Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy

Communities and Illegal Wildlife Trade

Poaching and associated illegal wildlife trade (IWT) is devastating populations of iconic wildlife species such as rhinos and elephants, as well as a host of lesser known ones such as pangolins, some birds, reptiles, primates, medicinal plants and timber species. IWT is a major focus of current conservation concern and policy development, including through the African Elephant Summit (Botswana, November 2013), the EU Parliament Resolution on Wildlife Crime (January 2014) and the high-level London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade (February 2014). Most recently, a high-level Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade took place in Botswana, March 2015 to assess what had been achieved since adoption of the London Declaration. The London Declaration notes that: “We recognise the importance of engaging communities living with wildlife as active partners in conservation, by reducing human‐wildlife conflict and supporting community efforts to advance their rights and capacity to manage and benefit from wildlife and their habitats” (para 12).

However, despite this recognition, within international discussions the emphasis to date has been strongly on strengthening (government-led) law enforcement and reducing consumer demand for illicitly sourced wildlife commodities. Considerably less emphasis has been placed on the role of the local communities who live with wildlife. IWT has an enormous impact on local communities, who are affected by insecurity and the depletion of important livelihood and economic assets, while often being excluded from the benefits of conservation. They can also be very negatively affected by heavy-handed, militarised responses to wildlife crime, that frequently make little distinction between the illegal activities driven by large scale profits (crimes of greed) versus those driven by poverty (crimes of need). Most fundamentally, however, the longterm survival of wildlife populations, and in particular the success of interventions to combat IWT, will depend to a large extent on engagement of the local communities who live with wildlife populations. Where the economic and social value of wildlife populations for local people is positive, they will be more motivated to support and engage in efforts to combat and manage poaching and illicit trade. But where local people do not play a role in wildlife management and where it generates no benefits, strong incentives for illegal use are likely to exist. Even the most focused and well-resourced enforcement efforts (which few countries can afford or have the political will to implement) will struggle to effectively control wildlife crime in the face of strong incentives for complicity by local people.

There are examples from Africa and from other regions (including Central and South Asia, Oceania, North America and South America) of governance models that empower local communities to manage wildlife sustainably and generate social and economic benefits. In a number of cases, these approaches have been successful in reducing illegal wildlife use - sometimes dramatically - and incentivising strong community engagement in enforcement efforts. Community game guard programs are some of the most well-known of these, and there are many others. However, there is a clear need to raise awareness of these examples, distil lessons learnt, and ensure this experience influences the ongoing international IWT policy debate. Crucially, the potential of community-based approaches needs to be analysed in the context of contemporary challenges of rising profits from illicit trade, increased access to firearms by community members, worsening poverty in many areas, erosion of traditional governance systems, rapid urbanisation and changing community value systems, and large-scale threats from climate change combined with progressive habitat erosion affecting subsistence agriculture.


SULi collaborations

Wild Life, Wild Livelihoods: involving communities in sustainable wildlife management and combating illegal wildlife trade

This report, co-authored by SULi, highlights key lessons from experience for engaging communities in combating unsustainable use and illegal wildlife trade, and sets out eight key insights to guide action.

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Communities - First Line of Defence against Illegal Wildlife Trade (FLoD)

Engaging communities as partners in combatting illegal wildlife trade (IWT) is increasingly recognized as critical, but has proven difficult to operationalize in a meaningful and sustainable manner given the current level of threat. In an effort to address this gap IUCN ESARO has started implementing a new programme of work (Communities – First Line of Defence against Illegal Wildlife Trade) jointly with the IUCN SSC CEESP Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group the IUCN SSC African Elephant Specialist Group and IUCN Member International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).  

Click here to read more about FLoD

SULi activities and publications on this issue:

From Poachers to Protectors: Engaging Local Communities in Solutions to Illegal Wildlife Trade

Combating the surge of illegal wildlife trade (IWT) devastating wildlife populations is an urgent global priority for conservation. There are increasing policy commitments to take action at the local community level as part of effective responses. However, there is scarce evidence that in practice such interventions are being pursued and there is scant understanding regarding how they can help. In this paper we set out a conceptual framework to guide efforts to effectively combat IWT through actions at community level. 

Click here to read this open access article

Developing a theory of change for a community-based response to illegal wildlife trade

The escalating illegal wildlife trade (IWT) is one of the most high-profile conservation challenges today. The crisis has attracted over US$350 million in donor and government funding in recent years, primarily directed at increased enforcement. There is growing recognition among practitioners and policy makers of the need to engage rural communities that neighbor or live with wildlife as key partners in tackling IWT. However, a framework to guide such community engagement is lacking. We developed a theory of change (ToC) to guide policy makers, donors, and practitioners in partnering with communities to combat IWT.

Click here to read this open access article

"The elephant in the room: sustainable use in the illegal wildlife trade debate" Policy Brief

Beyond Enforcement Initiative

Beyond Enforcement Workshop Hanoi, Viet Nam 15-16 November 2016

Beyond Enforcement Workshop Limbe, Cameroon 24-25 February 2016

Beyond Enforcement Symposium Muldersdrift, South Africa 26-28 February 2015


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