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Without a Grassroots Conservation Effort, Enforcement and Anti-Poaching Measures Set to Fail

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Jan 15, 2014 10:08 AM EST
Rhinos from South Africa
The record amount of funding being committed to anti-poaching initiatives and other fights against wildlife crime is not enough to save the animals unless bold new grassroots conservation strategies are implemented in the communities surrounded by the endangered animals, according to a pair of UK researchers. Pictured are dehorned rhinos at the Kruger national park in Mpumalanga province September 16, 2011. The rhinos were dehorned by a veterinary surgeon to prevent poaching. South Africa loses hundreds of rhinos a year to illegal horn trade as high demand for rhino horn in the illegal market triggers an unprecedented poaching crisis. (Photo : REUTERS/Ilya Kachaev)

The record amount of funding being committed to anti-poaching initiatives and other fights against wildlife crime is not enough to save the animals unless bold new grassroots conservation strategies are implemented in the communities surrounded by the endangered animals, according to a pair of UK researchers.

In a study published in Conservation Letters, co-authors Dan Challender and Douglas MacMillan, both of the University of Kent's Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE), contend that regulations and law enforcement will not be enough to stop the rampant crimes against wildlife happening around the world without the support of local communities.

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Additionally, the researchers contend that certain animal protection laws may be incentivizing criminals more than actually benefiting animal welfare.

In an email to Nature World News, the study authors said that outright bans on the trade of elephant ivory and rhino horn can be counterproductive to the conservation effort.

MacMillan, a professor of conservation and applied resource economics, said such bans lead to price increases on the black market, which ultimately encourages more poaching.

"Evidence from the ban on international trade in rhinos and rhino horn in 1977 saw prices increase substantially in consumer markets, with reports poachers were stockpiling horns for future trade based on the high prices they could fetch," said Challender, a PhD candidate at DICE.

Elephant and rhino poaching events are making headlines more frequently, propelled by startling figures, such as more rhinos being killed in 2013 than ever before and that poachers used cyanide to poison more than seven dozen elephants at a watering hole in Zimbabwe.

As a result, a huge amount of funding is being poured into conservation efforts - including a high-profile pledge by US President Barack Obama last summer, which committed $10 million to combat illegal wildlife trafficking.

MacMillan said that such initiatives are "largely for PR," noting that significantly more funding is needed to counter the main drivers of poaching, which he said include poverty, poor public health and lack of access to education in the communities where poaching is rampant - a problem so vast that $10 million amounts to "a drop in the ocean."

One issue the researchers have seen with conservation funding is that it frequently goes toward the purchase of high-tech gear and vehicles such as helicopters, while very little is spent on a grassroots conservation effort done through local communities.

Challender added that the current narrative on dealing with high-level wildlife trade is largely focused on dealing with wildlife crimes.

Instead, the researchers suggest building the capacity within local communities to see the value of species conservation and sustainable wildlife management practices.

"In our view, intensifying enforcement effort is crucial, but will ultimately prove an inadequate long-term strategy with which to conserve high-value species," the researchers wrote in the abstract to their study.

They cite rampant poaching and illegal trade as being capable of overwhelming the established regulatory approaches. The high price commanded by the black market sale of some animals and animal products is growing relative to the poverty between areas of supply and demand, they wrote.

Bans on the sale or trade of some animal products - most notably elephant ivory and rhino horn - can "increase profits and lead to the involvement of organized criminals with the capacity to operate even under increased enforcement effort."

"In the immediate future we should incentivize and build capacity within local communities to conserve wildlife. Current enforcement measures are proving unsuccessful and more needs to be done to bring local communities, which live in close proximity to the species, on-board by rewarding them for conserving wildlife," Challender said in a news release.

MacMillan told Nature World News that the best example of an anti-poaching strategy that has local communities at the center of the effort can be seen at Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania where local Maasai people cooperate with conservation agencies to prevent poaching in return for economic benefits generated by safari tourism.

"The approach we suggest will undoubtedly need to be implemented in a manner that is tailored to local communities' needs," Challender said. "Implementation would require identifying sites where the species we mention are at risk from poaching and, as we suggest in the paper, negotiating with communities to determine what they want/need in return for buy-in to long-term partnerships in achieving conservation goals, which following our approach, would also deliver local benefits."

Although Africa's elephants and rhinos get the bulk of the media attention, the researchers said there are many other high-value species at risk from illegal trade. "In fact, most of them are in Asia," MacMillan said.

The pangolin, a type of scaly anteater, is "a perfect example of a species group that are increasingly threatened by illegal wildlife trade, but haven't received a lot of attention," Challender said, adding most of their trade originates in Southeast Asia and Africa, where poachers sell the pangolin mostly to Chinese buyers who eat their meat as a luxury food item and use their scales in traditional medicines.

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