Preserving Nature: Artificial Intelligence against Green Violence

20 minutes

Today I feel kinship with a man who defended on this exact date his views and beliefs against fierce opposition of other men who – with tooth and claw – defended their views and beliefs. I refer to Martin Luther who in 1517 nailed his 95 propositions challenging the Roman Catholic Church to the door of the University of Wittenberg in Germany. That is 502 years ago today.

Farewell address by Prof.Dr. Herbert H.T. Prins upon retiring as Professor of Resource Ecology, Wageningen University & Research, 31 October 2019.

Luther was a professor of moral theology, especially in the field of ‘good and evil’. I am a professor of ecology, not of theology, but – yet - I want to focus on ‘good and evil’ too. In nature conservation. I will deal with poaching and anti-poaching activities. I will focus mainly on the poaching of elephant and rhino – and toward the end of this lecture I will discuss how artificial intelligence offers an opportunity to develop predictive poaching analytics that could significantly diminish wildlife crime.

Herbert Prins, retiring Professor of Resource Ecology

Martin Luther was born in 1483. He became a lecturer at the age of 25. At that age, I had not even received my Master’s title. When Luther nailed his propositions to the door, he was 34, and from that moment, he was in the middle of the fray of religious controversy and had to fight, perhaps literally, for his views and for his life. When I was 34, I was in the East African bush doing research for my PhD and stumbled into another kind of fray. While it wasn’t as dramatic as Luther’s, there were times when I, too had to fight for my life.

Luther’s freely published words and free thinking led to the religious wars that racked Europe and cost millions of people their lives. Land abandonments played havoc with farming and ecology; indeed, in perhaps 30% of the land reverted to bush during the religious wars at the end of the Middle Ages. Forests reappeared, and undoubtedly, in many places wolves and moose came back. At present, we would call this “rewilding” – some of us would consider that to be ‘good’ and others ‘evil’. Likewise, some see conservation as ‘good’ and poaching as ‘evil’. During my professional years, I discovered that it’s not that simple.

Destruction of local agriculture

Tanzania, the East African country where I chose to live in the early 1980s, was in a state of upheaval at the time, nearly two decades after gaining independence from colonial rule. There were parallels with Europe after the religious hostilities of the 16th and 17th century. The Cold War raged, and Tanzania was in the Socialist Camp. The rhetoric was anti-colonial, which led to very intriguing historical insights. I became aware that the famous Pax Britannica, the Peace brought by Great Britain to Africa at the end of the 19th century, was a misconception.

Indeed, with the advance of European civilization, a shockwave of alien diseases decimated local populations of people as well as animals. A cascade of events followed: In many areas, bush came back, and in that bush tsetse flies established themselves. Then sleeping sickness spread, which precluded land reclamation. This led to a rapid increase in wildlife in places where people could not live anymore. Then, the destruction of local agriculture along with the spreading of the alien rinderpest disease among cattle and other ungulates led to massive starvation of people. Tribal warfare became rampant – not because the indigenous peoples were uniquely pugnacious but largely due to the convulsion caused by colonialism. Indeed, many protected areas now known as wildlife paradises were previously agricultural. Even the famous Ngorongoro Crater or the Serengeti!

In short, from the colonial era onward, nature took over vast regions formerly devoted to farming and pastoralism, at the cost of local people. Please keep this in mind during the rest of my lecture, as I delve deeper into the vicissitudes of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in relation to protecting wildlife against poachers. I hope you will be cautious or even wary about jumping to conclusions concerning questions of who or what is good or evil. Not everyone views wildlife with reverence. When you have seen a grandfather rocking his lifeless granddaughter in his lap after she has been torn from bed and trampled by a marauding elephant, or were shouted at by a despaired woman who saw her neighbour be killed by a bear and then the daughter too before her own eyes, you also may get a blurred image of who is ‘good’ and who is ‘evil’.

During that Cold War in Tanzania, the East German secret police read the correspondence between my mother and me. There were secret army camps where one was not supposed to go to. In the South, the freedom fighters of the South African ANC and the Zimbabwean ZANU had their camps where, in the name of freedom, unsavoury things were done. The country was so unstable that when the prime minister was killed in a car accident, it was rumoured that the ANC had done it.

