Wildlife decline and social conflict

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Science  25 Jul 2014:
Vol. 345, Issue 6195, pp. 376-378
DOI: 10.1126/science.1256734

U.S. President Obama's recent creation of an interagency task force on wildlife trafficking reflects growing political awareness of linkages between wildlife conservation and national security (1). However, this and similar new initiatives in Europe and Asia promote a “war on poachers” that overlooks the ecological, social, and economic complexity of wildlife-related conflict. Input from multiple disciplines is essential to formulate policies that address drivers of wildlife decline and contexts from which associated conflicts ignite.

The harvest of wild animals from land and sea provides more than $400 billion annually, supports the livelihoods of 15% of the global population, and is the main source of animal protein for more than a billion of Earth's poorest inhabitants (2, 3). Humans have always depended on wildlife, but the contemporary depletion of wildlife, combined with unprecedented market globalization, has heightened the economic stakes and desperation of consumers. The consequences of wildlife declines are severe and include regional destabilization and the proliferation of terrorism.

Here, we illustrate how wildlife decline may give rise to exploitative labor practices, empower profiteering groups who use violence to control illicit wildlife trades, and promote vigilante resource management. We also describe cases where incorporating interdisciplinary perspectives has improved policy outcomes.

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Children enslaved for fishing labor in the Brong Ahafo region of Ghana, 2010.


HUMAN TRAFFICKING, ORGANIZED CRIME, AND VIGILANTE GOVERNANCE. Wildlife declines often necessitate increased labor to maintain yields. Harvesters of wildlife resort to acquiring trafficked adults and children to capture ever-scarcer resources while minimizing production costs. A vicious cycle ensues, as resource depletion drives harvesters to increase their use of forced labor to stay competitive.

Human trafficking associated with declining fishery harvests is increasing across the globe, exposing connections between fishery decline, poverty, and human exploitation (see the chart and figure) (4). Many fishers must travel farther, endure harsher conditions, search deeper, and fish for longer to obtain the types of harvests more readily available a generation ago (2). In Thailand, for example, Burmese, Cambodian, and Thai men are increasingly sold to fishing boats, where they may remain at sea for several years without pay, forced to work 18- to 20-hour days (4). Starvation, physical abuse, and murder are common on these vessels.

Connections between wildlife depletion and labor injustice are not limited to fisheries. Terrestrial wildlife declines in West Africa have led to exploitative child labor practices (5). Communities that for thousands of years met their dietary needs by hunting in neighboring forests must now travel for days to find prey. The region's main source of animal protein, fish, has declined, increasing reliance on terrestrial wildlife (6). Cheap child labor enables hunters to extract wildlife from areas that would otherwise be too costly to harvest.

Wildlife-related conflict is not limited to labor injustice. Scarce wildlife species used as luxury goods can draw extraordinary prices. For example, high demand and reduced supply have contributed to record prices in elephant and rhino products, with ivory recently sold for $3000/kg and rhino horn fetching $60,000 to $100,000/kg (1, 7). As in the drug trade, such concentrations of value promote a cascade of social consequences. Huge profits from trafficking luxury wildlife goods have attracted guerilla groups and crime syndicates worldwide. In Africa, the Janjaweed, Lord's Resistance Army, al-Shabab, and Boko Haram poach ivory and rhino horn to fund terrorist attacks (7).

Global and local drivers.

The growth of child slavery in fisheries provides an example of the complex linkages between wildlife decline and social conflict, as well as the multidisciplinary insights necessary to inform policy. In practice, interdisciplinary engagement cannot be easily parsed among simplistic categories, and many perspectives inform each step. Policy action must integrate disciplines to address feedbacks among failing fish stocks, weak governance, uncertain resource tenure, and pressure from international demand.

Conservationists have lamented the endangerment of species targeted by luxury trades. Yet disciplines beyond conservation biology—such as political science, economics, and international law—must be integrated with ecological perspectives to understand and address feedbacks between wildlife depletion and organized crime (8).

Conflict resulting from wildlife scarcity is not always catalyzed by organized crime. When governments lack the political will or capacity to defend access to declining wildlife, local stakeholders may take the job into their own hands, sometimes resorting to violence. These vigilante defense actions often escalate into broader social unrest.

For example, lacking an effective central government since 1991, Somalia's coast guard ceased to defend the country's exclusive economic zone. As foreign fishing vessels proliferated in Somali waters, local fishers seized offending boats and demanded payment. As the number of foreign fishers increased, violence escalated (9). Dozens of boats are now ransomed annually by well-armed pirates (many supported by foreign cartels), who long ago traded nets for heavy weaponry. Pirates have justified their actions as necessary to protect their sovereignty over offshore fishing grounds (9).

This path from resource defense to violent conflict, facilitated by weak governance, seems to be repeating itself in Benin, Senegal, and Nigeria, which are all witnessing increasing rates of piracy. In the words of a Senegalese fisherman, “in 10 years' time people will go fishing with guns…. We will fight for fish at sea. If we cannot eat, what do you expect us to do?” (10).

TOWARD INTEGRATED POLICY. Initiatives like President Obama's wildlife task force, the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime, and the new UN Office on Drug and Crime anti–wildlife trafficking program emphasize enforcement of antipoaching and antitrafficking laws. Such steps are useful but their reach is limited because they target outcomes rather than factors that underlie demand for wildlife. Combating trafficking should only be one part of integrative programs that consider ecological, socioeconomic, and institutional contexts in which wildlife conflict occurs (see the chart).

Several models already exist for such programs. At a global scale, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has brought together academics, government practitioners, and seasoned policy-makers. The formation of a similarly inclusive and far-reaching problem-based working group is long overdue for addressing the global decline of wildlife.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment provides a multidisciplinary platform on which such a working group could be built. The new United for Wildlife collaboration, led by the Duke of Cambridge, offers an organizational framework for integrating law enforcement with biodiversity and livelihood conservation. However, such global efforts will only be sustained if the policies they create are enacted with strong funding and unfaltering political engagement.

At local and regional scales, policies that strengthen resource tenure may address both causes and consequences of wildlife conflict. Local governments have headed off social tension created by uncertain resource tenure by giving fishers and hunters exclusive rights to harvest grounds. Fiji's fishery, structured around territorial use rights, offers one example of effective management (11). Locally controlled management zones in Namibia have also demonstrated the ability of proactive policies to reduce poaching, stem wildlife decline, and improve local livelihoods (12). Government willingness to allow stakeholders to retain the bulk of revenues from harvests has been critical to the persistence of these programs.

Reducing or preventing wildlife conflict by strengthening local resource tenure has broad application but requires strong governance and an international commitment to recognize user rights. Organizations working to stem social conflict must address wildlife decline as a possible driver. Similarly, policies aimed at addressing wildlife decline must consider the social context of wildlife use and the feedbacks between wildlife scarcity and social conflict. Leadership must move beyond superficial reactions to elephant and rhino poaching and consider the complicated fate of the billions of people who rely on our planet's rapidly disappearing wildlife for food and income.

References and Notes

  1. Acknowledgments: This article was greatly improved by suggestions from four anonymous reviewers and supported by a NSF Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems grant.
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