Today
Sat 23 October 2021

Whether a UK TV presenter or an environmental campaigner in the Amazon, those fighting the climate crisis and to protect biodiversity are increasingly under attack

On 8 October, two masked and hooded figures set fire to a Land Rover at the gates of the New Forest home of naturalist, TV presenter, environmentalist, and wildlife defender Chris Packham. The message of this arson attack couldn’t be clearer: stop your campaigning. 

Packham responded to the attack with a video statement shared on Twitter in which he asked how far his opponents might go. Would they cut his partner’s brake cables? Would they come for him directly and kill him? 

The attack represents an escalation in an ongoing campaign of intimidation against Packham and environmental campaigners. He has previously had dead animals – such as foxes and badgers – thrown onto his property, as well as birds hung from his fences. 

Alongside this, he is subjected to a constant stream of online abuse. But the threats and attacks are nothing new. They are part of a wider pattern of aggression and intimidation faced by those seeking to defend wildlife and the environment both in the UK and globally.

A few years ago, Packham co-founded Wild Justice, a new organisation designed to defend wildlife in the courts and in the media. His partners in the project are conservationist, researcher and blogger Dr Ruth Tingay; and campaigner Dr Mark Avery, former director of conservation at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. It is viewed by many as a determined and effective upstart and its successes have not gone unnoticed. 

In 2020, Wild Justice successfully pushed the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to licence the release of game birds for shooting, such as pheasants and red-legged partridges, to control the ecological damage they cause to wildlife sites.

Like their more famous colleague, Tingay and Avery both receive abuse, threats and – on occasion – intimidation in the field. 

Tingay has spoken about the misogynistic abuse she regularly receives online as well the publication of her personal details and ensuing threats. She described how her “home address has been published and shared on social media. Photographs of my home have been published and shared on social media. I have been followed and photographed on grouse moors and these have been published on social media with accompanying defamatory comments”.

The image of the British rural idyll does not sit comfortably with the reality of the intimidation that is often directed at those seeking to defend wildlife and the environment. But this is far from a purely British problem. 


A Global Threat

The escalating violence against people such as Chris Packham is part of a global picture, in which environment and wildlife defenders are increasingly under threat. 

The human rights group Global Witness has in recent years been monitoring the killings of environment and land defenders. In 2020, it recorded the worst total to date with 227 people being killed. 

As with the impacts of climate change, the impacts of violence against environment defenders are not felt evenly around the world, with all but one of the recorded killings last year taking place in the Global South. The vast bulk of these murders related to the destruction of forests for a range of industrial purposes. 

While nine out of 10 of those murdered were men, women facing persecution for protecting land and the environment faced “gender specific forms of violence, including sexual violence”.

The violence experienced in the Global South by environment defenders is often more extreme and driven by corporate power feeding the consumerism in the Global North. However, it sits as part of the same continuum as the attack on Packham. 

The experience of course varies in its character and extremity. However, what is clear – from the forests of South America to the grouse moors of Britain – is that some of those with a vested interest to oppose the defence of wildlife and habitats are prepared to go to extreme lengths to intimidate, silence or even get rid of their opponents. 

Such tactics are not only deplorable, but they speak of a certain desperation. While we are clearly not seeing the action for wildlife or the climate that we need, much of the public support the cause. As the twin climate and ecological emergencies escalate, action needs to be stepped up on reducing emissions, defending our wild places and protecting and restoring biodiversity.

It is no coincidence that, as the need to protect wild places – not just for wildlife but for people – intensifies, so does the push-back, violence and intimidation meted out by those that do not want to see such change.

It’s more important than ever that we support movements and individuals seeking to protect our environment in the UK and globally.

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