Wildlife crime and local communities

Wildlife crime is becoming more sophisticated and more dangerous than has been the case in previous waves of poaching. IIED believes that efforts to tackle wildlife crime are only going to be effective in the long term if they involve the local people who live alongside wildlife.

Community engagement in preventin pangolin poaching in Nepal (Photo: Ambika Prasad Khatiwada)

We are working with partners to identify the necessary conditions under which communities can be incentivised to conserve wildlife and not to engage in – or facilitate – poaching. We are also exploring solutions that are appropriate to different types of wildlife crime and different types of wildlife “criminals”, recognising that organised elephant poachers are a very different beast to local subsistence hunters.

Wildlife crime is at the top of the international conservation agenda. Poaching and associated illegal wildlife trade (IWT) is devastating populations of iconic wildlife species such as rhinos and elephants, as well as a host of lesser known ones such as pangolins, some birds, reptiles, primates, medicinal plants and timber species.

Wildlife trade is big business and there has always been an illegal element to it, but it has gained unprecedented high-level international attention over the last few years as a result of a huge increase in poaching of African elephants and rhinos, and concerns for the longer term survival of these and other already threatened species.

Wildlife crime is also of concern outside of the conservation community. The scale and sophistication of poaching is unlike anything experienced before and there is evidence of a link to large-scale organised crime and armed/militant groups – with subsequent repercussions for national and international security and stability.

These immediate security threats mask a wider development issue. Wildlife can be a key asset for rural communities in Africa and elsewhere, providing a foundation for investment and economic development – for example through tourism or timber trade. Depletion of this asset as a result of poaching can undermine this foundation – limiting options for local and national sustainable development.

It is critical therefore that wildlife crime is tackled as a priority issue for both the conservation and development community. However, the way in which wildlife crime is tackled can also have implications for the local communities who live alongside wildlife.

It is well-recognised that there is no simple solution to tackling wildlife crime. The different initiatives that have emerged have adopted multiple approaches. These can broadly be classified into three types:

  1. Increase law enforcement and strengthen criminal justice systems
  2. Reduce demand/consumption, and
  3. Support sustainable livelihoods and local economic development

To date, most attention has been paid to the first two approaches with relatively limited attention to the third strategy.

Recognising the role of local communities

IIED's work on wildlife crime is intended to help fill this gap. In partnership with others we will:

  1. Seek a more nuanced understanding of who is involved in different types of wildlife crime – from subsistence bushmeat hunting or unauthorised harvesting of medicinal plants to commercial elephant poaching – and why. Such understanding is critical to developing appropriate responses that address the context-specific drivers of crime, rather than relying on a "one size fits all" approach to law enforcement;
  2. Identify and promote examples of initiatives where local communities have been successfully engaged in tackling wildlife crime in order to raise the profile of these initiatives and to identify key ingredients for success;
  3. Explore the appropriate incentives and governance structures for involving communities in anti-crime efforts as well as the potential risks to communities from their involvement.

Selected publications:

Engaging local communities in tackling illegal wildlife trade. Can a 'theory of change' help?, Duan Biggs, Rosie Cooney, Dilys Roe, Holly Dublin, James Allan, Dan Challender, Diane Skinner (2015), IIED Report

Wildlife crime: a review of the evidence on drivers and impacts in Uganda, Mariel Harrison, Dilys Roe, Julia Baker, Geoffrey Mwedde, Henry Travers, Andy Plumptre, Aggrey Rwetsiba, E.J. Milner-Gulland (2015), IIED Report

The elephant in the room: sustainable use in the illegal wildlife trade debate, Dilys Roe, Simon Milledge, Rosie Cooney, Michael 't Sas-Rolfes, Duan Biggs, Michael Murphree and Alex Kasterine (2014), IIED Briefing Paper


Dilys Roe (dilys.roe@iied.org), principal researcher, Natural Resources Group; team leader, biodiversity