The language of war used in conservation

Conservation policy is very much dominated by discussions the about the illegal wildlife trade. The language used is often military in nature, for example “combatting” the trade and “fighting” poachers. In a blog published in The Conversation, Diogo Verissimo gives us his insight on why the language of “war” is not helping the conservation of wildlife.

Military metaphors are powerful because they offer a way to explain abstract ideas about species conservation. Conservation is cast as a kind of war, something most people are more familiar with, if only through television. This comparison makes it easier to show how vital it is for donors and decision makers to support these issues….However, using military metaphors has a price. They often don’t clearly describe what conservationists do. War metaphors change the story conservationists are telling and sometimes make complex issues seem too simple… by using war metaphors, NGOs stop talking about animal conservation, which focuses on animal populations and species, and start doing animal welfare, which focuses on the individual animal. The two are very different.

Verissimo argues that “…using military metaphors has a price. They often don’t clearly describe what conservationists do. War metaphors change the story conservationists are telling and sometimes make complex issues seem too simple.

He describes how wildlife laws in Malta to protect migratory birds are being flouted and thus enforcement and security measures that use the language of war like “monitoring operations” are enacted. These measures help convince their donors that actions is being taken to protect the birds that are “victims”. Portraying the species in this way lies at the heart of the current gulf separating advocates for sustainable use of species e.g. through hunting and NGOs that believe only in preservation. Verissimo, aware of this gulf highlights how the language reinforces this difference in beliefs.

“…if an NGO’s focus is on the welfare of the individual bird and how all life is valuable and must be protected, then their job becomes stopping all hunting as soon as possible. Even the death of one bird is a problem. Using military metaphors emphasizes this blanket approach. Hunters will obviously not agree to this a complete end to their activities and there is no room for compromise.

In other words, by using war metaphors, NGOs stop talking about animal conservation, which focuses on animal populations and species, and start doing animal welfare, which focuses on the individual animal. The two are very different. This can explain why in Malta the two sides cannot reach an agreement, despite sharing a core common goal: to make sure that Malta’s birds do not disappear.

He proposes a language change to help bridge these differences and find common understanding in conservation policy:

NGOs should try to find different metaphors. For example, the language of navigation takes NGOs’ attention away from the images of killers and victims. Instead, one can see conservation as a journey. Using this metaphor, the language of conservation includes skillful navigation that explores new opportunities, charts charts achievable landmarks and avoids the hazards that leave projects in the doldrums, immobile and stagnant.

Such ideas allow the Maltese hunting scenario to be more clearly described without taking away the chance to discuss conflicts and agree on solutions. This is what conservation is all about.

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