U.K., Germany, & Switzerland also concerned about World Wildlife Fund-backed paramilitary operations
WASHINGTON D.C.–– The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and other federal agencies are investigating allegations repeatedly raised for more than a dozen years by media––chiefly by the online periodical BuzzFeed News, but also including ANIMALS 24-7––that funds granted by the U.S. government to the nonprofit World Wildlife Fund (WWF) may have been used to underwrite extreme human rights violations in the name of combatting poaching in parts of Africa and Asia.
Also doing business as the Worldwide Fund for Nature, the multinational WWF empire has been under parallel government investigations for months in the United Kingdom, Germany and Switzerland.
Cost of largely failed “guns-&-guards” programs could have saved more wildlife by educating tens of thousands
Word of the inquiries into World Wildlife Fund-sponsored paramilitary anti-poaching operations reached the public just as Africa Network for Animal Welfare founder Josphat Ngonyo announced a new non-violent anti-poaching initiative based directly on his personal experience as organizer of the largest and most successful anti-poaching campaigns in Kenya, and perhaps the whole African continent.
“For 22 years now,” Ngonyo posted to media on September 25, 2019, “I have been involved in desnaring and animal rescues. Poaching for bushmeat in particular is on the increase! My experience while living in a wildlife area, enriched by market surveys, indicate that the solution does not lay in sending community members to jail. They do it due to poverty and lack of alternative livelihoods!”
As Ngonyo has often pointed out since beginning his desnaring operations in 1997, enlisting student volunteers to join him in snare removal sweeps of protected Kenyan wildlife habitat, some of his own family were poachers before Ngonyo himself got an education, through the help of the late teacher/conservationist Rosalie Osborn, and broke the poverty cycle.
Africa Network for Animal Welfare trying to show how
“Vocational training and formal education, leading to gainful employment, will economically empower communities with alternatives,” Ngonyo explained. “$3,000 U.S. will see an individual go through four years of formal education or two individuals go through vocational training for two years each.”
Thus the sum granted by the U.S., government to the World Wildlife Fund alone for paramilitary anti-poaching operations over the past 20 years could have educated between 42,000 and 84,000 impoverished African villagers.
This could potentially protect far more wildlife than have demonstrably been protected by non-governmental paramilitary operations in at least 12 African nations which are, for the most part, conspicuous for failing to save endangered animals.
The Africa Network for Animal Welfare is now raising funds to establish the scholarship program that Ngonyo recommends.
Non-governmental para-military anti-poaching projects, meanwhile, have helped to escalate the frequency and intensity of firefights in which more than 1,000 rangers have been killed.
U.S. federal investigation disclosed
U.S. Department of the Interior assistant secretary for policy, management, and budget Susan Combs disclosed the federal investigation of WWF in a September 19, 2019 letter to Raul Grijalva, the Democrat from Arizona who chairs the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources.
Combs wrote, she said, on behalf of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, the Department of the Interior, and the Fish & Wildlife Service.
Was nominee to head Fish & Wildlife Service involved?
Combs wrote a week before a U.S. Senate committee on September 25, 2019 voted 11-10 to approve the nomination of deputy assistant secretary of fish, wildlife and parks Aurelia Skipwith to head the Fish & Wildlife Service, which has not had a full-time director since August 2018.
Skipwith would become the first person of African-American ancestry to lead the Fish & Wildlife Service, but––as fiancé of prominent lobbyist Leo Giacometto and a former lobbyist herself against Endangered Species Act enforcement––would bring to the office significant personal and professional conflicts of interest with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service mission.
Skipwith’s positions have also at times conflicted with those of WWF.
Whether Skipwith had input into the Combs letter is unknown.
“Allegations are troubling & warrant in-depth inquiry”
Grijalva had asked Bernhardt to respond to the allegations against WWF on July 23, 2019.
“If true,” Combs began, “the allegations you described are troubling and warrant an indepth inquiry. We welcome the opportunity to cooperate with the House Natural Resource Committee’s (Committee) bipartisan investigation and have begun our own internal review of the matter.”
