Wild life, wild lives: enough talking already

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27 November 2017

This week conservation policymakers from across the globe will meet in Geneva to discuss international wildlife trade. One item on the agenda is the role of local people – particularly those who live alongside wildlife – in making decisions about such issues.

Living in close proximity to wildlife is not a neutral-impact relationship (Photo: Creative Commons, via Pixaby)

International decision-making about wildlife conservation and management rests in the hands of governments, through international treaties such as the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Yet it is often local people who feel the impacts, particularly when decisions made in far-flung cities affect their ability to manage and use the wildlife on their doorsteps.

Beautiful but deadly

Living in close proximity to wildlife is not a neutral-impact relationship. While David Attenborough wildlife documentaries have done a fantastic job in raising awareness as to the beauty, productivity, and often fragility of the natural world, the inconvenient truth is that wildlife can also be damaging and dangerous.

Even here in the UK, where fierce animals are few and far between, farmers face significant impacts from wildlife: rabbits damage crops to an estimated tune of £50 million per year; fox predation costs £12 million.

Imagine then the economic and emotional cost to a low-income African farmer of living near elephants – capable of wiping out an entire year's harvest in one night – or near lions, whose livestock attacks can result in losses equivalent to more than 10 per cent of annual household income. Then imagine not being able to do anything about it, because you have no (or at best, limited) rights to take action.

The reality is that angry farmers do take action. The African Wildlife Foundation reports that in Amboseli, a Kenyan wildlife tourism hotspot, retaliatory killings of elephants increased from one or two in 2011 to as many as 30 in 2016. Elsewhere, anger can drive people to get involved in poaching and the illegal wildlife trade, or to disrupt conservation efforts.

What does this have to do with the wildlife trade talks in Geneva and the discussions about involvement in those talks by rural communities?

Real benefits, real agency

One way to increase local tolerance of dangerous wild animals, and build support for conservation, is to ensure that the benefits of living with wildlife exceed the costs. But local people currently have limited decision-making power about how, and in what form, benefits can be generated.

Decisions about trophy hunting, tourism, trade and other forms of wildlife use are made remotely, sometimes from the other side of the globe. Solutions are imposed on, rather than developed by, local people, despite the fact that in many places the majority  of wildlife lives on land owned or managed by local communities rather than in formal conservation areas.  

Heeding established lessons

After Geneva, government officials will meet again at December's UN Environment Assembly, which sets priorities for global environmental policies and develops international environmental law.

At its last meeting in 2015, the assembly recognised the need to increase local support for conservation – particularly in light of the upsurge in poaching – and called for a review of international best practice in involving local communities in wildlife management.

The resulting analysis, commissioned by UN Environment and prepared by IIED and IUCN, highlights many lessons, including the need to:

  • Develop appropriate incentives
  • Give local people decision-making authority
  • Support and strengthen local rules and regulations, and
  • Strengthen local voices in global conservation debates.

Depressingly, however, the report highlights that none of these lessons are new. They have been repeated consistently from decades of research and on-the-ground practice. Indeed, many are already reflected in national and international policy.

Deeds not words

The widespread failure to act on these lessons, particularly in terms of the need to devolve authority to local people so they can make their own decisions, manage and benefit from wildlife conservation and sustainable use, serves neither wildlife nor rural communities.

Moreover, the response to the current poaching crisis has often involved a retrenchment of any hard-won gains and a resurgence of 'old-style' conservation approaches that emphasise fences and fines, guns and boots. Effective state-led enforcement against poaching is essential but likely to be inadequate without local support, insights and intelligence.

So, a plea to conservation policymakers in the talks to come over the next two weeks: there is plenty of evidence out there on how best to engage local communities in sustainable wildlife management. A key insight from the World Bank over a decade ago is still pertinent today: "the fundamental cause of biodiversity loss worldwide is that those in a position to preserve it lack sufficient incentives to do so."

The barriers to these incentives are political, not technical. They revolve around devolution of rights, democratisation of power and localisation of decision-making processes.

Next year there will be more talking when the UK government hosts the fourth in a series of high-level conferences on illegal wildlife trade. The previous three conferences have yielded a raft of commitments on the role of local people as partners in conservation, and on the need to respect, strengthen and uphold their rights to manage and benefit from wildlife.

We have enough words on this now, what must follow is the action.

Dilys Roe (dilys.roe@iied.org) is principal researcher in IIED's Natural Resources research group.

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