The illicit trade of wildlife products has reached unprecedented levels driving some African species to near extinction while eroding state authority and threatening human and environmental security. Nowhere have the ramifications of wildlife trafficking been more pronounced than in Central Africa, a region that since 2005 has lost two-thirds of its elephant population to poachers, in most cases proven to be from the continent’s most notorious insurgencies (Wilkins, 2014). Evidence shows that conflict actors throughout Africa are increasingly turning to poaching as a way to accrue finances, viewing it as a high-profit, low risk activity. In 2012, Cameroon’s Bouba Ndjida National Park made international headlines when, in a single incident 450 elephants were systematically slaughtered by poachers later linked to Janjaweed militias from North Sudan (Vira & Ewing, 2014). In the neighbouring countries of the Central African Republic and Nigeria, the Lord’s Resistance Army, Seleka Rebels and Boko Haram have all been implicated in illegal wildlife trafficking (Vira & Ewing, 2014). Ewing and Vira write that, “Though the country itself is relatively stable compared to its neighbours, Cameroon’s last elephants are trapped between waves of conflict and spill-over from all directions, including horseback poachers backed by the Sudanese military, armed groups and refugees spilling out of the Central African Republic, and Boko Haram forces moving out of Nigeria into Cameroon’s far north” (Vira & Ewing, 2014). Similar to African elephants and rhinos, Central Africa’s gorilla population has also been decimated by illegal hunting. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species the western lowland Gorilla found throughout Central Africa has seen its population reduced by more than 80% in the past six decades as a result of exceptionally high levels of commercial hunting, disease and to a lesser extent lower precipitation impacting forest habitats caused by climate change (International Union for the Conservation of Nature , 2014).
Abetted by transnational criminal syndicate networks and state corruption, illegal wildlife traffickers are exploiting loopholes in a legal framework that criminalizes some aspects of wildlife trade while attempting to regulate others. In spite of near universal accession to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and over 40 years of regulation, the only conservation successes CITES has had are limited to trade regulation and efforts at local community engagement (Challender & MacMillan, 2014). In the immediate future, policy implementation must build off this success by acknowledging that the sustainability and efficacy of conservation strategies will ultimately be determined by community buy-in (Vira & Ewing, 2014). Consequently, international and regional actors confronting the illicit trade of wildlife products must work towards adopting strategies that fulfill conservation objectives while simultaneously producing community benefits.
The nexus of the illicit exploitation of natural resources and the proliferation of civil conflict requires a policy response that focuses on supporting community-based conservation strategies as well as streamlining efforts from the various institutional stakeholders involved in combatting illegal wildlife trafficking. This paper argues that there is a critical disjuncture between the conservation strategies formulated at the international level and local realities, which has negatively impacted the efficacy of policy implementation. Similarly, environment protocols that have attempted to regulate the trade of illegal wildlife products have largely worked to the benefit of criminal syndicates across the continent, failing to take into account the potentiality for misuse. To counter the growing threat posed by illegal wildlife trafficking and the violence that it engenders will require a greater commitment to increased collaboration between local, regional and international organizations through community-based approaches to wildlife conservation.
Community-based conservation is a synergism whereby efforts to improve the livelihoods of rural communities are coordinated through the local management and conservation of natural resources. By promoting local stewardship, community-based conservation mechanisms understand that integrating sustainable development principles with environmental preservation will have a long-term impact in enhancing livelihoods and conserving biodiversity. Strategies to increase community ownership over biodiversity conservation were first promoted at the 1982 World National Parks Congress and have since evolved to encompass a wide array of environmental initiatives rooted in sustainable development priorities (Future Generations). Today the benefits and detriments of community-based approaches to wildlife conservation are vastly debated with critics charging that the benefits of such initiatives generally enrich local elites and because community groups are implanted within larger power systems they argue that it is more productive to focus on the ways in which various actors such as people, communities and institutions intersect in regards to environmental exploitation (Berkes, 2004). Sharing a similar view, Dr Fikret Berkes, Canada Research Chair in Community-based Resource Manangement writes that, “The term community in community-based conservation is gloss for a complex phenomenon because social systems are multi-scale and the term community hides a great deal of complexity” (Berkes, 2004). The complex factors influencing conservation strategies are diverse and wide-ranging, this is undeniable however it is argued that when it comes to wildlife conservation, strategies that emphasize greater involvement and empowerment at the local level encompassing an array of actors holds more promise than strategies that don’t.
