Q&A: Wildlife crime and economic opportunity

March 3, 2015


Elephant in the WWF Flying Squad, Tesso Nilo National Park. (Indonesia, 2012)

Photo: Flore de Preneuf/World Bank

  • March 3 is World Wildlife Day
  • The World Bank is a partner of the the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICWCC) campaign urging people to “get serious about wildlife crime”
  • We asked several experts to explain the relationship between poverty and poaching

Today, on World Wildlife Day, the World Bank is partnering with ICWICC to “get serious about wildlife crime.” We asked experts at World Wildlife Fund and the World Bank to explain the link between wildlife crime and lack of economic opportunity. Some of the answers are collected below. World Bank experts Valerie Hickey and Bill Magrath also penned a blog about why poaching is not a “poverty problem.”

Question 1: What is the connection between wildlife crime and lack of economic opportunity?

Rob Steinmetz, Conservation Biologist, WWF Thailand -- “As a general observation, regardless of economic status or opportunities, most people actually do not poach. Around protected areas in this region, 99% of people could probably be classified as "impoverished". Yet 99% of people do not poach. If economic opportunity were the main driver of poaching, then wildlife would have been eradicated a very long time ago. 

The link between economic opportunity and poaching is more complex than has been traditionally assumed. I'll give four examples that show this.

In North America and Scandinavia, where farmers are wealthy, there is strong disdain for wolves and they are frequently poached as a population control measure despite widespread NGO and government compensation schemes. In this example, poaching occurs despite plenty of economic opportunity.

In the West African nation of Ghana, commercial poaching has increased due to local fishermen taking up hunting, after their fishing grounds were decimated by fishing concessions given to other nations. In this example, you could say that loss of economic opportunity had increased poaching. But--delving more deeply--the driver was capitalist economic relations that took resources away from local people and awarded them to groups with more money and power.

A third and more positive example is from a national  park in Thailand, where poaching declined even though economic opportunities remained constrained and unstable among local pineapple farmers. This case points out that other factors can override economics, such as positive park-people relations that build local ownership and concern. (See WWF story: “Community engagement decreases poaching”)

As a fourth example, indigenous people in a Thailand wildlife sanctuary, with few economic opportunities, have enthusiastically patrolled and protected large portions of the sanctuary from outside commercial poachers. They are motivated by the desire to have a proactive and empowered role in resource management. In this case, native cultural traditions and the social norms that follow were very powerful in promoting protection over commercial poaching.

Khalid Pasha, CA|TS Manager, WWF Tigers Alive Initiative --  “Wildlife trade has shifted over the years, from killing or hunting wildlife for subsistence, to catering to local demands and beyond, to becoming a complete financial venture for some. Trends show that it is not the less-skilled casual hunters that are in the game today. With protected species becoming scarcer, casual hunters are replaced or joined by more high-tech or professionalized hunters, or in other places casual hunters are slowly becoming more sophisticated. For example, the poaching of elephants and rhinos in African countries is carried out by heavily trained militias with sophisticated weapons. Even tiger poaching in India and other range countries is becoming more organized. The most impoverished are not those who drive the poaching, but rather they are poaching’s victims.

A deeper understanding is required of wildlife crime in general. Many patterns of illegal wildlife traders are similar to those of criminals dealing in drugs or contraband items. At the same time we also need to get a better understanding of market forces that drive commodity trade since in many countries wildlife products are treated as just another commodity. These trends mark a paradigm shift in the operation of local and global wildlife trade networks and require targeted and adequately resourced interventions for dismantling wildlife crime at a local, national, regional and global scale.”

Question 2: What role can alternative livelihoods play in the fight against poaching?

Rob Steinmetz, Conservation Biologist, WWF Thailand – “Assuming that poverty leads to poaching, then promoting alternative livelihoods should reduce poaching. But as pointed out above the first underlying assumption is often false in the first place. Further, alternative livelihoods can just as easily lead to an increase in poaching as to a decrease. There have been cases in Africa where people became wealthier as a result of alternative livelihood schemes, and this enabled them to more readily purchase weapons for their own poaching and to purchase meat from other poachers--and poaching was intensified.”

Anupam Joshi, Senior Environmental Specialist, World Bank, India – “Although poaching is not driven by poverty but by strong demand coming from elsewhere, alternative livelihoods do have a place in the fight against poaching. Alternative livelihoods provided under the World Bank/GEF India Ecodevelopment Project resulted in a group of poachers completely giving up poaching at the Periyar Tiger Reserve in the State of Kerala in India. The former poachers are now grouped as an Ecodevelopment Committee (EDC) and organize day treks inside the parks for their livelihood. This EDC has been up and running for the last 12 years with positive results.”