I found myself shouldering numerous responsibilities to maintain the park, in particular providing food and shelter for its rangers. Then, Tanzania got engaged in the Uganda War to oust the human rights violator Idi Amin. After that war, suddenly I had 10 additional men to feed – young traumatized soldiers who were given park ranger jobs
Herbert Prins

Poverty was rampant, people walked in rags or even naked, police roadblocks were everywhere, and thousands of people were arrested for alleged economic sabotage or racketeering. If one had more than one litre of kerosene or one bar of soap, one could be imprisoned for six months. However, in the name of science and for the pursuit of a doctoral degree, I stayed on in the bush, far removed from civilization in the midst of a national park, with only some kerosene lamps and my typewriter.

Because of the government’s impecuniosity, I found myself shouldering numerous responsibilities to maintain the park, in particular providing food and shelter for its rangers. Then, Tanzania got engaged in the Uganda War to oust the human rights violator Idi Amin. After that war, suddenly I had 10 additional men to feed – young traumatized soldiers who were given park ranger jobs but for which the Government had no money to spend. My household thus grew to 16 men, all of them heavily armed. Finding and buying enough food to feed them was not easy, so I started black marketing, engaged in smuggling food and bribing the military for fuel necessary to transport men, food and other supplies. It became a very murky world in which I had to maintain myself.

We lost all rhinos

The widespread poverty, the denunciation of the values of the former colonialist powers, the dwindling morale of unpaid national parks rangers and underpaid bosses, plus the lack of education of the appointed political party men and women in leading positions led to a fatal breakdown of the national parks system. Rampant poaching of wildlife started. Some claim it began with the military taking up illegal hunting to feed army camps. Others say it started with rangers shooting game to feed themselves, or with poor peasants claiming their due for usurped lands where their fathers or grandfathers had farmed. Whatever the cause, it started. And witnessing its effect, I was dragged into nature conservation.

Men in my burgeoning camp household were loyal to me as I continued to feed them and made sure that they got their medicines – and sometimes helped them out with family crises. I forbade alcohol in my camp for their safety and my own – as well as that of the wildlife we were charged with protecting. I was becoming increasingly engaged in organizing anti-poaching work. I figured that enough other people would deal with social injustice, disenfranchisement, poverty control, etcetera. As a field biologist, I was in a position to give attention to the plight of the Black rhino and the African elephant. I can tell you now that we could safeguard most of Manyara’s elephants, but the price of rhino horn relative to its size was much more attractive than ivory, which made rhinos all the harder to protect. We lost them all.

And then I discovered that this poaching was organized by the very top-personnel of Tanzania National Parks.

Deadly stray bullet

I was on friendship terms with my own rangers, and they started feeding me information – including what’s known as “hot information”. Indeed, it was so hot that the highest government official in charge of nature conservation warned me for my own safety. He told me that it would be wise to leave the country a.s.a.p. because he could no longer guarantee that I would not be killed “accidentally” by a stray bullet.

I can assure you that I felt unnerved; I also felt very lonely. All other foreign scientists that I knew had left the country because life had become too difficult without food and without fuel. A good friend who worked in the Ngorongoro Crater also discovered high officials involved in rhino poaching, and she had also been warned. When she did not listen, indeed, bullets were fired at her. She then took a long holiday. Conservationists in neighbouring Kenya got killed.

Around this time, Shell started exploring for oil and gas in southern Tanzania’s vast Selous Game Reserve. Seismic lines were cut through the bush, making the area accessible for poaching: African teak wood left the country by the train load via the new Chinese-built railway. Within about five years, Black rhinos were exterminated there, and some 40,000 elephants were killed.

Rhinos increased on former agricultural land

Intriguingly, the Selous Game Reserve had been an area where tens of thousands of people had lived before the anti-German Maji-Maji Rebellion had left due to massive retaliation by the colonial masters of the day and their forced resettlement after the rebellion. The number of rhinos and elephants had increased enormously on these former agricultural lands. However, by the 1960s elephants and rhinos had disappeared from all other lands already through colonial elephant control officers – some officers had individually shot more than 10,000 in a lifetime!

During the colonial era, such wholesale slaughter was viewed positively as part of an effort to make the land fit for agriculture. But in the 1980s, people of the former colonial powers (that is: us) saw the widespread killing of elephants as a disaster – in part due to the tourism revenue these magnificent animals helped to generate but also because the concept of “intrinsic value” became important. The killing was termed “poaching” and became forcefully counteracted by government services often assisted by western NGO’s. The Ivory Wars had started, and this led to a strengthening of the conservation movement – first in Kenya and later elsewhere in Africa. However, there were some who branded anti-poaching activities as “Green Violence”.