Factors that precipitate illegal wildlife trafficking are indicative of some of sub-Saharan Africa’s most salient obstacles such as poverty, corruption, state collapse, conflict and institutional incapacity to effectively manage large tracts of territory (Vira & Ewing, 2014). Historically, strategies to combat the illegal wildlife trade have largely downplayed the role that community-based conservation strategies can have in mitigating some of these factors, opting instead to strengthen enforcement capabilities rather than empower surrounding communities. In light of this, current conservation strategies should be centred on approaches that improve the capacity of the communities located in the immediate vicinity of wildlife parks by working to ensure the economic benefits of ecotourism are more equitably distributed amongst local stakeholders. For this to occur, there needs to be local representation on wildlife management councils, efforts to educate communities on the advantages of conserving biodiversity as well as strategies to improve rural livelihoods through prioritizing local employment and management at tourist sites (Vira & Ewing, 2014).
The significance of community-based conservation strategies in countering transnational criminal networks in Africa and Asia was recently recognized in February 2014 when over 42 countries ratified the London Declaration on Illegal Wildlife Trafficking. Paragraph 22 of the convention notes that, “We recognize 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 right and capacity to manage and benefit from wildlife and their habitats” (London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade Declaration ). The Declaration goes on to state the need to strengthen the capacity of local communities through innovative partnerships that focus on sustainable tourism such as community conservancies as well as deepening cooperation to help safeguard livelihoods and eradicate poverty (London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade Declaration ). In order to move from rhetoric to reality, countries in support of the Declaration should make certain that their financial contributions to governments and organizations dealing with illegal wildlife trafficking are helping to fund conservation initiatives that are reliant on community ownership. Furthermore, foreign countries concerned with the international security threats triggered by the illicit trade of wildlife products can maximize the impact of their efforts by helping to ensure that mechanisms are in place so that conservational officers receive the stipends they deserve. Considering the increasing militarization of poachers and the number of rangers that have been killed in recent years it is crucial that conservationists are adequately remunerated for their work, so as to prevent complicity with illegal wildlife traffickers for a portion of the profits from poaching. These strategies will assist in building the capacity of the local communities best placed to help conserve some of Africa’s most endangered species, however such ambitious policies necessarily requires the support of a wide-range of stakeholders, specifically from multilateral organizations investigating illegal wildlife trafficking.
International organizations dealing with environmental policy have an important role to play in implementing strategies that incorporate community-based conservation approaches with the broader goals of sustainable development. Organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (ICUN), TRAFFIC, and the United Nations Environment Programme must increase their levels of cooperation and work collectively to share information on how to best collaborate with local communities. Rolf Dieter, the conservation director for WWF’s Cameroon programs in a recent conversation supported the need for community collaborations noting that because elephants spend 80% of their time outside of protected regions, involvement of local populations is crucial to the species’ survival (R. Dieter, personal communication, Feb 16, 2015). Strengthening the capacity of local communities through regional and organizational partnerships helps increase surveillance limiting the ability of illegal wildlife traffickers to raid ungoverned spaces. Moreover, community-based conservation management helps improve the livelihoods of rural communities reducing vulnerability to poverty and encouraging entrepreneurship and resiliency. This belief underlies TRAFFIC’s program implementation in Central Africa, which seeks the assistance of indigenous communities in conserving wildlife throughout the region. Dennis Mahonghol, the program officer for forests and commerce at the organization’s Cameroon office notes that TRAFFIC regularly solicits the assistance of the Baka pygmies in monitoring Central Africa’s forest elephant population, highlighting that community participation occurs at all levels and is sometimes a necessity for successful program implementation (D. Mahonghol, personal communication, Feb 19, 2015).
