Combating the Illegal Wildlife Trade: An Opportunity for Community Empowerment

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Chief Olepello of Northern Tanzania, a community leader reducing conflict with lions through installation of lion-proof bomas (photo courtesy of Mike Skuja)

Chief Olepello of Northern Tanzania, a community leader reducing conflict with lions through installation of lion-proof bomas (photo courtesy of Mike Skuja)

It is a well-established fact that the illegal wildlife trade is becoming a lethally lucrative enterprise. According to U.S. government estimates, the illegal trade of endangered wildlife products—including elephant ivory, rhino horns, and turtle shells—is currently valued between $7 billion and $10 billion annually. The trade is often cited as being second only to the worldwide markets for arms and drugs; indeed, rhino horn is now more expensive by weight than both cocaine and gold. It is no wonder then that organized paramilitary responses have sprung up to combat the increasingly armed, tech-savvy, and deadly poacher.

The international conservation community has done a commendable job of rallying a groundswell of urgency to the cause. Then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spearheaded governmental initiatives while the Clinton Global Initiative provided nearly $80 million dollars in private funds to combat the poaching of elephants. This financial influx alone will help hire and train 3,100 park rangers at 50 sites in Eastern and Central Africa. USAID contributes over $12 million per year in counter-wildlife trafficking activities, and the United States Department of State currently provides more than $2 million in additional revenue.The United States is also supporting the creation of new counter-trafficking networks in Central Africa, the Horn of Africa, Asia, and South America.

In addition to swelling the ranks of counter-trade personnel, a large part of this funding will go towards arming park guards and financing governments to respond cohesively, as well as towards new technology like drones and more sophisticated GPS systems. Funding is also increasingly being directed towards reducing demand for wildlife products in countries like China, with WildAid and other non-governmental organizations leading the charge. Yet how much of this new surge in funds will be put towards building the capacity of local communities to combat the illegal wildlife trade and enhancing local governance structures? The majority of anti-wildlife trafficking funds will go towards helping developing world governments finance park rangers and other protectionist measures, as well as to large NGOs like World Wildlife Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society, and Conservation International. Rights-based conservationists are now becoming concerned with the legal and human-rights implications of new technological intrusions and armed enforcement launched in response to the illegal wildlife trade in poverty-stricken areas that have long suffered human rights abuses by governments, and also by the aforementioned large conservation NGOs.

Poachers do not operate in a vacuum, and may be aided by corrupt government officials (including park rangers) as well as local people who have received little benefit from conservation efforts and, in some cases, have had their property and land-use rights violated by conservationists themselves. “One of the legacies of colonialism was that legal rights to hunt were removed from Africans in order to protect sport hunting and the safari industry for European colonizers [sic],” according to a 2013 study by Rosaline Duffy of SOAS, University of London and Dr. Freya A.V. St. John of the University of Kent. Engaging local citizens and transferring technological skills related to wildlife enforcement monitoring to them therefore offers an opportunity to channel funds to actors traditionally unsupportive of conservation. While no one would argue that government officials and larger NGOs shouldn’t be equipped with the necessary tools to combat the illegal wildlife trade in life-threatening situations, it is useful to question what percentage of total funding for counter-trade operations is trickling down to small-NGO and community-empowerment approaches to this global problem. The majority of species targeted by poachers live outside protected areas, and the people living in these regions are useful allies to enlist in the ongoing battle against the illegal wildlife trade.

