Wildlife crime and poverty: what are the links?

Is poverty a driver of wildlife crime? What impacts does wildlife crime have on poor people? And what impacts do responses to wildlife crime have on poor people? A new report looks for answers.

Mariel Harrison's picture
Insight by 
Mariel Harrison
13 May 2015
Hippos are poached at Queen Elizabeth National Park for food, to generate income, and for cultural purposes such as to improve fertility (Photo: Tiziana Zoccheddu)

Hippos are poached at Queen Elizabeth National Park for food, to generate income, and for cultural purposes such as to improve fertility (Photo: Tiziana Zoccheddu)

What drives a person to poach an elephant for its ivory, or an antelope for its meat? Why do people cut down trees, or collect dead wood from protected areas?

We often assume that it is because those people have no money, but is this really true?

Does wildlife crime actually benefit people living in poverty, or do organised gangs of poachers or loggers make their lives a misery?

What is the impact of different "carrot and stick" approaches to dealing with wildlife crime such as arrests and fines, or livelihood projects such as giving people goats? Do they affect levels of wildlife crime at all?

These are all questions that we sought to answer in our report Wildlife crime: a review of the evidence on drivers and impacts in Uganda, published this week.

IIED and Imperial College London are working with partners in Uganda including the Uganda Wildlife Authority and the Wildlife Conservation Society to explore the potential for "pro-poor responses" to wildlife crime, but we can't do this without knowing how poverty and wildlife crime are linked in the first place. Our project – which included a review of the literature, along with interviews with several key people – offered up a few of the answers, but also highlighted areas where evidence is seriously lacking.

What drives wildlife crime in Uganda?

In some cases, people commit wildlife crimes such as hunting bushmeat or collecting firewood because they have no money. Their children are hungry, and the high population density means that they don't have enough land to grow sufficient food, keep livestock or grow trees for fuel.

But in other cases, people have all these things, but they want more – a television, new clothes, maybe a motorbike. We can hardly blame them. As there aren't many opportunities to earn a decent wage in rural areas in Uganda, some people resort to illegal but profitable means, including selling bushmeat, timber or ivory. The evidence we reviewed shows how corruption among officials can help this illegal trade.

It's not all about money though. There is a wealth of cultural traditions surrounding natural resource use in Uganda. For example, some people around Queen Elizabeth National Park believe that a new bride will not conceive until she has consumed hippo meat. At Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, herbal medicine gathered from the forest is believed to be more effective at treating worms than modern medicine.

As our previous research at Bwindi highlighted, inequity in the sharing of the costs and benefits from conservation also drives wildlife crime. For example, people sometimes react by hunting or logging because they feel they are being unfairly treated when they do not receive compensation if wild animals raid their crops or because they do not benefit from tourism.

The poorest people living on the edge of protected areas and suffering from crop raiding often do not benefit from revenue sharing projects, creating resentment and driving wildlife crime (Photo: Mariel Harrison)

What impacts does wildlife crime have on poor people?

Overall, it appears that wildlife crime does benefit the people involved. They gain food, shelter, fuel, medicine, money, and cultural experiences.

Occasionally, however, it involves violent and trouble-making commercial loggers and ivory poachers who can cause local insecurity. Local people sometimes pay the price, with human injury or even death.

What impact do interventions against wildlife crime have?

This was the area where we most struggled to find evidence. There has been limited monitoring of the effectiveness of different conservation interventions in Uganda, and so their impact on either local poverty or wildlife crime is hard to determine.

Penalties for commercially-driven crimes such as ivory poaching and illegal logging appear to be insufficient to deter people. Many wildlife traders can easily afford to pay fines or bribes to escape prosecution. But similar fines and imprisonment are also meted out for much lesser crimes that are driven by subsistence needs and can have severe negative impacts on the poorest households who are collecting firewood or hunting meat for their own consumption.

Benefit-sharing projects which share revenue from tourism or which allow for regulated resource access can improve local attitudes to conservation, but the actual impacts in terms of their ability to alleviate poverty and reduce wildlife crime have rarely been measured.

Despite good intentions, it is often the less poor members of society who benefit from these schemes, and not those who suffer from crop raiding or who struggle to meet their basic needs.

So what next?

Our project Building capacity for pro-poor responses to wildlife crime in Uganda is using the lessons learned from this evidence review to target research. We want to ascertain who is involved in various wildlife crimes at Queen Elizabeth and Murchison Falls National Parks, and why.

We are also working with local communities, government agencies and park management to focus research into the potential effectiveness of future responses to wildlife crime. Stay tuned for the results.

Mariel Harrison ([email protected]) is a research assistant at Imperial College London.

The full report on the evidence for the links between wildlife crime and poverty in Uganda is available.

Project partners
This project is a collaboration between IIED, Imperial College Conservation Science, the Wildlife Conservation Society in Uganda, and Uganda Wildlife Authority.

This work is funded through the UK government's Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund, however, the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the UK government.