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Lessons in Conservation With Alistair Nielson

The Managing Director of Conservation Synergies, Alistair Nielson in this episode of the MYD Earth show shares his insight on conservation in Namibia and Africa at large. 

After working for years to fight poaching in Mozambique, Alistair is able to share a snapshot of the environmental situation in Mozambique and while it’s a very different picture to Namibian conservation, the country’s experience can provide a learning for Namibia’s efforts against poaching.

MYD: Tell us about yourself and your very interesting career in conservation?

I’m South African originally. I left South Africa about twenty five years ago and I’ve spent the majority of that time working in the horn of Africa, six years in Ethiopia, a bit of time in Kenya, Zambia and three years in Tanzania and six years in Mozambique as well. 

MYD: You shared some phenomenal stories about your experience in working with wildlife crime in Mozambique. Take us through the snapshot of what this was like?

I started getting engaged in Mozambique in kind of 2010, 2011, when we saw the elephant poaching crisis starting to hit Northern Mozambique and I was working for the Wildlife Conservation Society, so a big US based NGO and with their leadership in New York and with a big private donors we said we’ve got to get involved on the ground. So we went in on the ground and partnered with Government to try and address the elephant poaching crisis. 

MYD: Talk to us about the behind the scenes organised crime behind poachers?

The whole thing is driven by the organised crime side. You know the poaching is just this really short term act that has to happen to access the high value wildlife product, but around that you’ve got the build up to that where people are sourcing, looking for the goods. Then you’ve got the goods afterwards being moved. So now the animal is already dead once it’s been poached but if we can find those individuals that are involved in it and get them out of the trade, and the lessons really, we’ve found very strong associations between other forms of trafficking and wildlife trafficking.

MYD: What are the lessons that we can learn from your experience in Mozambique specifically when talking organised crime?

People immediately associate criminality and crime with poverty and yes there is a link but the link isn’t directly poverty. The poorest countries in the world are not the countries with the most crime, and the link is actually more associated with inequality and breakdowns in governance and society and society itself and rules of society. And that’s something we’ve seen in Mozambique. There a number of areas particularly where criminality is high, where young men in particular have got left behind and outsiders are taking opportunities and corruption and organised crime has basically given them very little opportunity and all that’s left for them is to get involved in criminal activity.

MYD: What’s your view after working in the field, is that the right approach, is it going to solve the problem? 

There are probably moments in time where something like that works and those moments in times might be where you particularly have a major outside influence coming in probably on a border area and so I can think like some of the issues that Chad has had for example with Militia coming in from Sudan. I believe that first of all the social contract that we have as citizens of a country with our police force is that they will use the rule of law, and military methods don’t apply the rule of law. Their rules of engagement are different and I don’t think we should be using those internally against citizens of our own country basically. 

So I think it’s wrong and I think that we should use the law to its fullest extent. I also think that when you shoot poachers that’s when we lose the opportunity to build bigger investigations frankly, and if you think about it from a poaching boss or a traffickers point of view, it’s a win for them.