‘Green Violence’

What is “Green Violence”? Not everyone sees this as a correct term. The basic observation is that force is used by organizations or individuals to protect nature. Indeed, professor Büscher of this University defined “Green Violence” as “the deployment of violent instruments and tactics towards the protection of nature”. However, does “force” or an “armed reaction” equate with the noun “Violence”? 

Violence is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “Behaviour involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something” – so it is the intent to hurt or kill that differentiates “violence” from “physical force”. Secondly, the Oxford Dictionary defines “violence” as “The unlawful exercise of physical force or intimidation by the exhibition of such force”. So, the term “Green Violence” puts emphasis on the idea that the use of physical force to protect nature is executed unlawfully and with the intent to hurt. This is different from a similar term, namely, “Green Militarization”.

Most of us believe that lawful governments that are democratically in control of their military and police, have the “monopoly on the exercise of physical force” – in Dutch “het monopolie op geweld”. Professor Gribnau of Leiden University summarized this well in his oration of 2009, which I translate: “The State seeks the monopoly of exercising physical force to prevent citizens taking the law into their own hands (also known as frontier justice) and to maintain security. This authority aimed at making laws and maintaining them is only possible if and when the State has that monopoly on the legitimate use of force”. This is a central tenet of sovereignty of a state or of a people.

If one accepts the government of Kenya, say, or the government of South Africa, as sovereign like that of The Netherlands, and if these governments authorize their services to use physical force to combat poaching, then the term “Green Militarization” may be a correct one. However, to justify the term “Green Violence” one must make it believable that the physical forces that are used to combat poaching by government services or authorized private services are either unlawful or have the intent to harm. In the former case, authorities must investigate and lay criminal charges. In the latter case, authorities must investigate and use disciplinary control measures.

My understanding so far was that when poachers were arrested in Tanzania, or if shoot-outs occurred, the formal procedures were clear: the cases always must be investigated by police and taken to court. Much more serious, of course, is when the formal procedures are not followed and frontier justice is carried out. It is then, of course, irrelevant whether ‘Green Violence’ has been carried out by government services or by otherwise authorised security companies. I will come to this later.

Nature conservationists versus social scientists

There is more disagreement between many nature conservationists and many social scientists. Indeed, quite a number of social scientists appear to contest the ownership or the legality of the ownership of plants, animals and land by a government or by non-local people. They support the notion that wildlife and land are owned by local people. If they are right, then local people are not poachers when they take wildlife that, by right, is theirs. I will come back to this later too.

But first I want to take you back to the Tanzania in which I was threatened to receive a stray bullet. What was the issue my rangers reported to me? In the nearby Serengeti, many poachers were being killed, and the highest-ranking man of Tanzania’s protection agency linked to their deaths was reporting the news with pride to the country’s president. Also, outside NGOs, such as the World Wide Fund for Nature were speaking about it with pride and pleasure.

Here’s what happened: Rangers of the Serengeti were instructed to go cattle raiding in Sukuma land just south of the Serengeti. The cattle were then driven through the Serengeti to the Tanzania-Kenya border. The border patrols of both countries had been instructed to abandon their posts. These orders had come from that “highest man” I referred to, whose brother happened to be a high-ranking official on the Serengeti’s Kenyan side and who ordered the same at that side so that the cattle could be sold in Nairobi. When the legal owners of the cattle pursued the rangers to try to take back their own cows and bulls, they were shot, and reported as poachers that were legally killed in a shoot-out between the forces that fought at the “good side” against the evil men of the “bad side”.

Because I was privy to this, I was informed that I should leave to save my skin. The highest man in the nature conservation department threatened to have me shot if I would not.

Anti-poaching patrols

But the incident made me feel all the more drawn into the conservation effort. I started planning anti-poaching patrols myself. I even walked patrols with rangers, and at least twice was present when “my men” arrested rhino or buffalo poachers. There I experienced something very different than what had transpired in the Serengeti: when we laid out an ambush and poachers walked into our trap, there was no violence. After the arrest, poachers and rangers often smoked a cigarette together, and I transported them in my Land Rover to headquarters, sometimes stopping en route for a break at my camp.

It didn’t take long to learn that the poachers were not from the dangerous syndicates that one hears about. They were local farmers and youths seeking meat and money because they were hungry and poor.
Herbert Prins

It didn’t take long to learn that the poachers were not from the dangerous syndicates that one hears about. They were local farmers and youths seeking meat and money because they were hungry and poor. Typically, after an arrest and a court hearing, they were released on bail that would have been a few euros at the time. Because the rangers were armed, we could classify this as “Green Militarization” but in reality it was much more like ordinary police work and the rangers used their rifles and guns only for warning shots to deter dangerous elephants.