Grijalva wrote to Bernhardt after apparently receiving an unsatisfactory reply, or none, from WWF president and chief executive officer Carter Roberts in response to a July 1, 2019 request from Grijalva for WWF documents that might shed light on the allegations of human rights abuses.
“Torture, sexual assault, extrajudicial killings”
Wrote Grijalva to Roberts, “On April 9, 2019, representatives of World Wildlife Fund United States (WWF-US) met with [U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources] staff regarding reports of human rights violations, including torture, sexual assault, and extrajudicial killings, by ranger and paramilitary forces supported by WWF and tasked with preventing wildlife poaching. Among the victims of these alleged abuses are vulnerable indigenous people living near protected areas.
“Despite the importance of protecting wildlife and preventing species extinction,” Grijalva told Roberts, “the United States cannot be party to violations of basic human rights. Moreover, such abuses undermine local support for wildlife conservation efforts and may jeopardize long-term species recovery.
“While we appreciate the information provided by WWF-US during this preliminary meeting,” Grijalva said, “questions remain regarding the extent to which WWF was aware that entities it funded and equipped may have committed a wide range of human rights abuses, actions that were taken to prevent them, and what must be done to prevent them in the future.”
“Direct contradiction to terms of grant awards & federal law”
Acknowledged Combs in her letter to Grijalva, “We understand that the [U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources] interest in this matter was initiated by a series of investigative reports published in March 2019 [by BuzzFeed News] that detailed an extensive history of human rights violations including internal documents that ‘show World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has offered detailed instructions for finding and cultivating informants …. purchased information and arranged bounties.’
“If verified,” Combs said, “these would appear to be in direct contradiction to the terms of the grant awards and federal law.”
The six-part Buzzfeed News series updated and elaborated on allegations pertaining to World Wildlife Fund paramilitary anti-poaching programs in Africa that have recurred time and again since the mid-1970s. Similar allegations have often surfaced for almost as long pertaining to U.S. government support of the WWF projects and other paramilitary anti-poaching programs operated by multi-national nonprofit organizations.
“U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service believes projects have no human rights implications”
Combs explained that the Fish & Wildlife Service “believes that its projects involve activities that do not have human rights implications.”
Grant requests are submitted to the Fish & Wildlife Service, Combs wrote, in response to notices of funding opportunities which “include, for example,” Combs said, “a requirement that each grant award comply with applicable U.S. and foreign national laws, including human rights treaties.”
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service notices of funding opportunities also include, Combs continued, “a statement of prohibited activities including purchase of firearms or ammunition, buying intelligence or paying informants, gathering information by persons who conceal their true identity, and any activity that would circumvent sanctions, laws, or regulations of either the U.S. or the country in which the activity would occur.
“Auditing arrangement could involve conflict of interest”
“Regardless,” Combs acknowledged, “to date it is not believed that an investigation into the allegations [against WWF] by U.S. officials with law enforcement expertise has been completed. Fish & Wildlife Service oversight has been primarily focused on assessing WWF’s compliance with award terms and conditions. Extending agency oversight beyond financial mismanagement, fraud, or noncompliance with award terms will likely require expertise that is not housed within the Fish & Wildlife Service.
“In fact,” Combs disclosed, “Fish & Wildlife Service officials currently rely on the findings of an auditor hired and managed by WWF to assess any direct financial support of alleged human rights violations by subgrantees.”
Understated Combs, “This ‘auditing arrangement’ could involve a conflict of interest.”
$125 million in U.S. taxpayer money granted to WWF
Combs suggested that “a better approach” would be for the Fish & Wildlife Service to work more closely with USAID.” However, some USAID conservation funding has in the past apparently underwritten human rights violations comparable to those allegedly involving WWF.
“The Department will also be requesting from WWF the documents referenced in the [Buzzfeed News] investigative reports, along with any related documents that might shed light on WWF’ s human rights safeguards, accountability mechanisms, and past involvement in any of the alleged activities,” Combs pledged.
