Q&A: Communities combating illegal wildlife trade in East Africa

Olivia Wilson-Holt hears from three participants in a recent series of online learning sessions on wildlife conservation in East Africa about why engaging with communities is critical to combating illegal wildlife trade.

Article, 17 December 2020
People sat around a table looking at a poster.

Participants at a FLoD workshop in Kenya (Photo: copyright IUCN)

The Local Communities: First Line of Defence against Illegal Wildlife Trade’ (FLoD) initiative supports designers and implementers of anti-illegal wildlife trade (IWT) strategies and projects to effectively engage local communities as partners.

Since September, more than 120 representatives from wildlife conservation and management authorities, and non-governmental and community-based organisations from East African Community partner states have learned more about the initiative through a series of sessions organised by IIED, the IUCN East and Southern Africa Regional Office and the IUCN Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group.

Here, Olivia Wilson-Holt talks to three session participants about the series and why it’s so important to engage communities in anti-poaching initiatives. They are:

  • George Owoyesigire (GO), deputy director community conservation, Uganda Wildlife Authority,
  • Jean Damascène (JD), research and monitoring warden, Rwanda Development Board, and
  • Mary Kirabui (MK), assistant director, Conservation Education and Extension, Kenya Wildlife Service.

Q: Why do you think it’s important to engage communities in combating IWT?

GO: Poaching remains a major threat to wildlife conservation. We know that we can’t fight IWT without the support of communities. We also know that some community members sometimes engage in poaching and may help to facilitate IWT.

Yet we know that communities suffer damages and costs associated with wildlife conservation that enhances poverty levels and can motivate or influence poaching. We therefore need to strike a balance. This is why we have to involve the people to positively influence their attitudes and contribute to the protection of wildlife resources.

JD: Communities are key to tackling IWT because they are the eyes and ears on the ground. Community members might have information about people directly involved in poaching, or those further up the supply chain, as well as how products are sold and transferred. Park management are therefore always going to struggle unless they collaborate with communities.

MK: In Kenya, 75% of wildlife is found on community land outside of formally protected areas. This means it is essential that wildlife conservation agencies work closely with communities who host these wildlife populations in order to foster co-existence. Local communities also hold vital Indigenous knowledge relating to wildlife management and can provide intelligence on poaching activities.

We know that when communities receive increased incentives from wildlife they are more positive about conservation, and more likely to protect wildlife and provide valuable information to help us combat IWT – so we must empower communities and encourage their participation in conservation.

Q: How does your government department currently approach community engagement in their anti-poaching efforts?

GO: At the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) we engage selected members of the community as informants and sometimes receive credible information from volunteers. We’ve also implemented collaborative management arrangements with communities around protected areas.

We sign agreements between communities and UWA, whereby communities can freely access scarce selected resources from protected areas with a view to sharing benefits and influencing positive attitudes. In return, they help us to monitor and report illegal activities including poaching.

JD: The Rwanda Development Board (RDB) has put in place a revenue sharing policy to help raise awareness in the communities of the benefits of conservation.

We also work with park management, local leaders and community-based organisations to implement sensitisation activities that are primarily targeted at poachers, where they are supported to develop alternative income generating projects. As part of this, we provide regular training and management advice.

MK: Kenya’s Wildlife Conservation and Management Act 2013 recognises the role of local communities in conservation and promotes community participation through a variety of approaches that the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) has adopted. For example, KWS encourages land-owning communities to establish wildlife conservancies, providing technical advice and guidance on set up and management.

We also offer training and support to communities who want to be involved in nature-based enterprises, like ecotourism. Through our community social responsibility programmes, we direct monetary benefits from wildlife conservation towards the construction of schools, healthcare facilities and water provisioning services for people and livestock.

At the heart of our activities is the understanding that communities must benefit from wildlife if we want them to embrace conservation and reduce poaching.

A poster with a table drawn on the floor, and a person  throws seeds on each cell

Members of the Olderkesi Conservancy in Kenya scoring strategies for engaging communities in tackling IWT for effectiveness (Photo: copyright Micah Conway)

Q: What do you think are the biggest barriers to successfully engaging communities in combating IWT?

GO: Unfortunately, there are many! There’s a perception among some people, planners and policymakers that communities are poachers who can’t or won’t change their traditional behaviours and are therefore part of the problem. These people usually think that only law enforcement can adequately address poaching and IWT.

Other barriers include poverty, human-wildlife conflict, cultural or historical dependence on wildlife resources, limited awareness of conservation benefits and the penalties for engaging in IWT, and inadequate capacity among conservationists to effectively engage communities.

MK: Inadequate tangible benefits from wildlife is probably one of the biggest barriers. Communities who host wildlife on their land frequently suffer livestock predation and crop or property damage. This majorly affects their livelihood and can motivate community members to resort to subsistence poaching, retaliatory killings and habitat destruction. It is vital that communities are compensated for losses due to human-wildlife conflict.

JD: I think the biggest barrier is that project managers aren’t making space for community participation. If you don’t follow up on projects that involve communities, if you don’t work with local leaders and if you don’t allow them a voice in decision making then of course communities won’t feel engaged.

Another problem is a lack of incentives. If communities are not compensated for damages caused by wildlife, or see no benefits from conservation, then they may be likelier to engage in IWT.

Q: How do you think the FLoD methodology will help your department better engage communities to tackle poaching? What are the initiative’s key advantages?

GO: I think FLoD will help us at UWA in many ways. It will encourage practitioners to prioritise communities as key partners in tackling IWT and will guide formal approaches to understanding community needs to influence the development of anti-IWT interventions.

It will facilitate internal capacity building on the importance of engaging communities to successfully tackle poaching and will be essential in helping us ensure we continually monitor and evaluate the impact of our community-based conservation approaches.

JD: FLoD will definitely help us better engage communities as critical partners in wildlife conservation. I think the key advantage of FLoD is that it considers the ideas, suggestions and feedback of the community. This will support us to collaborate more closely with the community and ensure that their needs are heard, and they benefit from this strengthened relationship.

MK: The FLoD methodology will help to guide KWS in working closely and strengthening ties with communities. The initiative identifies the rights of local communities in wildlife management and strengthens their participation in the planning, management and sustainable use of wildlife resources. It brings out community voices and ultimately encourages community ownership over wildlife.

Overall, FLoD will help us to empower communities to willingly partner with wildlife agencies, enhancing wildlife protection and management to tackle IWT.

About the online learning sessions

The online learning sessions are supported by USAID Kenya and East Africa through the Conserving Natural Capital and Enhancing Collaborative Management of Transboundary Resources (CONNECT) project.

The series is supplementing the comprehensive training course on FLoD, which is currently under development with support from the Biodiversity and Protected Area Management Programme (BIOPAMA) supported by the European Union and the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States.

More information

  • Find out more about the First Line of Defence (FLoD) methodology and associated guidance on the FLoD website.
  • Check out the case studies of community-based approaches to tackling poaching and IWT on PeoplenotPoaching and share your case studies (email [email protected] if you need help)
  • Follow PeoplenotPoaching on Twitter via @CommunitiesIWT 


Olivia Wilson-Holt ([email protected]), consultant researcher (biodiversity), IIED's Natural Resources research group