If this is “Green Policing”, what is then the right of the state to mark off a national park and deny local people access to the area or deny them the right to harvest meat or trophies such as elephant ivory or rhino horns? That, of course, depends on which state one is working in: a sovereign state makes laws and rules that apply. These laws and rules may be different from other states, and perhaps one does not like the laws and rules of the state one lives in, or one does not like those of another society. But that doesn’t give one the right or the power to disregard these laws and regulations.

Ownership of wild animals

In many countries, such as Tanzania and Kenya wild animals are owned by the state, whether they roam on public or private lands.: they are not free-for-all. Poaching is thus an economic crime, namely stealing from the owner, which is the State. Because stealing is considered a crime and the state has the monopoly on deploying physical force, the act to defend its ownership forcefully is legal. Thus, one cannot classify that simply as “Green Violence” – it is merely “Green Policing” when done according to law.


Photo: Coby van Dooremalen

In other countries, such as South Africa, the state owns the wild animals in its national parks and the choice to defend its property against illegally killing and taking ownership of the bounty is thus legal. Where private property is involved, the landowner owns the wild animals there and can, under specific conditions, also defend them as property by taking anti-poaching measures. The legality of this has been tested in court numerous times, and I do not know of cases where a defendant was released after an arrest because it was judged by the court that a defendant had the right to take animals that did not belong to him or her. In other words, anti-poaching activities to defend one’s property are legal under the condition that everything is done by the book and can be evaluated by a court.

Expropriation with compensation

However, one may take the position that the land with its wild animals and wild plants was acquired unlawfully. An often-heard argument is that colonial authorities took the land from indigenous people to establish, for instance, a hunting reserve for the colonial elite. Often, such hunting reserves later became strictly protected areas. When I worked in Tanzania and later in Kenya, I investigated this.

The high-ranking government official in charge of nature conservation threatened that I would meet a stray bullet because I had discovered too much about illegal practices masquerading as anti-poaching activities. The threat did cause me to consider giving up my research, but my rangers convinced me to not do that.
Herbert Prins

If one goes through the colonial administration, a different picture emerges, namely, a drawn out process of “extinguishing native rights”. Basically, this meant that an administrator together with the community estimated the annual economic yield of an area. Once that yield was agreed upon, the annual financial value was established and, again, agreed upon. After that, the compensation value for the community was set at 10 times that annual financial value. In the Netherlands this has been named “compensatie na onteigenen ten behoeve van rechtmatig overheidshandelen”, so expropriation with compensation after lawful or legitimate government action.

Some western NGOs, in particular Oxfam have supported local people in court in East Africa who challenged the legitimacy of this colonial era procedure. This received some traction at lower courts in Tanzania, but the Tanzanian High Court did not find fault with the procedure and ruled, for instance, that Mkomazi National Park had been established lawfully.

In other countries, sometimes expropriation was done without compensation. This led to some successful land claims that restored land to original communities. This has happened in South Africa. However, the procedure to date is that the protection status of the land is maintained. So, national park land with its wildlife becomes a contractual national park for which the local community gets a financial fee. Hence, wildlife protection continues to be lawful.

But is the practice of anti-poaching activities always legitimate? The answer is, of course, “no” – just as the police can arrest someone lawfully but may use illegitimate practices like a police neck hold (unlawful in the USA but not in the Netherlands).

It is thus illegal to take unlawful possession of protected wildlife also if that taking into possession takes place in areas that previously were owned by ancestors: descendants do not have legal rights on wild animals or plants that are not theirs. Their economic status – so whether they are poor or not – is not considered relevant, and subsistence hunting on the land of someone else or of the state is judged poaching.

Support from Prince Bernhard

Back to Tanzania, where the high-ranking government official in charge of nature conservation threatened that I would meet a stray bullet because I had discovered too much about illegal practices masquerading as anti-poaching activities. The threat did cause me to consider giving up my research, but my rangers convinced me to not do that. I knew that one reason they stood in solidarity with me was that I had secured new uniforms, underwear, boots and mosquito nets for 600 rangers all across Tanzania. This was accomplished through extraordinary support from His Royal Highness Prince Bernhard, and the Dutch army and KLM.

I knew they had my back because I had theirs, but how does one protect oneself against a bullet? I needed to neutralize the man who’d threatened me, but since I do not condone violence, I found another way: I had him removed from office through a direct link I had with the President. From this an important message arises, and that is that people who do anti-poaching activities may themselves meet violence. In other words, “Green Violence” may be an elicited action that is brought about by violence by criminals.