“Our review of Fish Wildlife Service grants since 2013 places the total number of awards that included eco-guard-activities,” Combs said, “at 760 grants totaling roughly $125 million. However, this inquiry not only affects grants already in operation or closed out, but also grant requests pending before the Department. The Department is reviewing at least 28 awards totaling over $22.5 million for similar purposes, activities, and geographic areas as those identified” in the Buzzfeed News reports.
“Need for a deeper review”
The U.S. Office of the Interior department of grants management “is conducting its own internal review of WWF grants since 2009 and the Fish & Wildlife Division of International Affairs Grants Programs,” Combs disclosed.
“The need for a deeper review,” Combs added, “extends beyond a single organization, type of activity, or individual country.
“With this in mind,” Combs continued, “the Department [of the Interior] will request that the Inspector General conduct an audit of the Division of International Affairs Grants Program,” including “to analyze the program’s capacity to conduct sufficient risk assessments for human rights violations or support of oppressive regimes that largely operate outside the reach of U.S. law.”
Meanwhile, grants to WWF will not be in the mail, Combs assured Grijalva.
“Unless directed by Congress to do otherwise,” Combs said, “the Department [of the Interior] will exercise its discretion to hold these funds, and other similar award requests, until our internal review is complete.
“Institutional changes might also be appropriate and useful,” Combs concluded.
Grijalva asked U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to respond to the allegations against WWF on the same day, July 23, 2019, that BuzzFeed News reported that Germany had “frozen funds [granted to WWF] after BuzzFeed News exposed how anti-poaching guards backed by WWF have tortured, raped, and killed people.”
Wrote BuzzFeed News reporters Marcus Engert, Katie J.M. Baker, and Tom Warren, “Officials declined to say exactly how much is being withheld, but German taxpayers have given WWF tens of millions of euros over the past two decades.
WWF responded, BuzzFeed News said, that the German government “had only suspended funds allocated to one wildlife reserve — the Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where guards have been accused of gang rape and torture.”
“New allegations of a double murder”
WWF “confirmed only last week that it was investigating new allegations of a double murder at Salonga. The park is co-managed by WWF and funded by the German government,” BuzzFeed News explained, adding that “The United Kingdom’s Charities Commission is investigating whether WWF’s U.K. branch conducts proper due diligence to ensure that the money it sends abroad does not contribute to violence. And WWF’s in-country branch in Germany has completed its own internal inquiry, which found that the charity must overhaul its human rights policies.
WWF “is also conducting its own global investigation,” BuzzFeed added. “In April WWF appointed former United Nations high commissioner for human rights Navi Pillay to chair that inquiry. WWF president Pavan Sukhdev has promised to take ‘swift and appropriate action’ to address any ‘shortcomings uncovered by the review.’”
BuzzFeed News earlier in July 2019 “revealed that WWF had kept evidence of gang rape and torture at its German-funded Salonga park under wraps,” Engert, Baker, and Warren summarized.
“Guards raped & tortured four women”
“A confidential report, which was commissioned by the charity, found that guards had raped and tortured four women, two of whom were pregnant, and had tied male villagers’ penises with fishing lines,” BuzzFeed alleged. “Two legal experts who worked on the report said their investigation was cut short and that they were prevented from looking into other alleged crimes. One said he had to flee the park after rangers threatened to kill him.”
Continued BuzzFeed, “WWF said it chose not to release the report publicly because of concerns over victim confidentiality and due process, including criminal investigations against alleged perpetrators. The charity said that all of the guards involved have been suspended and that it is aiding local authorities with prosecution.”
Survival International accused WWF in 2016
Acting at request of Switzerland, the 35-nation Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in January 2017 agreed to investigate a complaint from the London-based charity Survival International that WWF has repeatedly, systematically, and severely violated the human rights of the Bayaka people, better known as pygmies.
