• Photo:chadh/flickr

"The battle for the establishment of National Parks is long since over but the battle to keep them inviolate is never won," warned J.B. Harkin, one of the founders of Canada’s national park system.

Fortunately for us, that battle has only ever been a political one. But elsewhere in the world, the fight to keep national parks, wildlife, and wild places safe is increasingly violent.

In South Africa, poachers use helicopters, automatic weapons, and night vision scopes on high-powered rifles to hunt down endangered rhinos. Last year, poaching surged, with 333 rhinos killed by poachers in South Africa alone. Already this year at least 71 rhinos have been killed, including 46 in the country’s famous Kruger National Park. The government has fought back by deploying army units to help overwhelmed park rangers do battle with the poachers. So far at least nine have been shot dead by rangers or military forces this year.

What fuels the poaching? Most experts point to rising affluence in China, Asia, and the Middle East, where the market for trade in endangered species is booming. With no shortage of funds, illegal syndicates in these countries are able to finance these operations and the smuggling of wildlife parts. Indeed, the trade in wildlife is said to be the third largest illicit trade in the world, after the drug and arms trade.

While 2010 and 2011 have been particularly bad years, this is only the latest phase in a long war. In the 1980s, poaching of elephants and other large wildlife in Africa was so rampant — and the poachers so well armed and willing to use their weapons on any who dared oppose them — that the Kenyan government gave rangers shoot-to-kill orders.

In 2002, a private American group started raising funds to hire mercenaries to help arm, train, and equip a ranger force for the Central African Republic to counter widespread poaching. In 2008, in the Congo’s Virunga National Park, home to highly endangered mountain gorillas, a World Wildlife Fund patrol came under attack. Two people were killed and three wounded.

While Africa has been the scene of the most protracted and violent battles between poachers and conservationists, this war has multiple fronts. Private conservation groups in the United States have also helped raise funds and equip armed ranger units to fight in Cambodia, where once vast tropical rainforests nominally protected by parks are facing an onslaught of illegal loggers and poachers.

Early this year, in South America, the government of Peru used force to halt illegal (and enormously destructive) gold mining in the rainforest. And Peru deployed more than 1,000 troops and security forces to attack miners’ boats on a tributary of the Amazon River.

While J.B. Harkin was speaking of a political rather than physical battle, there are signs that this global war for wildlife and wild places may one day reach Canadian shores, if it hasn’t already.

For decades, Canadian authorities have had their hands full combating smuggling rings and poachers who kill Canadian black bears and export their gall bladders and other parts to Asia. The Canada to Asia Business Network was recently implicated in wildlife parts smuggling.

In 2008, the Canadian government controversially approved plans to arm park wardens in national parks. Are we preparing for a war for our wildlife to come to Canada?