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  This module is a resource for lecturers  


Incentives for communities to get involved in illegal wildlife trafficking: The cost of conservation


Contested illegality of traditional hunting activities aside, there are a variety of reasons why local people deliberately engage in what is undisputedly illegal wildlife hunting, illegal trade and trafficking. These include: the lack of sanctions and penalties for illegal activities and limited disincentives to not engage in poaching, trafficking or illegal trade; limited benefits from wildlife stewardship and limited incentives to conserve wildlife rather than poach; high cost of living with wildlife and/or near protected areas resulting in resentment towards conservation and motivation to undermine it; and limited alternative ways to make a living and meet basic needs. The following section unpacks why IPLCs may choose to participate in wildlife poaching economies.


From human-wildlife conflict to coexistence and conservation conflict transformation

Local communities and Indigenous Peoples face challenges and dangers when living near or in protected areas and forests. So-called human-wildlife conflicts take place when wildlife threatens the livelihoods, property or safety of their human neighbours (Western et al. 2019).

There are different types of conflict, including conflict that wildlife exerts on humans and their property, conflict that humans exert on wildlife (often in retaliation for the conflict that wildlife exert on humans) as well as competition over resources. Of particular significance are wildlife-on-human conflicts, which might motivate people to get involved with wildlife trafficking in retaliation. They may kill wildlife themselves or they may tell poachers the location of wildlife.

Examples of human wildlife conflicts

Wildlife-on-human conflict may take many forms:

  • Wildlife attacks and injury or killings of livestock or humans;
  • Wild animals raiding crops and plantations (e.g. elephants, wild boars, monkeys, birds, rats, etc.);
  • Competition for game, natural resources and water between humans and wildlife; and
  • Destruction of infrastructure and property (e.g. dwellings, fences, boreholes).

Human-on-wildlife conflict may involve the encroachment of human settlements or activities into areas where wild animals live, feed, and procreate. Another area of conflict may involve disease exchange between livestock and wildlife or diseases that are transmitted from wild animals to humans (zoonoses). Humans may engage in retaliatory killings or poisonings (Gandiwa et al. 2013a, Thomson 2020) in conflict situations. Beyond overt conflict scenarios, living near wildlife leads to people having to take extra safety precautions. For example, the presence of elephants, tigers or lions poses safety concerns and limits human freedom of movement, especially at night (Mayberry, Hovorka, and Evans 2017).

Scholars also distinguish between human-wildlife conflict and human-human conflict about wildlife. Some conservation practices create conflict between local people and conservation authorities, NGOs and governments (Redpath, Bhatia, and Young 2015) – for example, see the case studies provided in the section on fortress conservation.

Cultural norms, beliefs and perceptions may also influence local people to be afraid of some wild animals. It is important to acknowledge the deeper, often invisible, mental, physical and emotional impacts of living near wildlife and, in many instances, there are no physical boundaries such as game-proof fences between parks, wildlife and villages. As an example, many snakes will only bite or spit when cornered or threatened during breeding season, or when defending their territory. Still, most people are scared of snakes and once a snake is found near homes, or near spaces where people or livestock gather, humans frequently kill snakes instead of releasing them back into the wild. In another example, the aye-aye, a type of lemur, is listed as endangered by the IUCN. In rural Madagascar, the aye-aye is believed to signal sickness and death, so they are often killed by local people when they encounter them (Dickman and Hazzah 2016). 

The impact of spirituality on human-wildlife interaction

Religious and spiritual beliefs can play an important role in mediating human-wildlife interactions by way of preventing or alleviating human-wildlife conflict. Gogoi (2018) looked at coping strategies of communities affected by human – wildlife conflict. The researcher argues that it is important to understand these coping mechanisms as effective strategies to build tolerance towards wildlife. Using qualitative research methods, Gogoi recorded narratives of local communities affected by damage caused by elephants in eight villages in Assam, India. Local community members were using three emotional coping strategies: natural support systems, religion and anthropomorphism. Natural support systems involve using relationships such as one’s family and community structures to deal with the emotional fallout from damage. Religious beliefs associated with elephants and feelings of empathy towards the wild animal strengthened people’s coping capacity. These findings were significant as they showed that people’s tolerance for damage-causing animals may be based on religious, cultural or spiritual scripts in some contexts as opposed to tolerance based on financial compensation for losses.

