Mark Owens and Paramilitary Conservation

Over at The Vigorous North, an interesting point about the psychological need of white people to believe that developing world wilderness areas are, in fact, wilderness, and not at all populated by humans who have their own relationships to the land. People tell me that this is a sub-theme of my recent New Yorker piece on the conservationists Mark and Delia Owens. Me, I was just trying to uncover the identity of the person who shot a poacher on an ABC television newsmagazine:

The central episode of the story is a literal hour-long episode of a 1996 ABC News documentary, broadcast on national television, about the Owenses and their work in Zambia. The program included a snuff film: footage of an alleged poacher getting shot and killed in the woods. The off-camera murderer was not identified in the program, and ABC's crew never notified Zambian authorities. It's hard to believe, but the televised killing seemed to have little effect on the Owens Foundation and their aggressive way of operating in Zambia.

These crimes, and the American media's permissive, even reverent attitude towards them, illustrate some uncomfortable truths about traditional environmentalism. First, it illustrates the arrogance of the myths we keep about an Edenic, pre-civilized nature, or of Nature as a place where there are no people. The truth is that people have lived in the wild for a million years, and they have important roles in natural ecosystems - we're part of nature, not above it.

Many of the alleged "poachers" in Zambia were recent descendants of natives who had hunted in North Luangwa for generations before British colonialists expelled them to create an artificially human-free "park" in the 19th century. Americans did the same thing to Blackfoot tribes in Glacier National Park and to the Nez Perce who lived in Yellowstone. The idea of a wild frontier without human neighbors is closely bound to the history of atrocities from American and European colonial ambitions.