Farther south, in Namibia and Zambia locally led strategies towards wildlife conservation are paying large dividends in terms of achieving sustainable development and natural resource protection. In Namibia, innovative partnerships between community groups, government agencies and the tourist sector have spurred communal conservancies that have transferred a variety of benefits including skills training, employment opportunities and financial revenue into the hands of local community members (Martens, 2012). Regional as well as international NGOs have been instrumental in facilitating these multilateral partnerships in Namibia, which on top of generating employment has helped channel additional revenues to collective funds to improve access to water, education and health care (Martens, 2012). With over 71 of these communal conservancies in existence by 2012, almost half of the country’s territory under conservation management (Martens, 2012), and one of the lowest rates of poaching in Africa, Namibia has become one of continent’s greatest conservation success stories (Vira & Ewing, 2014). Community-based conservation has had a similar affect in Zambia, whereby the Community Markets for Conservation Co-op is helping provide previous poachers with alternative livelihoods (Wildlife Conservation Society). The Wildlife Conservation Society has been at the forefront of this initiative, offering income-generating activities such as agricultural training, jewellery making, beekeeping, carpentry and wildlife management (Wildlife Conservation Society). Since its inception in 2002, the program has seen over 880 firearms and 40,000 snares surrendered and out of the participating poachers 90% graduate and go on to pursue alternative sources of income (Wildlife Conservation Society).
The seriousness of illegal wildlife trafficking resides not only in its ability to finance civil conflict throughout Africa but also its capacity to annihilate Africa’s rich biodiversity, which remains a major source of revenue for many countries throughout the continent. In a recent report published by iWorry entitled Dead or Alive? Valuing An Elephant reveals that the aggregate amount of a living elephant in terms of touristic value is $1,607,624.83 spread across local communities, as well as national and international travel companies (iworry, 2014). This amount is contrasted against the $21,000 that a single dead elephants tusks are estimated to be worth assuming they weigh 5kg per tusk, a figure that illustrates that an elephant is worth 76 times more when it is alive than it is dead (iworry). Rationalizing conserving Africa’s wildlife in purely capitalistic terms is done to highlight the intrinsic value of the species to local communities and national economies as a catalyst for action where without such a classification little efforts would come as a result. The report notes that, “Referring to wild animals as “economic commodities” has created controversy in the past but where policy is determined by the value of an object, it’s time to give elephants a fair footing (iworry, 2014). In light of this information, it is important that community-based conservation strategies include public-awareness campaigns that use this research to illustrate the value of Africa’s wildlife to environmental and economic security. In addition, wildlife rehabilitation sanctuaries offer an innovative way to generate tourist revenue as well as the opportunity to educate the public on the environmental and economic implications of illegal wildlife trafficking. Because orphaned rhino’s, elephants and gorillas must be regularly attended to by veterinarians tourist revenues can help offset the high cost of medical treatment and safety measures to protect these species against poachers. The Ol Pejeta Black Rhino Sanctuary and the David Sheldrick orphan-elephant conservancy in Kenya as well as the Mefou Primate Park in Cameroon are notable examples that should be reproduced elsewhere. As such, community-based wildlife conservation initiatives offer a unique way to protect wildlife while also fulfilling sustainable development principles by safeguarding biodiversity in such a way that empowers and helps employ members of local communities.
Despite its numerous advantages, community-based approaches to wildlife conservation are by no means a magic bullet to the increasing militarization of illegal wildlife traffickers. In light of how methodical and complex these actors have become in exploiting natural resources, an effective response warrants a multilateral strategy inclusive of grassroots community groups, government agencies and international institutions. The interplay of these organizations, how to better share information and best practices regarding environmental governance needs to be more thoroughly examined in order to enhance the effectiveness and sustainability of conservation strategies. Additionally, community-based conservation mechanisms must locate ways of sharing benefits across vast segments of the population rather than concentrating them in the hands of a few elites. Having systems in place to ensure equitable access to the benefits derived from community conservation programs will increase local support for the projects producing more effective outcomes. Similarly, incorporating community members into the decision-making processes and management responsibilities of natural resource conservation will increase community engagement and empowerment, in turn compelling a stronger admission by locals of the long-term versus short-term gains associated with wildlife protection (Skuja, 2014).
Future strategies aimed at preventing illegal wildlife trafficking should embrace community-based conservation and its belief that improving livelihoods can be achieved through sharing the economic benefits of wildlife preservation and empowering local communities. Building the capacity of local communities best placed to conserve wildlife by producing jobs and increasing surveillance will help mitigate many of the factors responsible for poaching such as poverty, unemployment, and ungoverned space. Such strategies will also help to ensure rising incentives to poach are matched with initiatives that highlight why Africa’s wildlife are worth more alive than they are dead to communities in their vicinity. To conclude, the transnational nature of illegal wildlife trafficking necessitates a multilateral response, which more than anything else, must begin with engaging and empowering the communities most affected. Community-based conservation strategies that empower locals and provide incentives for engagement are a crucial element in sustaining Africa’s wildlife and the rural livelihoods that depend on its existence.
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