Yet it is fallacious to assume that poachers are always criminals and because they are criminals, they always will use violence directed against you. That is, literally, a vital mistake. One should realize that many poachers are arrested for reasons that you and I not necessarily rate as criminal. For instance, in Kruger National Park about 75% of all arrests are of boys and young men, typically between 15 and 18 years of age who fish in the protected area.

Yet, how certain can the law-enforcer be that arresting such a fisher will be non-violent?

I experienced an answer to this question in Indonesia, where I became a national parks planner. On one occasion, surveying the coast of Alas Purwo off Java, my colleagues and I came close to the boat of locals who were fishing illegally over a protected coral reef. Instead of throwing illegal dynamite into the water to stun and kill the fish, these fishermen threw the dynamite at us. This is the situation that a law-enforcer fears: poachers using violence. That is, I think, very different from the law-enforcing situation that I had grown to view as acceptable in Tanzania, namely, an arrest of trespassing local people by rangers in which both parties refrain from violence.

Nearly everywhere, wildlife is so seriously threatened, land conversion is so sweeping and legal and illegal trade in wildlife is so rampant that one is nearly tempted to envision a colossal conspiracy against the Planet’s biodiversity
Herbert Prins

The experience of fishermen throwing dynamite at me in Indonesia taught me that poachers would use violence to defend their livelihood. And the experience of someone threatening to have me shot in Tanzania taught me that criminals could masquerade as anti-poachers. Both cases taught me that one always must have one’s facts straight, and that one must get as many facts as possible and one should not be too easily scared.


As professor at Wageningen University, I have tutored scores of PhD students from countries outside the Netherlands. They have been a tremendous source of information for me because many of them were professionals from protected area services. I’ve had the privilege of doing fieldwork with many of them in some of the most remote areas on Earth. With them, I learned much about corruption among police officers and corrupt rangers. I learned much about illegal practices through joining patrols, for example, along the Kenya-Somalia border, and the China-Russia border, as well as when camping in the forests of Cameroon or Nepal, traveling by boat in Siberia, walking across rainforests in Sumatra, and driving cross-country in the savannas of Tanzania. Nearly everywhere, wildlife is so seriously threatened, land conversion is so fast and sweeping and legal and illegal trade in wildlife is so rampant that one is nearly tempted to envision a colossal conspiracy against the Planet’s biodiversity.

If such a conspiracy can seem plausible, perhaps masterminded by “the Chinese” or “the Americans” or “the Mafia”, one should not be amazed if some people react by justifying the use of violence to protect innocent animals.

The problem, of course, is to find evidence for those masterminds. Yet, one should realize that if one subscribes to the idea that rhino poaching is controlled by leaders of “syndicates”, and if in reality these syndicates do not exist, one can waste an enormous amount of time and energy barking at the wrong tree. Evidence of such syndicates is nearly non-existent. Trade networks for animal parts, including rhino horn, seem to be little more than regular social networks through which goods find a buyer. Indeed, Adam Smith’s invisible hand appears to be that mastermind of poaching. There is equally little evidence for gangs that use mortal violence against law-enforcers. The African poaching gangs have little in common with the often psychopathic criminals of the American gang literature.

It is now time to sort the things out:

  1. If a sovereign government allows physical force, then that must be accepted as lawful and legal. If dully authorized government services exert that force then that can be lawful and legitimate.
  2. If it is legal in a sovereign State that wildlife is owned, either by the State itself or by private owners, then the unauthorized taking of that wildlife by someone who is not the owner, is considered theft. Theft is nearly everywhere on Earth a violation of the law.
  3. Wildlife theft in most countries falls under civil law (it is tort, not crime). However, if severely threatened species, such as various rhino species, are killed illegally, it can become a crime.
  4. In nearly all countries, the use of firearms without a permit is considered a crime punishable by the State.
  5. Most elephant and rhino poaching is done using firearms.
  6. Some poachers use violence against those who hinder their illegal hunting.
  7. Some anti-poaching personnel, whether in private or government service, have reacted by militarization, even though their work is more like that of a security company or of the police.
  8. Some anti-poaching personnel, whether in government or private service, have engaged in illegitimate or even unlawful violence.

From this it follows that equating anti-poaching activities with “Green Violence” is hardly ever justified. One should keep her or his vocabulary correct. By framing anti-poaching as “Green Violence” one may actually undermine public support for nature preservation. The good side of the use of the term, however, is that it draws attention to the moral standard that also in nature preservation the end does not justify all means.

