Community Voices in the Illegal Wildlife Trade Debate

CEESP News - by Rosie Cooney, outgoing Chair of the IUCN CEESP/SSC Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group (SULi)

Who gets to have a say in how wildlife is conserved? Whose perspectives and interests count?

The illegal wildlife trade (IWT) is one of the world’s largest illegal trades, and at the top of the conservation agenda globally. It is causing dramatic and alarming declines in many species – from pangolins to elephants to orchids and fish, as well as destabilizing regional governance and economies, eroding the natural asset base for local communities, and sparking an increasingly militarized response that is impacting harshly on local people.

Community representatives from around the world gather at ZSL in London, for a preparatory "Community Voices" meeting for the London Conference IWT, co-organised by IUCN SULi, IIED, ZSL, TRAFFIC and FFI

Group photo, Community Voices, October 2018 (Jonathan Perugia/Gaia Visual)

Typically the indigenous peoples and local communities that live with wildlife have little say in the initiatives and policy that shape the conservation response on IWT. For some years now, IUCN Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group, a joint SG of CEESP and the Species Survival Commission, has been working with key partners the International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED) and TRAFFIC to raise understanding of why it’s important to engage communities in responses to IWT, and leading thinking about how best to do this.

One of our key conclusions and messages for some time has been that effective and equitable responses to poaching for IWT require enabling Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLCs) to have more and stronger voices at every level on this issue. 

Therefore, in early October, as the UK convened the fourth intergovernmental Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade, we and our partners (those above plus ZSL and FFI) convened the “Community Voices” event. With financial support from UN Environment, the German Partnership Project against Poaching and Illegal Wildlife Trade (implemented by GIZ), and the UK IWT Challenge Fund, we supported almost 40 indigenous and local community representatives from around 25 countries (see Fig 1) to get together (along with around 80 other participants working on this issue from government, NGO and academic sectors) to discuss progress to date on addressing IWT and what changes in direction or additional commitments they thought were necessary (see below for a short summary from the “closed session” of community reps– full report out soon).

This message was taken forth by spokesperson Dickson Ole Kaelo from Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association in a panel discussion in the formal IWT Conference proceedings with rangers and communities (also involving Khalil Karimov of Hunting & Conservation Alliance Tajikistan and Clara Sierra Lucia Diaz from ASOCAIMAN Colombia). Community representatives (Brisetha Hendricks of Namibia, DB Chaudhury of Nepal and George Wambura of Tanzania) were also prominent in a side event we ran on fostering positive community-government relations in relation to IWT.

We were delighted by the success of the event, and feel this has a set an important benchmark for inclusion of community representatives in future discussions on IWT. There is an enormous way to go on this issue, but this was a step in the right direction.

One of the most positive aspects was the friendships and linkages developed by community representatives from divergent backgrounds and geographies – often finding shared issues and priorities popping up in very different contexts. This was one of my last workshops and meetings as SULi Chair as I prepare to step down and hand over at the end of year, and one of the most rewarding.

I may never forget the post-wine-reception bus trip across back to the hotel, where we were regaled by songs in languages from far corners of the earth! I can leave you best with the message from “Community Voices”:

“You cannot save wildlife without the support of the indigenous peoples and the local communities who steward most of the world’s wildlife. A quarter of the world’s land area is owned or managed by communities – more than double the area of national parks.

We are the people who are most affected by the illegal wildlife trade and can be the most powerful force to address this problem. But this will only happen if communities are empowered and can benefit from wildlife.

Far too little attention and funding are being directed to implementing the commitments governments have made to communities to involve them as partners in conservation. This is undermining global efforts to combat poaching.”

Critical commitments from governments are also missing. For the London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade to be successful, it is vital that governments:

  • Recognise and guarantee community rights to land and to manage and benefit from wildlife. 

  • Give status to indigenous and local knowledge in equal measure to scientific knowledge for conserving wild species in the face of combatting the illegal wildlife trade and broader conservation threats.

  • Include and give an equal voice to communities in international meetings like this and recognise us as equal partners in conserving our wildlife on our land.”


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