WWF “funds anti-poaching squads in Cameroon and elsewhere in the Congo Basin,” explained Survival International director Stephen Corry. “Bayaka and other rainforest tribes have reported systematic abuse at the hands of these squads, including arrests, beatings, torture and even death, for well over 20 years,” Corry said.
Formed in 1961 to “promote policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world,” the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development had no actual authority to enforce penalties against an entity found to be in violation of human rights or ethical business standards.
But a negative finding could have significantly depressed corporate, foundation, and governmental support for WWF. Only about a third of WWF funding comes directly from donations by members of the public.
The OECD involvement came to nothing, however, when Survival International withdrew from OECD-brokered discussion of the allegations with WWF representatives.
Explained Corry in an article for The Ecologist, “We said that WWF had made no attempt either to apply its own policy on indigenous peoples, or to abide by the OECD guidelines, which are designed to prevent human rights abuses arising from corporate activities.”
Summarized Conservation Watch editor Chris Lang, “Survival International asked WWF to agree to get the consent of the Bayaka about how conservation on their lands will be managed in the future. WWF refused to do so. And at that point, Survival International decided “there was no purpose continuing the talks.”
WWF partnered with Cameroon to promote trophy hunting
Continued Lang, “WWF’s statement of principles on indigenous peoples and conservation includes the following: ‘WWF will not promote or support, and may actively oppose, interventions which have not received the prior free and informed consent of affected indigenous communities, and/or would adversely impact – directly or indirectly – on the environment of indigenous peoples’ territories, and/or would affect their rights.’
“The principles specifically mention that this applies to the “creation of protected areas or imposition of restrictions on subsistence resource use.”
Alleged Corry, “When WWF partnered with the Cameroon government to create trophy hunting zones and national parks on Bayaka’s land, WWF made no attempt to consult the Bayaka.
“Notion that reign of terror aids wildlife is nonsense”
“The Bayaka were kicked out, and even now WWF won’t consult them over how these areas are managed,” Corry charged. “WWF funds park guards who have assaulted, tortured and killed Bayaka people. These attacks have taken place inside and outside park boundaries.
“The notion that this reign of terror aids wildlife protection is nonsense,” Corry said. “Some WWF-funded guards are themselves poachers and the Bayaka have shown themselves to be better conservationists than WWF anyway.”
Then-WWF African regional director Frederick Kumah denied the Survival International allegations and ripped Survival International for abandoning the talks.
“Physical abuse a regular complaint”
Commented Forest Peoples Programme, another British-based charity that works with the Bayaka, “”FPP has limited knowledge of the specific facts of the complaint made by Survival International and cannot corroborate its contents. However, we can confirm that physical abuse by eco guards (including in some cases very serious injuries) has been a regular complaint by Bayaka community members in several areas where we or our partners work.
“FPP is not aware of any information which would suggest that WWF has been directly involved in abuses by eco guards,” Forest Peoples Programme continued, “or that it has encouraged or incited these abuses in any way. However, WWF does work closely with and provides funding to certain government authorities who are responsible for employing and managing eco guards (including, reportedly, WWF vehicles being used for eco guard patrols).
“Need to conserve forests is not the issue”
Concluded Forest Peoples Programme, “It is our view that WWF, as an international organization, has a responsibility to ensure that the actors with whom it is working are not engaging in, and/or the policies which it is pursuing are not resulting in, human rights violations.”
Both Survival International and Forest Peoples Programme are longtime critics of WWF policies in general.
“In our view,” Forest Peoples Programme explained, the underlying “widespread and longstanding problem” is “tied to the creation of national parks, conservation areas and privately-run hunting concessions.
“The need to conserve forests is not the issue,” Forest Peoples Programme said. “The issue arises when conservation is pursued following the failed ‘fortress conservation’ model that excludes local communities, impoverishes them, and does not build on their expertise and on their internationally recognized rights to their lands.”
Wildlife in steep decline despite “guns & guards”
The New York City-based Rainforest Foundation, which sponsors Conservation Watch, reached similar conclusions in April 2016.