I now would like to turn to the concept of “gangs” and especially of “criminal gangs”, along with the question where the guns come from.

Conflict with Boko Haram

A few months ago, I had the sublime pleasure of visiting Lake Turkana in north-west Kenya with some Kenyan PhD students. We received permission to use a large, green Kenya Wildlife Service Toyota Land Cruiser, with radio aerials. It looked militarized. While we drove through the Chalbi Desert four things struck us. First of all, the gazelles we saw fled immediately when they perceived our vehicle. Second, we hardly saw any wildlife, not even in the strictly protected area of Sibiloi National park. Third, when young girls herding goats saw our vehicle, they bolted as if fleeing for their lives. Fourth, every local man from the age of 15 carried a firearm.

In the park, rangers with machine guns and bullet-proof vests protected me from local pastoralists, who had created grazing space for their livestock by eradicating nearly all local wildlife in the national park. A few days later, when sleeping in some little oasis hut, I heard shooting. The next morning, two young local men lay dead nearly on my stoep. Other pastoralists had shot them for stealing goats.

The last place where one can see unmolested Burchell’s zebras and Tiangs is around one single ranger post, where rangers make their rounds toting heavy-duty guns and wearing bullet-proof vests. It is also the only place where law-and-order is maintained.
Herbert Prins

Significantly, in the many thousands square kilometres of borderlands shared by South Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya, the last place where one can see unmolested Burchell’s zebras and Tiangs is around one single ranger post, where rangers make their rounds toting heavy-duty guns and wearing bullet-proof vests. It is also the only place where law-and-order is maintained. I had experienced the same along the Kenya-Somalia border, and also in North Cameroon, where local nature conservation is in conflict with Boko Haram.

Perhaps we see that wrongly, and possibly local members of Boko Haram merely consider the local wildlife as a resource, as generations have before them. But often they take those resources with firearms, and apparently do not hesitate to open fire on conservationists. Along the border with Somalia, fingers are pointed in the direction of Al-Shabaab, and we are made to believe that because their members are terrorists they spread weapons. Yet, perhaps one should realize that the armed conflict between the Somali Al-Shabaab and the Kenyan Armed Forces is largely about who can tax the illegal export of charcoal. Moreover, one should know that Peacekeeping is a very lucrative business model for many armed forces. And for that business model to work, one should realise that insecurity is the product that is exploited.

Two firearms for every adult man

When I started investigating the situation around Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, I found out that some 900,000 Turkana live in this area and 200,000 or so are men beyond the age of 15 years. About the same number of men live on the other side of the borders. Intriguingly, Sudan’s government doled out 250,000 guns, Ethiopia’s about 100,000 and a former President of Kenya distributed another 100,000. Thus, these governments supplied two firearms for every adult man in this region.

Wealthy businessmen fund Al-Shabaab, and firearms sold by China, Russia and the West continue to pour in across the Red Sea. Likewise in West Africa and in Central Africa. It is now estimated that in the whole of Africa, 80% of all firearms are in private hands. During the Cold War, literally millions of small firearms were shipped to Africa to fuel wars in countries like Mozambique or Angola, and when the Cold War was over, many more millions were shipped because they were no longer needed in NATO-countries nor in the former Warsaw Pact area: wildlife paid and still pays the Peace Dividend. For your information, in the international arms trade, AK-47s are merely classified as “small firearms”.

Wildlife protectors feel threatened

Violence is easy, killing wildlife is easy, and protection personnel feel the threat of running into armed conflicts with poachers. In many places, there is no law and order, and in many places the legitimacy of Government is at stake. This is not typical for Africa: Did you know that India’s forests and wild places are for about 30% controlled by the Naxalites – some sort of Maoist insurgency? Since about 2010 the influence of the Naxalites may be declining because of “Operation Green Hunt”, but anti-poaching personnel is greatly threatened. Few in the Netherlands had heard about the recent Civil War in Nepal, but the stories that local wildlife protection officers can tell you are hair-raising. So are the stories that some of my former PhD students have told me. In other words, where “Green Violence” occurs, it is wrong, but it can easily be understood: wildlife protectors often feel mortally threatened.

However, that leads to poachers feeling threatened too. So simple “policing” morphs into “Green Militarization” which then may easily escalates on both sides into “Green Violence”. Even in a peaceful country as the Netherlands, a government minister asked foresters (in Dutch ‘boswachters’) to don bulletproof vests instead of strengthening the police in the countryside. That would have been a first step towards “Green Militarization”.