Critics have pointed out that the concept of human-wildlife conflict lays the foundations for an antagonistic relationship between humans and wildlife, with the potential for performative impacts on individual decision making and regulatory processes. Peterson and colleagues (2010) suggest that the concept of human-wildlife coexistence should be used instead, as a more constructive framing. Others have argued that linguistic changes are not going to address structural and conservation conflicts between human interests and conservation (Redpath, Bhatia, and Young 2015). Other studies have argued that despite the revised concept’s frequent use in literature and research, there is a lack of clear definition as to what is meant by ‘coexistence’ (Carter and Linnell 2016). Carter and Linnell (2016) propose a conceptualization of coexistence that includes both human-carnivore and human-human interactions, attempting to unify conflicting definitions from various disciplines. They regard the inclusion of (human) social factors such as attitudes, perceptions, and behaviours as important. These factors are needed to develop spatial coexistence strategies as otherwise conservation actions run a risk of being less effective or even counterproductive (Carter et al. 2020). To address poaching of large carnivores, Carter and his colleagues (2017: 254) have developed a conceptual socio-ecological system framework that could be useful for pinpointing whether and how conservation and anti-poaching activities are effective and when they are not (Carter et al. 2017).

Another interesting model known as conservation conflict transformation points to complex social conflicts that lie beneath the surface of conservation issues. Madden and McQuinn (2014) regard current efforts to deal with human and wildlife conflict as insufficient because they fail to create the necessary conditions for productive transformation of the root causes of conflict. The conservation conflict transformation model uses principles and processes from the peacebuilding field, and offers useful guidance for revealing and addressing social conflicts to improve the effectiveness of conservation efforts.

Gender and human-wildlife conflict

As past studies have shown, there are differences in wildlife-related attitudes between men and women. It has been argued that women should be acknowledged as ‘unique and critical’ stakeholders in decisions pertaining to wildlife (Anthony, Knuth and Lauber 2004: 396). While gender dimensions have been considered in some conservation contexts, gendered risk perception remains an understudied aspect of conservation (Gore and Kahler 2012). Gore and Kahler (2012) interviewed 38 women and 38 men from two community conservancies in the former Caprivi region (now known as the Zambezi region) of Namibia to explore how men and women differ in their perceptions of human-wildlife conflict and associated risks. They found that it mattered who had a voice in community conservation contexts and directly impacted the success of interventions. Neglecting key stakeholder groups – especially women - can lead to an incorrect assessment of intervention success in terms of achieved levels of equitable participation and efficiency. Their study shows that gender is an important explanatory variable for understanding how different groups engage with conservation issues, and that insights about gender could be used to craft and assess interventions that aim to target the needs and perceptions of different stakeholder groups (Gore and Kahler 2012: 5). For instance, they note that only women acknowledged the efficacy of the use of chilli to repel elephants from crop-raiding their fields. Men lacked this on-the-ground knowledge as they were not tending to the fields. This speaks to many conservation interventions failing to differentiate gendered roles and duties in communities.


Case study: Bear and wolf conflict in Europe

Due to protective legislation and improved habitats, the population numbers of wolves and bears have increased across many parts of Europe. This has led to increased conflict between humans, wolves and bears (Linnell and Cretois 2018). According to research carried out for the Policy Department for Agriculture and Rural Development of the European Parliament, individuals of at least one large carnivore species can be found in all European countries except Luxemburg. One of the ways in which human-wildlife conflict manifests in Europe is through livestock depredation. Sheep, and in some instances, goat, are the most common livestock killed by large carnivores, but numbers vary for different European countries. For instance, Norway and France lose over 30 sheep per wolf per year, while in other countries the numbers range from one to 14 sheep per wolf. Bears kill between 10 to 20 sheep (per bear) in Norway and France while the numbers are a lot lower elsewhere in Europe –typically one to two sheep (Linnell and Cretois 2018). The high variance in numbers in Norway, and partially in France, has been attributed to the husbandry system. Sheep in Norway (and France) graze freely in forest and mountain areas where there are usually no fences, shepherds or dogs that could offer some measure of protection (Linnell and Cretois 2018).

Lethal population control is the main tool to control large carnivores, “implicitly assuming that carnivore abundance is a key driver of the amount of damage” (Fernández-Gil et al. 2016: 2). Wildlife conflict management is governed by the Bern Convention and the Habitats Directive (EU). These legal instruments impose conservation requirements for all listed species, although there are differences (depending on which annex / appendix a species is listed under) between species and countries with respect to the circumstances in which animals can be killed. When agricultural interests are involved, affected parties are usually required to find alternative methods of addressing conflicts before lethal options are considered. Moreover, the Habitats Directive states that killing of a protected species should have no effect on the size of the population. In spite of these protections, more than 900 wolves are deliberately killed each year in the EU, suggesting that national governments interpret the restrictions with some measure of flexibility (Linnell and Cretois 2018).

Of particular concern to large carnivore conservation and management in Europe are the conflicts between the various stakeholders regarding the ways in which large carnivores, livestock and agricultural areas should be managed (Linnell and Cretois 2018). Increasingly, human-wildlife conflict is recognized as containing a significant element of social conflict (Jacobsen and Linnell 2016). Conflicts between groups that support carnivore recovery and those that do not are ‘major obstacles’ for carnivore conservation in Europe and elsewhere (Fernández-Gil et al. 2016: 7). Underpinning many of these social conflicts is blatant distrust and miscommunication between authorities and stakeholders (Salvatori et al. 2020: 1).


