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Self-Censorship, Truth, Corruption and Calling ‘Bullshit’

In October 2018, on the strength of a study paper I wrote on “Courtroom Monitoring – Countering Corruption in Wildlife Crime,” I found myself in a seminar hosted by the Zoology Society of London. The auditorium was full of scholars and experts representing the full gamut of fields within the sector of combating international wildlife crime (IWC). I was really out of my depth, a neophyte, an “intern” in the field, just soaking up the surroundings. As I look back at it now, none of the various discussion points made it into my long term memory but for one, a question about “self-censorship.”


I cannot even remember the specific phrasing of the question but I was struck by the testicular fortitude required to ask that question within that esteemed audience. For that individual, with a very well respected international NGO, was essentially asking about the ethics of “telling only a portion of the truth” depending on your audience. Considering we were discussing a subject that relates to the extinction of species, and the billions of dollars spent on preventing that, this was indeed a thought-provoking question. The answer was forgettable, a diplomatic response for all those on both sides of the coin, the one side who shovel and the other side receiving, wondering if they should call “bullshit” or not. In the world of IWC, the “bullshit” call is rarely made.

For those not familiar with the term “self-censorship,” a quick Google search will define it as “the exercising of control over what one says and does, especially to avoid criticism.” Most of us do some form of this every day and in the world of NGOs, this can be expanded to mean not telling the whole, complete truth for fear of upsetting or causing offence to funding donors or other institutions being worked with. And if, while doing your Google search, you looked up NGOs, “a non-profit organization that operates independently of any government, typically one whose purpose is to address a social or political issue,” you would be correct for questioning the part about operating “independent of government,” particularly in Africa when the permission to operate in a specific country is often up to the graces of the government in power.

My point to all this is that in the IWC field, where glossy paged special reports on all manner of topics are pumped out like breeding rabbits, “self-censorship” is the name of the game. Many of these special reports are co-sponsored by both government agencies and so-called NGOs. The victim here is often the real truth, a compromise to the individual and political interests of involved stakeholders. A report’s ‘Executive summary’ is a favourite way of delivering ‘truth,’ (because who really has time to read all these special reports) with the real truth perhaps buried somewhere around page 43 or in Annex C, if there at all.

Sometimes the ‘truth’ was once the real truth, but whose time and relevance has passed. As an example, the port of Mombasa still figures in 2019/2020 reports as a transit port of major significance when there hasn’t been a significant seizure attributed to the port since December 2016. A July 2019 report co-authored by TRAFFIC, USAID, IUCN and UNDP entitled “Countering Wildlife Crime through Tanzania’s Seaports,” uses seizure data from between 2009 to 2015 to argue a case of the port’s present significance in the illegal wildlife trade. The last major ivory seizure in Dar-e-Salaam was a 666 piece 1,279 kg haul in June 2016 in a home in an upscale Dar suburb. The last major container seizure of ivory attributed to either Dar-e-Salaam or Zanzibar was in November 2013. And in fairness to TRAFFIC et al, they are certainly not the only offenders to use old data that can sometimes be up to 10 years old. Meanwhile, organized crime has changed its modus operandi countless times over in that same time span.

Perhaps a more relevant and timely report could have been written on Lagos, Nigeria, the runaway leader in African ports of egress for ivory and pangolin scales in the past two years. Since January 2018, there have been at least 18 containers seized with industrial-scale amounts of ivory and pangolin scales. To date, there have been no glossy paged reports on that Port by the mainstream ‘industry.’

Lagos, Nigeria, the new IWC hub of Africa. (Chris Morris)

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

The all-time and perennial favourite of truth spinning is in statistics. The expression “lies, damned lies and statistics” is particularly relevant in IWC. Numbers in particular are a vital part of the fabric of IWC; the numbers of a particular endangered species remaining, the financial value of ivory or rhino horn (market and at source), the weight of a particular ivory seizure, the attributable number of elephants that would have had to have been killed to attain that weight, the number of seizures made in a certain port or airport, the number of elephants or rhinos poached within a certain park or country within a specific time frame.