Finally, before I turn to Artificial Intelligence, it’s important to note that in many countries it is unsafe to be arrested. In numerous parts of the world, one would be raped – perhaps even with the chance to be infected with AIDS – within days, whether one is a woman or a man. And one may linger in a beastly prison for years without seeing a judge.

Preventing a crime with artificial intelligence

And now, what about AI – artificial intelligence? A few years ago I was asked by the Dutch NWO to consider teaming-up with the Netherlands Forensic Institute to focus on wildlife crime. When it comes to solving crimes, forensic science is crucial. But after a crime has happened.


Photo: Julia Schäfer

So, for example, if a White rhino has been killed on a property and a person is found dead nearby, forensics may help the authorities to unravel what happened and bring anyone involved in the crime to justice. But, when I was in that meeting, I experienced an epiphany, as Americans would call it. I realized that my professional calling was not to enact revenge by identifying a criminal, and my vocation was not to get any fellow human being into a prison where she or he could be raped or otherwise harmed. Neither science nor revenge can restore the life of a dead rhino or person. But what if science could prevent the killing?

At that moment, it occurred to me that beyond scientific inquiry, my intelligence and knowledge should be used to investigate ways to prevent the killing of rhinos or elephants. Remember how at the start of this lecture I referred to Martin Luther’s interest in moral theology – particularly concerning concepts of ‘good’ and ‘evil’? If you can prevent a crime, you are siding with the ‘good’ and if a poacher could be apprehended before violating the law and be seized only for trespassing for which one normally does not go to jail you work for a better world. It would be even worthier if one could devise a system in which rangers would know beforehand where a potential poacher would hide in the bush and use that intelligence to deescalate the spiral of fear and violence. This, I thought, would decrease the chances of “Green Violence”.

Developing predictive analytics

In my group, we had moved already towards Artificial Intelligence. With funding from the European Commission, we had been doing cutting-edge work on the precision of animal tracking, and we had made some fascinating discoveries using free-ranging cattle as model species. Like many other ecologists, we had played with animal tracking but now we were moving the mathematics into much more exciting directions than previously.

Therefore, when I thought on my hoofs about why I did not want to work on forensics, I made a bold move and announced that we should work on predicting where and when a wildlife crime was going to take place in the bush. In other words, we had to develop predictive analytics – but of what? The poachers would not be wearing sensors. Moreover, I did not want any sensors placed on rhinos. If we did that, anyone with some radio tracking skills would be able to pinpoint those rhinos and target them for killing. Indeed, the system that I wanted should decrease the risk for rhinos, and not increase it.


Photo: Julia Schäfer

In the months before that fateful meeting with NWO and NFI, we were deeply absorbed in work on the interplay between zebra and wildebeest on the one hand, and between them and lions on the other. We discovered that lions are not simple ambush killers, as was published. Rather, we found that lions may stalk for hours and the zebra or wildebeest may evade for hours – not by running but by constantly keeping a safe distance and counteracting the movements of the lions. If one sees it at a computer screen, it reminds one of a war game or indeed of a game of chess.

The data show an enormous environmental awareness of these wildebeest or zebra. However, when you are observing them in the field you do not pick it up at all, especially not in the wooded bush where many of these prey and predators operate in southern Africa. Only when you put sensors on the animals, and only when you analyse their movements with advanced mathematical tools, you realize that these simple large grazers are the outcome of millions of years of evolution that honed their sensors to perfection. We call their sensors “ears”, “noses” and “eyes”. They have knowledge of their terrain, they know where they can run and where they cannot; they know where a fence is that a lion could use as stopping device during a chase. They have a brain to process all these incoming data perhaps better than any integrated sensor ever can do. And then the penny dropped: I proposed to use large herbivores as biosensors to detect poachers, and through advanced mathematical analytics deduct from their movement patterns where a poacher would hide or walk.

Using roaming impalas, wildebeests, antelopes and zebras

Suddenly I felt young and bright again. Here was a brand-new challenge to be tackled. I had been trained as a behavioural ecologist, and after decades of research and collaboration, I think that I am better versed in large mammal ecology than most: I have had the privilege and pleasure of receiving a profound education in vegetation ecology, and I’ve done considerable work on remote sensing. I have very good contacts in Africa, and I have been working a lot with corporate industry. Most significantly, I have in my brain the integrated knowledge of more than one hundred PhD students.