A mural in Washington, DC depicting wildlife trafficking (User Daniel Lobo, Flickr Commons)

A mural in Washington, DC depicting wildlife trafficking (User Daniel Lobo, Flickr Commons)

The transfer of technology to villages co-managing natural resources offers new and marketable skillsets to rural leaders on the front lines of conservation efforts. These leaders may hail from fields focused predominately on poverty-alleviation and other development concerns, while not operating exclusively in the environmental realm per se.   Large NGOs like WWF have also played leadership roles by supporting, for instance, conversatorios in Colombia, which built up community capacity for decision-making and negotiation with the Colombian government. Learning from processes like these—and applying them in different ways to diverse socio-political contexts—is needed now more than ever to combat the global wildlife trade problem. Local communities must have the tools to negotiate the terms of drones operating on their land and potential surges in the nearby presence of armed representatives of national governments. These developments could also strengthen connections between local or national governments and citizens engaged in the war on wildlife crime. Capitalizing on local interest in learning about and applying technology to generate solutions to this problem is an opportunity that should not be missed.

There is a long history of academics and practitioners advocating for human rights-based conservation approaches, from Katrina Brandon of Conservation International to the University of Manchester’s Dan Brockington and the University of Colorado’s Jim Igoe to Jessica Campese of Natural Justice. At first, these voices were ignored; next, they were criticized; now, finally, they have been engaged in dialogue over solutions in sustainable development. With increased levels of interest and funding for wildlife crime prevention evident today, a potentially powerful partner will be excluded if community rights and governance do not also come to the forefront of discussions about the true extent of the wildlife crime arena. Such an approach could also assuage those who have raised red flags regarding the current direction of counter-wildlife trade operations. Some authors have expressed concerns over the increased militiarization of wildlife protection, and consider it an intensification of the “Back to Barriers” approach to conservation in which fences and fines were emphasized over community-based conservation. Portions of the funding that currently supplies arms and paramilitary capabilities to fight the illegal wildlife trade could instead be earmarked for building community capacity to confront the problem. Indeed, as Justin Brashares of the University of California, Berkeley has argued, increased militarization “only deals with the symptom of the problem”; he advocates instead for giving locals control over wildlife and fisheries.

Villagers living near poached wildlife are no fools. While some may argue that the price of rhino horn will never compare to the benefits generated by eco-tourism in Tanzania, Tanzanian villagers who have ownership over the decisions regarding the use of natural resource on their land will be further empowered to weigh the long-term versus short-term gains of conservation. Crocodile hunters in Irian Jaya, Indonesia provide one example of locally led wildlife trade enforcement. Locals, who have accepted size-based restrictions on trading skins, have also condemned those who breach these restrictions and chased away poachers. Empowering just a few leaders from a small nucleus of investment can yield a much larger community impact, and some smaller NGOs are already leading the way. For example, in an increasingly modern world, lions were once seen as the enemy for rural pastoralists like the Maasai, but are now being protected by them. This is because land-conversion is a major threat not only to lions but also to pastoralism, since large swaths of land are needed for herding cattle. Profit can be had from wildlife conservation on Maasai owned lands when locals are given power over decision-making. Additional developments, such as increased literacy via conservation-funded new schools and novel technological skills (and indeed technology itself), are then employed to monitor lions. Ewaso Lions and Lion Guardians are two NGOs leading this charge, and they are doing so with relatively little money.

Community-enforcement models like these, and the enhancement of leadership skills, can be applied on a larger scale in response to the illegal wildlife trade, especially in communities that lie outside of national parks and other protected areas. Rather than restricting funds to combating arms with arms, giving local hands the tools and skills to conceptualize solutions unique to their own geographies may represent the newest front in the battle against the illegal wildlife trade.

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Mike Skuja

Mike Skuja is a wildlife biologist and human geographer with broad experience in conservation, climate change analyses, and rural livelihood-diversification strategies. He is currently a faculty member at the George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, where he teaches a self-designed graduate course entitled "Rural Development, Human Rights, and Biodiversity." Mr. Skuja is also a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Commission on Environmental, Economic, and Social Policy Theme on Governance, Equity, and Rights. He has previously worked at the Center for Rural Empowerment and the Environment, United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation and Monitoring Centre, the National Geographic Society, the Nature Conservancy, Defenders of Wildlife, and volunteered with the Peace Corps in Panama.

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