By Geoffrey Lean
Giving poor people an economic reason to preserve the wildlife around them can work across the world, while conservation crackdowns often go awry
Could it be that the best way to save wildlife is to look after the poor people who live nearby? That seems counterintuitive, for humanity seems to have been at war with Nature for centuries, and its assault has so escalated over the past 60 years that the world’s species are facing mass extinction.
The poor, many believe, can only become more prosperous by inflicting even more damage on the natural world. But it is increasingly clear that in fact wildlife and ecosystems are among the greatest assets they have; that it is in their interest not to over-exploit them, and – above all – that there is no hope of conserving them without the cooperation of local people.
Nowhere is that more so than in combating wildlife crime, an issue rocketing up the agenda partly thanks to the Government and the Prince of Wales, his two sons and his daughter-in-law. Next week in South Africa a pioneering conservation conference will consider how best to ensure that communities side with the animals, rather than the poachers.
It’s not before time. Crimes against wildlife and natural systems have become big business – a joint report by Interpol and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) last year estimated it to be worth up to £140 billion a year. And while most consist of illegal logging of wild forests, the illicit trade in endangered wild species – and products taken from them – is the fourth biggest after trafficking in drugs, people and arms.
Tiger populations have crashed by more than 95 per cent since the start of the 20th century; black rhino numbers by the same proportion since just 1960. And poaching has exploded in recent years.
The slaughter of black rhinos soared fiftyfold between 2007 and 2013, with one killed every 10 hours. Last year saw a record 1,215 black rhinos poached in South Africa alone. The animal is expected to be driven to extinction in a decade.
Elephant poaching increased 20-fold in southern Africa over the same six-year period, while Central Africa has lost two thirds of its elephants in just 10 years, while 12 per cent of the continent’s population of the giant animals was killed in 2011.
The slaughter is being taken over by “seriously and increasingly sophisticated transnational crime” concluded the Interpol/UNEP report. It also warned that terrorist groups such as the Lords Resistance Army in Uganda; the Sudanese Janjaweed; Al-Shabaab in Somalia and Kenya; and al-Qaeda affiliates in Bangladesh help finance their atrocities from the trade.
Last year a special London summit of 46 countries – chaired by the then foreign secretary, William Hague, and attended by Princes Charles, William and Harry – resolved to crack down on the illegal wildlife trade. Hailed as a “turning point”, it agreed to concentrate on three priorities: reducing consumption of wildlife products, increasing enforcement against poaching, and supporting “sustainable livelihoods” and growth among local people.
Campaigns against consumption have been stepped up, especially in China where 43 per cent of city dwellers have sampled tiger products. There are also attempts to strengthen what has been largely weak law enforcement, with a few rangers on small salaries covering large areas – but this can bring new dangers.
After Tanzania recently declared war on poaching, security forces began raping, torturing and murdering local people and the campaign had to be quickly called off.
Similarly, Survival International has documented over 200 cases of beatings and arrests of Bushmen for violating a national ban on hunting in Botswana, which hosts a follow-up summit this year.
The Bushmen, says the group, have been “criminalised for feeding themselves”, hunting for the pot as they have always done. They should be against poaching because it is in their interest in keeping healthy populations to hunt, but instead they have been alienated.
By contrast, reports the blue-chip International Institute for Environment and Development, black rhino numbers in Namibia have been steadily increasing because local people are paid to protect wildlife and have been given the right to exploit it sustainably.
In part of southern Tanzania, elephant poaching recently fell sevenfold in three years after communities were incentivised to set up patrols and in part of the north of the country similar measures have eliminated it for the past three years.
And the South American population of once-endangered vicuña has surged to 50 times its 1960s size because communities have been encouraged to manage them sustainably.
These success stories – and others from Nepal to Mali, Madagascar to Colombia – will feature at next week’s conference. So far, working with local people has received much less attention than trying to reduce consumption or enforce anti-poaching laws. But it’s the best hope of success on the ground.