What easier or better way to show results, (or glaring and embarrassing inefficiencies) than a spreadsheet or pie chart with statistics; numbers of persons trained, numbers of persons ‘sensitized’ at corruption workshops, or the number of arrests (you will virtually never see convictions), the number of sniffer dogs provided or equipment/computers/vehicles donated or infrastructure provided. But the actual truth? Did the personnel training actually change the manner in which the organization conducted its business? Probably not. Did the corruption workshop assist in decreasing corruption? Definitely not! Did the arrests lead to charges or were they ‘kneejerk’ arrests made before proper investigation? Were the canine detection dogs permitted access to entire facilities or were there ‘no go’ zones where they were prohibited entry? Did the new vehicles or computers go to the people or sub-unit who would most benefit or to Headquarters or Administration staff who had an ‘in’ on the procurement.

To the unknowing or naively accepting, these facts and numbers that evolve into ‘truths’ can be powerful. Surely millions of dollars are raised from individuals and organizations who are none the wiser, who just want to help in some way; to provide a safer environment for Rangers, to help eliminate the horrors of elephant or rhino poaching, or contribute in whatever way they can in the fight to combat the extinction of iconic species.

A November story that broke in Newsweek under the headline “WWF says African elephants will be extinct by 2040 if we don’t act right away” is an example. The story says that this is a warning as part of a new campaign fundraiser. Is this figure actually real truth based on scientific fact or is it ‘truth,’ cooked by a World Wildlife Fund bean counter for the sole purpose of bringing in donations? I can tell you that this figure appears nowhere else in open source.


And so at the end of the day, like most other things in our global village, the real truth is often replaced or manipulated or changed to the ‘truth’ for the sake of money. And in a world where greed and integrity often clash, corruption is the winner and the real truth is the loser.

Everybody will say that the number one impediment to fighting wildlife crime is corruption but the next time you are reading one of those glossy paged reports, count the number of times you read the word “corruption.” As an example, in the 24-page Tanzanian seaport report referred to above, the word “corruption” appears six times; twice in a chapter title, once in a reference, and three times in one paragraph on page 20, referring to corruption in very general and non-specific terms.

Corruption is a major reason for self-censorship. Most government or wildlife law enforcement agencies centred in African elephant range states have integrity issues to a major or lesser degree. Many of these agencies are getting major funding from organizations like USAID or WWF. Is USAID going to want to report details on how the Kenya Wildlife Service had “inefficient accounting systems that exposed the organization to fraud, misuse, and misappropriation” (a news report only published in Kenya) or would WWF want to publish the real story as to how their partnership with KWS resulted in the deaths of 11 rhinos in a re-location project?

One of my favourite lines relating to corruption goes thus: “What is also clear is that corruption is viewed as a significant challenge in improving the criminal justice pathway for wildlife crime. For that reason, any interventions, in order to have a sustainable impact, must address the issue of corruption into their design and delivery of projects.”

Of course, corruption is a significant challenge to all aspects of combating wildlife crime, not just applicable to the various criminal justice systems. And it is a challenge that most organizations choose to officially ignore or turn a blind eye to for fear of upsetting their partners. But surely, as an example, if AWF or WWF were providing significant funding to an African enforcement agency, should they not be able to call the shots?

There was a story in BBC Africa on Sunday about “sniffer dogs taking on Africa’s poachers.” The Africa Wildlife Foundation received mention as the one funding the project and the story no doubt received thousands if not millions of reads. Who doesn’t like a good David and Goliath story with cute dogs? According to the story, canines had made almost 400 wildlife-related apprehensions since 2011.

Unfortunately, in Africa in particular, numbers are meaningless. Governments routinely manipulate elections so how difficult is it to ‘typo’ arrest data. So bearing the corruption side to this, could not AWF ask the relevant agencies like Kenya Wildlife Service or the Uganda Wildlife Authority to provide specific details as to those seizures and their related investigations/prosecutions for AWF’s follow up and general publication? AWF already has a law enforcement manager who was previously head of KWS prosecutions. So how difficult would it be? Really?

KWS Press Conference June 2016 announcing 500 kg seizure of pangolin scales made by canine unit. (Chris Morris)

While we know that these canines do outstanding work, and do make significant arrests (although I am suspect about the published numbers), the arrests and seizures they make have to go through a court of law. And if the investigations and prosecutions become corrupted and therefore, null and void, what really is the point to the well-trained canines?

This story has meandered but there is a thread and that thread is the truth. There is a presumption that all who take up the noble cause of protecting endangered species are of noble character and purpose. But this cause, like any other, is subject to human frailties and if some person or some organization, regardless of size or import, starts to drift, they need to be called out. There is a growing need, in the fight against illegal wildlife crime, for the real truth. And the real truth means calling “bullshit” when seen or corruption when identified. Because if you don’t call it out, aren’t you complicit?