Photo: Julia Schäfer

I feel beyond fortunate that NWO funded this exciting idea, and that I was able to forge cooperative agreements with IBM (the computer giant), EnChoice (a data company), MTN (a telecommunications giant), and Welgevonden Game Reserve, which in my estimation is Africa’s best-managed game reserve and is incomparable to anything I have seen in Europa, Australia or Asia. Moreover, I found the MF-Foundation willing to pay large sums to catch, transport and release the many sentinel animals that we needed. Impala, wildebeest, eland antelope and zebra are roaming the veld where we have done many intrusion experiments to mimic poaching. A LoRa-network had to be designed and built, and data transmission through data banks in the Middle East, Canada and Europe had to flow. Data gushed richly to Wageningen where through the very able hands of Henjo de Knegt and Jasper Eikelboom the data transformed into the Artificial Intelligence product that we need.

At the same time, in Welgevonden we built armoured data warehousing, in which we set up a Joint Operation Command centre. We forged cooperation with the army and police on intelligence, constructed booms on roads with number plate recognition linked-up to stolen car register systems, and we finished a car tracking system inside the Reserve. Our predictive analytics of the sentinel large mammals and sensor data will be integrated into this Joint Operation Command centre. Thus, we hope to reduce the risk for the protected species that are really on the brink of extinction. Rhino poaching has killed perhaps already 90% of all African rhinos in the last 10 years. In the same period, in Welgevonden we have lost only one rhino through poaching, not a single ranger, and also not a single poacher or trespasser lost his or her life. Of course, we want to roll this out to more protected areas. We need even more money, and I will be forever begging for money as I have done to finance many scores of PhD students.


Photo: Julia Schäfer

I will continue working in this compelling integrated field of nature preservation and artificial intelligence. We urgently need to develop a particular type of drone, which will look like an eagle and use flapping flight to inspect the outcome of our predictive algorithms. When our algorithms deduce from the complex behaviour of sentinel animals where likely a poacher is hiding, I want to be able to have that verified before rangers have to risk their lives. We need sensors for another 3000 animals and we need more LoRa-towers. And we need more very able brains.

Green violence just as evil as any other form of violence

My talk is a public lecture with students in attendance, and I specifically turn to you. As I see it, the lives of rhinos are nearly sacrosanct, as are the lives of rangers – and poachers. When discussing drones, I often heard the enthusiastic reaction from you and fellow students: “Ah, then we can shoot poachers from the air!” My answer is: Please stop that way of thinking. Poachers have rights – if they have done something illegal, they should be brought to court. “Green Violence” is just as evil as any other form of violence.

Most poachers are people who were trained in armed struggle and know how to make a living out of shooting but nothing else, or they are unemployed youth who see no future for themselves and want to buy bling bling to impress girls. There is no indication that they operate in “gangs” with all the gang psychopathy of hardened criminals, perhaps there is not even evidence for syndicate leaders who order the killing of particular rhinos.

Our task as students of life is to use our brains, skills and knowledge to enhance and protect that life. Within the arena of nature preservation, our charge is to devise approaches that are so advanced and so effective that wildlife will persist on Earth without violence by our species – be they poachers or protectors. It is my conviction that you and I can do that by bringing artificial intelligence and the best of science to the table.

Professor Herbert Prins was appointed at Wageningen University in December 1992. While he was in the chair, the group supervised about 1,500 MSc students and an uncounted number of undergraduates.

Professor Prins is an internationally acclaimed scientist. Already as master student, he published eight international academic papers. He then moved to Cambridge University and got international exposure, but much more so in the wilderness of Tanzania where he became a nature conservationist besides an academic. He was then elected Academy Fellow of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences to continue his purely academic investigations.

Herbert Prins has done much for the conservation of nature at the national level (Natuurmonumenten) and internationally he co-supervised the establishment of new national parks in Gabon, Cameroon and Indonesia. For his leadership, he was appointed Officer in the Order of the Golden Ark by His Royal Highness the Prince Bernhard, and later Officer in the Order of Oranje Nassau by Her Majesty the Queen Beatrix. In the United States, he received the Aldo Leopold Award and in Australia he was elected Foundation Fellow by the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

During his long career he saw nearly every three months a doctoral student defend his doctoral thesis. In total, 98 PhD candidates received their doctor’s degree with him as supervisor. And presently, he still supervises another thirteen. He co-authored nearly 500 scientific papers, wrote one book and edited eighteen scientific books and special issues of scientific journals. His H-index stands at seventy-one. Over the last 30 years he published a scientific paper, a chapter in a book, or a report every 21 working days, and his work was cited at least twice every working day. Apart from that, he was scientific consultant for BBC and National Geographic films.

Cover photo: Jasper Eikelboom