Summarized Guardian environment reporter John Vidal, “According to the Rainforest Foundation – whose researchers spent 18 months interviewing people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, Gabon, Central African Republic and the Republic of Congo – elephants, bongos, gorillas and chimpanzees are declining at alarming rates, while communities report abuse by people paid to protect the environment.
Said the Rainforest Foundation report, entitled Protected areas in the Congo basin: failing people and biodiversity, “Without exception, all communities in the countries where field research took place associate protected areas with increasing hardships due to restrictions on their livelihood activities, including diminished access to food. Whenever gains may have resulted from protected areas, very little, if anything, has reached local communities to date.”
Paramilitary funding could have educated 250,000
The Rainforest Foundation identified the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), as the largest single funder of conservation in the Congo basin.
“We have identified at least $110 million that has been put into conservation efforts just by USAID from 2004 through 2010, and they have committed to spending another $50 million from 2013 through 2018,” explained Rainforest Foundation director Simon Counsell. “The next biggest funder has been the European Union, which spent about $118 million between 1992 and 2010. A further $50 million has come through the African Development Bank, the Norwegian government, Germany, Japan and others.
“Taking into account all the money that has come through organizations such as WWF and the Wildlife Conservation Society,” Counsell said, “we calculate that probably $400 million has been spent on these protected areas in the last 15 years or so, and quite possibly as much as $500 million.”
This, according to Josphat Ngonyo’s estimates of the cost of education in Africa, could have put more than 120,000 poor African villages through university, or given advanced vocational training to more than 250,000.
“Local people bear the brunt”
Wrote Vidal, “Most conservation in the Congo basin is based on a militaristic approach, known as ‘guns and guards.’ It depends on armed anti-poaching ‘eco guards,’ restricting hunting and stopping people from going into the forest.
“But this model is described in the Rainforest Foundation report as heavy-handed, leading to communities being threatened and turning them against conservation. Indigenous groups, such as the Pygmies, are said to suffer the most, largely because their semi-nomadic lifestyles tend to overlap with protected areas.
“Local people bear the brunt of anti-poaching measures even though they are not the drivers of poaching,” Vidal explained.
“At the same time, systematic efforts to tackle high level illegal wildlife trade networks have not taken pressure off local communities or diminished the abuses they suffer.”
Poaching linked to political conflict
Countered Kumah, “Militarization of the southeast Cameroon area, linked to arms trafficking, well-armed poaching and conflict in Central African Republic, has been identified as a factor in an increased number of reports of unacceptable conduct and alleged abuse by eco guards and others.”
But WWF and USAID, pursuing a model of wildlife conservation funded by sport hunting revenue, have long advanced programs and policies throughout Africa that contribute to destabilization.
The centerpiece of U.S. African wildlife conservation policy under the George H. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush presidential administrations, for example, was the Zimbabwean Communal Areas Management Program for Indigenous Resources, CAMPFIRE for short.
USAID-backed CAMPFIRE program was disaster for Zimbabwe
Purporting to encourage villagers to protect wildlife by enabling them to share in the profits from trophy hunting, CAMPFIRE received USAid subsidies of $20.5 million during fiscal years 1997-2000 from the U.S. Agency for International Development, after receiving $8 million from USAID 1989-1996.
CAMPFIRE was highly praised by the hunter/conservationist establishment for allegedly enlisting village support. But CAMPFIRE appears to have done more to enrich Robert Mugabe regime insiders than to help either poor villagers or wildlife.
CAMPFIRE also was implicated in large-scale arson, theft, and kidnapping when villagers opposed losing their land to hunting safari development.
Test of national stability
Whether the issue is elephant ivory, rhino horn, or pangolin poaching, or simply protecting habitat for wildlife, successfully promoting wildlife conservation in Africa––or anywhere––tends to become a test of national political stability: of the ability of nations to make and enforce laws, with fair and expeditious judicial processes and meaningful punishments, apart from just might-makes-right.
