How best to deal with wildlife crime while protecting the poor?

A new project will explore the different reasons people commit wildlife crimes and suggest ways governments can respond without harming the poorest communities.

Dilys Roe's picture
Insight by 
Dilys Roe
01 August 2014
Captain Benjamin Kalimutima Lulimba finds the skull of an elephant recently killed by poachers who ripped out its tusks. Province Orientale, Democratic Republic of the Congo (Photo: Matchbox Media Collective)

Captain Benjamin Kalimutima Lulimba finds the skull of an elephant recently killed by poachers who ripped out its tusks. Province Orientale, Democratic Republic of the Congo (Photo: Matchbox Media Collective)

Wildlife crime takes many forms. A poor farmer in Uganda might sneak into a national park with a simple snare to catch some bush-meat to feed his hungry family. Elsewhere in the same park, teams of men might shoot and kill an elephant, then sell its tusks to organised crime networks that smuggle the ivory to buyers in Asia.

One crime is driven by need, the other by greed. But policies and laws rarely distinguish between them and as a result they can penalise people, in effect, for being poor. 

Wildlife crime also has impacts at different levels. It can deplete natural assets that are important for national development – for example wildlife that attracts tourists. It can also deplete resources that poor people depend on to survive. 

These examples show that both wildlife crime and efforts to tackle it can have disproportionate effects on the poorest communities. As wildlife crime rises up the international agenda, then, it is critical that the needs of people don't get lost in discussions about the needs of animals.

Growing concern

Wildlife crime – and different approaches for tackling it – are not just the concern of conservationists. Interpol, the UN Security Council and the United States State Department have all discussed these issues recently. Presidents, princes and celebrities are among those speaking out and suggesting solutions.

When the UK government hosted an intergovernmental meeting this year to agree a way forward, it identified a three-pronged approach that can be summarised as:

  1. Increase law enforcement
  2. Reduce demand
  3. Engage local communities

Other international programmes such as the Partnership to Save Africa's Elephants and United for Wildlife have adopted similar multi-faceted approaches. 

A blunt tool

To date, most countries affected by wildlife crime have focused on improved law enforcement, but this can be a blunt instrument. It can disproportionately target small-scale crimes and further alienate poor people from the resources that are critical to their livelihoods. 

Commentators have also expressed concern about the increasing militarisation of conservation and other heavy-handed tactics in response to poaching. Last year, 13 people were murdered, numerous women claimed rape and thousands of livestock were maimed or killed in the name of wildlife conservation in Tanzania. A well-intentioned campaign to tackle elephant and rhino poaching had gone horribly wrong when armed forces and security personnel indiscriminately targeted local people

Pro-poor alternatives

So how else can conservation agencies respond to wildlife crime in ways that do not inadvertently harm poor people? How can they distinguish between those who barely scrape a living from wildlife and those who really make a killing, as architects of the illegal trade?  

A new project implemented by IIED, Imperial College Conservation Science, the Wildlife Conservation Society and Uganda Wildlife Authority aims to answer such questions.

Funded by the UK Government's Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund, the project will work at two sites in Uganda – Murchison Falls National Park and Queen Elizabeth National Park – where wildlife crime of various types occur. The project will work with the poorest households living in and around these protected areas, to ensure their voices are heard. 

Over three years we will explore:

  1. The drivers and impacts of wildlife crime at the local and national level
  2. The socio-economic profiles and motivations of individuals who participate in wildlife crime
  3. Which interventions local people, government and conservation managers think would be most effective in reducing wildlife crime and contributing towards poverty alleviation

We anticipate that the Uganda Wildlife Authority will be able to use the research findings to target its law enforcement efforts more appropriately and better support local livelihoods.  

Our hypothesis? Long-term solutions to illegal wildlife trade require local support. Supporting good governance is critical – not just to better penalise the criminals but to better incentivise the people who hold the long term survival of species in their hands. 

Although our project focuses on Uganda, we expect to generate policy lessons that are more widely applicable and useful to any organisation struggling with how best to respond to wildlife crime.

We are keen to engage others in this work. If you know of conservation and development interventions that aim to tackle wildlife crime, including (but not limited to) enforcement efforts, livelihood support projects and revenue sharing schemes; please let us know. 

Dilys Roe is a principal researcher in IIED's Natural Resources Group (