Opinion: Involving Communities in the Fight against Wildlife Crime

Conservationists are not crying wolf – there really is a global wildlife crisis – and many animals will disappear from their natural habitats within our lifetimes.

Occasionally wildlife issues wrest the headlines from other crises and there are a few fleeting moments in the lime-light to make the case that protecting nature is not a luxury but essential for securing the future of the planet’s inhabitants – human and animal.

One such headline-making topic is wildlife crime. Estimates of the illegal trade in wildlife products for 2009 of as much as U.S. $20 billion placed it fourth behind the trafficking of drugs, people and arms in terms of value for the criminal gangs and terrorists masterminding it. Wildlife crime is no peripheral issue; it leads to political, economic, social and environmental instability, undermines the rule of law, destroys human livelihoods, and lays waste to our natural heritage.

The plight of elephants is well documented and the international community is responding through the appropriate channels. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) established in 1973 regulates, monitors and, in some cases, prohibits international trade in animals and plants. The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) signed in 1979 aims to preserve those animals that cross borders on their annual migrations.

With the issues capable of attracting attention in the highest echelons of government and institutional architecture in place, why then does the problem persist? What are the missing ingredients for an effective solution?

What is needed is a more “bottom up” strategy where conservationists join forces with local people. Where such approaches are tried, they work. With communities on board, seeing tangible benefits for their local economy and environment, the tables can be turned on the poachers. Crimes are no longer seen as minor transgressions. With local communities acting as advocates for conservation, pressure can be exerted on politicians to allocate resources to protecting wildlife, and on courts to start imposing penalties that are real deterrents.

Among those tangible benefits is secure and sustainable jobs. Wildlife tourism is a great money-spinner – from safaris to whale-watching – and generates significant foreign currency earnings and employs thousands of people. The challenges are significant – those actually doing the dirty work receive only a fraction of the $2,000 per kilo that ivory commands as a finished product in Asian markets, but still a fortune for a poacher who sees no alternative offering similar rewards.

The experience of CMS indicates that the best approach is to involve local communities, following the rules of engagement developed by the World Conservation Union’s Sustainable Livelihoods Specialist Group. CMS has financed projects based on the fundamental principles of ensuring that benefits accrue to the community (and that compensation is paid for loss of crops or livestock to predators) and that local stakeholders assume responsibility for implementing agreed measures.

One project bringing together all key governmental and civic stakeholders aimed at protecting the Cross River Gorilla, Africa’s rarest great ape found on the Cameroon-Nigeria border. Local inhabitants’ understanding of the need of using forest resources sustainably was enhanced through the establishment of ten “Village Forest Management Committees” to encourage participation in the management of the local environment. As well as focusing on raising awareness of young people, the project also included training in alternative livelihoods such as beekeeping.

In Gourma, Mali, a project for protecting elephants built communities’ capacity to manage their resources effectively, one element being setting up vigilance networks where local people assume an active role in tackling poaching. Not only does this protect elephants, but it also provides employment to the young people in the community.

At their most recent Conference of the Parties (Quito, 2014), CMS Parties adopted the Central Asian Mammal Initiative, to conserve Saiga Antelopes, Argali Sheep and Snow Leopards. After the loss of 200,000 Saigas to a devastating disease last year, efforts to protect this species have to be redoubled, not least by combating poaching. Male Saigas’ horns are much prized in traditional medicine, but most illegal taking is done to satisfy local demand for the animals’ meat.   In the Ustjurt Ecosystem, home to the antelopes, the Association for the Conservation of the Biodiversity of Kazakhstan has equipped a yurt which tours the region and from which information material on sustainable livelihoods, business plans, employment opportunities and micro-loans is distributed.

In Tajikistan, CMS is working with the NGO, Panthera in the Pamir Mountains where five community-based conservancies have been set up for Snow Leopards, to address illegal trade and human-wildlife conflict. Providing predator-proof corrals for herdsmen’s livestock has helped eliminate retaliatory killing of the cats.

We cannot turn Africa into a continent of beekeepers – that was a solution suitable for unique local circumstances; we can, however, devise innovative ideas that prevent local people from turning to poaching and convert them to the cause of conservation. It is in the hearts and minds of people at the grass roots as much as with ministers in the corridors of power and poachers in the field that the battle against wildlife crime has to be fought – and won.


Last updated on 24 August 2016