Loss of livelihoods related to protection schemes

When protected areas, forests and marine areas are established in terms of preservationist principles, local people living in the area are often evicted from the area to be protected. Beyond eviction, the creation of wildlife, forest and marine conservancies also may entail the removal of access rights, land and natural resource use rights, and the prohibition of livelihood strategies linked to natural resource use within the conservancies.

Case study: Limpopo National Park

When the Limpopo National Park (LNP) was proclaimed in Mozambique in 2001, there was no wildlife requiring protection in the area (formerly known as the hunting reserve Coutada 16), while there were 27 000 human inhabitants of the area. The village communities in this area had been affected by displacement during the colonial period and the civil war, but had returned, rebuilt and reconstructed their lives and livelihoods after the end of the civil war (Lunstrum 2010: 139).

In preparation for the proclamation of the Park, the land use rights for Coutada 16 were changed. In Mozambique, the state has the prerogative to unilaterally change land use rights if it serves the public interest (Spierenburg, Steenkamp, and Wels 2006: 94). In this instance, Coutada 16 went from a multi-use conservation area to a “total protection zone.” According to the Mozambican Land Act of 1997, no economic activity, resource use or occupation is allowed in “total protection zones” (Tanner 2002: 36–37). The legal drafters behind the Land Act had not considered tenure rights of communities living in areas that were subsequently declared total protection zones (Norfolk 2004: 13) and as a result, people living in the LNP found themselves in a state of legal ambiguity as their tenure rights remained undefined (Witter 2013: 407).

Experts, on behalf of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Peace Parks Foundation (PPF), drew up a land use plan and conducted a study on tourism development, which earmarked the areas adjacent to the Shingwedzi River as offering the best opportunities for developing viable populations of wildlife while being equally attractive to the international tourist market (Milgroom and Spierenburg 2008: 3). The experts also declared that the area would be more attractive to private tourist operators if the villages were removed (Spierenburg 2011: 94). As a consequence, people living in eight villages along the Shingwedzi River inside the Park were told that they had to move to areas outside the Park. A dispute ensued between the Mozambican Ministry of Tourism and the concerned villagers over whether they ‘belonged’ in the Park and what their rights were (Spierenburg, Steenkamp, and Wels 2006: 94). The state won the dispute, and as a consequence of the changed conservation status of the area, some 7000 villagers would have to relocate “to make space for wild animals” that were to be reintroduced from the Kruger National Park. The relocation of people to accommodate wild animals led affected communities to believe that the state’s priorities were skewed in favour of wild animals and their benefactors from South Africa (Hübschle 2016). Negative sentiments towards Kruger Natoinal Park and its abundant populations of wild animals started to arise, providing ample motivations to poach wild animals in years to come (Hübschle 2017).

Although government authorities claimed that none of resident villagers would be forced to relocate, “the pressures created by restrictions on livelihood strategies resulting from park regulations, and the increased presence of wildlife” pushed people to ‘accept’ relocation (Milgroom 2012: 50). The process of resettlement was viewed differently by the government and the local communities. Government and the Park authorities argued that the existence of the Park would improve communities’ lives and create opportunities. The residents, however, felt that after the resettlement they would not have access to the same amount or type of resources that they previously had (Milgroom 2012). Wealthy families with large numbers of cattle saw that grazing would become difficult due to competition for resources, and were worried about cattle theft (Milgroom 2012). The access to common property was not considered during the resettlement, which meant that accessing resources which were not part of common property (e.g. land) was ‘problematic’ for resettled residents who did not have ‘adequate social and especially lineage relationships in the host village’ (Milgroom 2012: 234).

Protected areas and environmental policies under the fortress conservation paradigm define exclusionary rights, which often grant tourists and scientists access while the original inhabitants of the area are stamped as intruders. Once livelihood strategies that are reliant on now-protected natural resources are diminished, local people must seek alternatives. These alternatives often do not align with the existing skillsets of IPLCs, who have historically and traditionally engaged in certain forms of livelihoods. Such alternatives may not always be viable; for example, fishers may have to expand their fishing operations to more dangerous maritime zones or move elsewhere. The loss of livelihoods is often cited as a motivation to join illegal poaching, logging or fishing operations; it is important to be aware of monocausal fallacies such as the hypothesis that poverty leads to poaching (conservation poverty hypothesis). The complex drivers leading to participation in poaching, illegal logging or trafficking will be unpacked in the next section.

Next: Incentives to participate in illegal wildlife, logging and fishing economies
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