouble should they get into a bind. As you suggest, it seems to be a mentality that doesn’t exist in America – the ‘other-ness’ makes it acceptable. Exceptions might be the old westerns or even modern action flicks…if any were in the name of conservation.

        • Yeah, I’m sure the less popular endangered animals have more trouble getting protections from governments or NGOs due to this. I’d also be curious what conservation biologists would think. As for the show, I’m not sure about the numbers, but Whale Wars is going on season six, so it’s got a decent viewership.

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