Turn up the volume: community voices on illegal wildlife trade

Communities living alongside wildlife are the most powerful force for tackling the illegal wildlife trade crisis; it’s time for governments to listen and act.

Dilys Roe's picture
Insight by 
Dilys Roe
Dilys Roe is principal researcher in IIED's Natural Resources research group
31 October 2018

“We are the people who are the most affected by the illegal wildlife trade and can be the most powerful force to address this problem. But this will only happen if communities are empowered and can benefit from wildlife.” – Community representatives’ joint statement to the Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference: London 2018

This month’s high-level illegal wildlife trade (IWT) conference in London was the fourth in a global series seeking to increase international efforts to tackle the illicit trade.

These conferences – as well as various other international policy forums – have increasingly acknowledged the need to engage local communities living alongside wildlife in efforts to combat IWT. 

Worldwide, many locally-driven initiatives are under way from community-based anti-poaching units helping to stamp out the illegal killing of black rhinos in Namibia to the use of local intelligence to map the illegal supply of ploughshare tortoises from Madagascar to traders and collectors in Asia.

Global leaders and heads of state have made numerous commitments to (among other things):

  • Develop meaningful partnerships with local communities that encourage the active participation of local people in anti-IWT initiatives
  • Support community-led conservation
  • Recognise, respect and support the rights of communities to capture and retain benefits from wildlife management, and
  • Acknowledge and address the significant costs to local people of living with wildlife – for example when elephants trample on crops or lions kill livestock.

Words on paper but any progress on the ground?

International discussions often highlight four strategies for tackling IWT: eradicating the market for illegal wildlife products, building effective legal frameworks that recognise illegal wildlife trade as a serious crime, strengthening law enforcement, and supporting sustainable livelihoods and economic development.

Countries that have participated in the IWT conferences have each committed to actions under these strategies. But overall, progress has been slow, with the sustainable livelihoods theme making the least headway. 

Furthermore, despite the outcome statement from the 2015 Kasane Conference on IWT committing to reinforce community voices “as active stakeholders in this debate” they have been largely excluded from previous conferences – when they were either not invited or kept on the sidelines.

This time around, IIED and partners set out to change this. Immediately prior to the London conference we partnered with IUCN’s Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group (SULi), Fauna and Flora International (FFI) and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) to bring together community representatives so they could have their say about IWT and their role in tackling it.

What do communities think about the commitments their countries have made?

Forty-plus community representatives from Africa, Asia and Latin America reflected on the commitments made to date. They recognised some good progress in meeting some of the commitments in some countries.

In Nepal and Namibia, for example, communities and wildlife authorities have developed strong partnerships to tackle poaching. In Tajikistan, communities are able to capture revenue from hunting to offset the cost of livestock lost to predators. But more often than not they thought their governments had not delivered on promises made. 

An elephant feeds on Acacia trees in Kenya's Ol Kinyei Conservancy. The privately managed conservancy offers employment and training to local communities (Photo: Stuart Price/Make it Kenya Photo, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Representatives agreed that the commitment to support community-led conservation was one of the most important, requiring strong policy frameworks that give local communities the rights to land and to benefit from wildlife. When in place, these frameworks genuinely mobilise community support for conservation.

In Kenya, for example, community conservancies are now formally recognised in wildlife law and in Namibia they are integral to the country’s rural development strategy. Elsewhere, however, community rights to use and manage wildlife remain limited and efforts to combat poaching and IWT are undermined. 

What do communities want? 

The message from communities to the conference was clear: “You cannot save wildlife without the support of the indigenous peoples and the local communities who steward most of the world’s wildlife. A quarter of the world’s land area is owned or managed by communities – more than double the area of national parks. We are the people who are the most affected by the illegal wildlife trade and can be the most powerful force to address this problem. But this will only happen if communities are empowered and can benefit from wildlife.”

They also set out critical commitments that are missing. As well as governments guaranteeing communities appropriate rights and benefits, they must also give indigenous and local knowledge for conserving wild species the same status as scientific knowledge, and ensure that communities are given an equal voice at international meetings where key decisions on conserving the world’s wildlife are made.

Voices heard but words listened to?

Community voices were certainly heard at the London conference. But will their words be taken notice of? The Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference: London 2018 Declaration, like the declarations of conferences before it, acknowledges that communities are pivotal in combating IWT. 

There were promising signs: signatories affirmed their determination to meet the commitments already made, which in itself would be a great step forward. And it goes further than previous declarations, acknowledging that wildlife management must be sustainable, and that communities must benefit directly from wildlife.

It also highlights “the importance of countries’ obligations to uphold agreements made with indigenous and local communities.”

Fine words indeed. But still quite some way from what communities want – stronger rights, recognition of their knowledge, and equal voice.

Representatives from communities across the world discuss the importance of communities having a voice in efforts to tackle the illegal wildlife trade  

Time to trade words for action

The star-studded occasion was feted with princes, politicians and pop stars. Everyone but everyone confirmed that communities were key to success. But will anything change as a result?

Commitments are only worth the paper they are written on until they are translated into action. We will be watching and waiting for this to happen.

We hope our small meeting of community representatives is the start of a much bigger movement, making louder demands that their voices are heard and, going forward, that they are front and centre in decision-making on what happens to their wildlife on their land.