Time and again, efforts toward strengthening African institutions of civil justice, and thereby strengthening public confidence in government, have been undercut by nonprofit-backed paramilitary anti-poaching projects.
Ruthless poaching, conducted by local anti-government warlords to buy the arms they need to stay alive in the bush, is typically met with equally ruthless responses from mercenary armies funded by conservationists, who on the one hand perceive an urgent need to save wildlife, and on the other, quickly lose patience with the slow and often uncertain process of nation-building.
Indeed, losing patience with corrupt and incompetent regimes whose leadership often includes poachers, traffickers, and facilitators of wildlife poaching and trafficking is both understandable and inevitable.
Frequently factions within African governments have eventually been found to be in league with the very warlords and other poaching mafias they are supposedly fighting.
Some of those warlords, moreover, are allied with militias that are more-or-less at war with civilization itself, including al Qaida, ISIS, Mai Mai, Boko Haram, the Janjaweed, al-Shabaab, the Lord’s Resistance Army, and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, among many others.
But poaching and wildlife trafficking are also sometimes major sources of food and cash for impoverished squatters, including people displaced by conservation projects.
WWF brass & Operation Lock
WWF was among the first conservation charities to promote use of armed “eco guards,” and was associated with the project, Operation Lock, that probably did most to bring this approach into disrepute.
Exposed most thoroughly by London Independent reporter Stephen Ellis in January 1991, Operation Lock was formed in 1987 by WWF International founding president Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands and WWF Africa program director John Hanks.
Not officially a WWF program, Operation Lock worked closely with covert units of the South African military under the former apartheid regime. The South African military simultaneously funded covert operations in nearby nations, including Mozambique, through elephant and rhino poaching.
As Ellis revealed, Operation Lock collapsed with funds and horn stocks missing.
To what extent the corrupt elements within Operation Lock were associated with the Renamo rebel army active in neighboring Mozambique during same years is unclear. Renamo soldiers reportedly killed tens of thousands of elephants, trading their tusks for South African-supplied armaments. Transitioning from a rebel force into a political party circa 2004, Renamo returned to armed insurgency in 2012 and may again be involved in poaching.
The histories of Operation Lock and Renamo enabled Zimbabwe to claim in 1999 that resurgent poaching in a region where both had been active was “sponsored by some non-governmental organizations and countries that want to discredit Zimbabwe.”
The corruption associated with Operation Lock was in many respects business-as-usual for WWF, which from inception in 1961 has tended to work with whoever is in power, wherever, by whatever means, to achieve conservation goals.
WWF backed dictator who left DRC in chaos
The Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, was ruled from 1965 to 1997 by Mobuto Sese Soto, a military dictator and member of the World Wildlife Fund’s 1001 Club for billionaire patrons. Mobuto reputedly managed elephant poaching as a virtual concession until his 1993 departure into well-cushioned exile. Mobuto supporters reportedly killed 50,000 elephants for ivory during the last five years of his regime, stashing the take in Swiss banks.
WWF is scarcely the only international conservation charity to fund paramilitary anti-poaching mercenary armies that appear to have ended up doing more harm for animals and habitat than good.
ANIMALS 24-7 has identified at least eight other nonprofit paramilitary projects undertaken since circa 1990, funded by U.S. and European donors, which have failed in the long run to stop poaching and encroachment on protected habitat, and worse, have often inadvertently supplied arms, equipment, money, and political cover to poachers and traffickers.
Educating young Africans successful wherever serious tried
Ultimately, coming to grips with African wildlife poaching requires coming to grips with African realities, including that a continent dominated and exploited by warring soldiers of fortune has little hope of ever developing stable governments able to keep either wildlife reserves or anything else secure.
Neither does reserving wildlife to be sold to trophy hunters tell poor Africans that poaching is wrong. Rather, this practice, chiefly benefiting well-placed officials, reinforces the view that one is wise to get the best price one can, before freebooting strongmen horn in on the deal.
Educating impoverished young Africans, however, as Josphat Ngonyo recommends, has proved successful wherever it has been seriously tried.