Community versus enforcement: Responses to illegal wildlife trade

With poacher and ranger deaths mounting, experts seek another solution.
Patroli militer di zona konservasi gajah di Afrika seringkali menyebabkan kematian para penjarah dan petugas, selain juga tingginya biaya sosial dan finansial. Photo courtesy: Doug Kukurudza

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As the illegal wildlife trade escalates globally, many government and conservation agencies have upped their enforcement responses: increasing monitoring, surveillance, penalties, raids, and even deploying soldiers.

This has led to a renewed critique of enforcement-driven conservation strategies, and an interrogation of what roles local communities can play in tackling illegal wildlife harvest and trade. However, juxtaposing enforcement-led and community-based conservation strategies can also be unhelpful.  When dealing with the illegal trade of many high-value species, these may be inseparable conservation strategies.


Increased state-led enforcement faces serious limitations. The militarization of rhinoceros and elephant conservation zones across broad parts of Africa, and of rosewood tree (Dalbergia spp.) protection areas in Southeast Asia, has resulted in poacher and ranger deaths and high social and financial costs.  Moreover, enforcement-based conservation risks undermining local conservation motivations and rights to wild resources.

Perhaps most critically, the conservation outcomes of increased State-led enforcement remain unclear. Exclusionary enforcement strategies can be successful under some circumstances.  However, there have also been many examples of enforcement struggling to reduce illegal trade, particularly for high-value wild products, such as agarwood resin (Acquilaria spp.) used for incense, valuable timber species, rhinoceros horn, elephant ivory, shark fins and big cat pelts.

Conservationists are revisiting models for how best to deal with illegal wildlife trade.


Conservation practitioners and academics met recently near Johannesburg, South Africa at a symposium –  Beyond Enforcement: Communities, governance and sustainable use in combating wildlife crime.

The meeting highlighted case studies of how communities across the world are dealing with the illegal harvest and trade of wild plants and animals. All were premised on the idea that when communities see meaningful and direct benefits to wildlife conservation, they can be, and often are, motivated to protect wildlife.

Financial and non-financial benefits to individuals and communities have been shown to motivate local residents to engage in conservation, and to also exclude and sanction perpetrators of the illegal wildlife trade.  Cases discussed at the symposium highlighted the need to identify robust, sustainable incentives for communities that can compete with the lures of illegal trade.

For example, in many Namibian conservancies the rights to use and harvest wildlife have been devolved to local landholders and communities. These models rely heavily on regulated trophy hunting, which finance conservation and rural development, and provide meat to local residents.

In other places, NGOs, government agencies or private landholders retain considerable control of wild resources, but share benefits with local communities.

Some Kenyan models involve private tourism operators who lease conservation land directly from local communities, and also ensure local employment. Elsewhere conservation provides indirect benefits: Mountain gorilla tourism in Rwanda, for instance, provides 5 percent of tourism dollars for community-generated development projects.


However, incentives may struggle to counter high-value illegal wildlife trade.

Evidence from the symposium highlighted that tourism often fails to generate adequate, reliable financial incentives.  There are similar limitations to relying on voluntary donor conservation finance.  Many workshop participants spoke of the need for significant, diversified incentive streams for local residents.

Moreover, evidence overwhelmingly indicates that enforcement remains critical, even where incentives for conservation exist.

Illegal wildlife trade occurs even in extremely successful community-based conservancies. The incentives to trade many high-value taxa may simply be too high to overcome, or may remain attractive to small numbers of local residents.  In other cases, trade is driven by outsiders.  Local residents are unlikely to tackle the organized, armed illegal traders who are often associated with high-value wildlife.

In these cases, State enforcement bodies, with adequate authority and expertise to target perpetrators remain critical to conservation.  Enforcement and fair prosecutions are also important in creating clear disincentives for illegal wildlife. Such enforcement is also critical to upholding the rights of communities, including the sustainable use wild resources.

Communities also have a vital role to play in formal enforcement processes. Local residents often provide expert knowledge and “eyes and ears” on the ground to support conservation.  Local monitoring and reporting can be both more targeted, efficient and sustainable than State-led enforcement.


The workshop highlighted that enforcement-based and community-based solutions are not singular or isolated answers. Narrow focus on State enforcement has high social and economic costs, and must recognize greater opportunities for local, incentive-based conservation models.  However, community models are not panaceas, and remain vulnerable to the challenges of ongoing illegal trade.  The dual roles of State enforcement and community engagement were widely recognized.

Activating community-enforcement partnerships requires an understanding of how access rights and conservation incentives influence local actor decision-making.  But productive partnerships between local residents and State enforcement bodies requires more than money.  A history of oppression, social injustice, and community exclusion, means that creating positive relationships between communities and formal law enforcement bodies can be challenging.

Direct engagement, perceived responsibility and fairness are also critical to gaining the support of communities to protect high-value wildlife. These types of equity-environment feedbacks are increasingly well documented across diverse contexts.

Local residents are vital stakeholders in the battle against illegal wildlife trade and there is a need to better acknowledge how recognizing local rights and motivations can help counter the trade.  However, community-based models are unlikely to displace State enforcement in tackling wildlife trafficking.

Jacob Phelps is a scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). Duan Biggs is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Center of Excellence for Environmental Decisions at the University of Queensland. 

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Topic(s) :   Community forestry Rights