Why Hunters Are Critical to Reducing Wildlife Crime

Why Hunters Are Critical to Reducing Wildlife Crime

When the poaching of Africa’s elephants and rhinos reached unprecedented levels in 2008, hunters were already on the front lines because of their ties to the continent’s remote wildlands and rural communities. While the international community responded with increased policy changes and aid packages, hunters stayed the course by providing local communities with economic incentives to support conservation and deter wildlife crime. Now a new report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and U.N. Environment (United Nations Environment Program) states that the kind of community engagement and creation of economic opportunity characterizing much of Africa’s hunting industry is an essential link in efforts to reduce involvement in illicit wildlife trafficking (IWT). Moreover, the value of these efforts exceeds those of the top-down, protectionist approaches that have been widely championed by NGOs and governments alike. The report’s findings and recommendations have broad implications for conservation, international development, security and wildlife law-enforcement policies and activities at both national levels and in multilateral institutions such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Making necessary improvements to U.S. contributions will require the active voice of hunters—like what is being provided by U.S. Secretary of the Interior (SOI) Ryan Zinke’s newly-formed International Wildlife Conservation Council (IWCC)—in shaping approaches not only in the Department of Interior (DOI) but also the Department of State (DOS) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in addressing wildlife crime.

Titled Wild Life, Wild Livelihoods: Involving Communities in Sustainable Wildlife Management and Combating Illegal Wildlife Trade, the report is a response to the United Nation Environment’s 2016 resolution calling for “an analysis of international best practices with regard to involving local communities in wildlife management as an approach to addressing the unsustainable use of and illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife products …” Prepared by a cadre of respected scientists worldwide with funding from the United Nations, the report synthesizes lessons from the best available scientific research on the subject and reviews ways to increase the participation of local communities in conservation efforts. Key among its findings are:

• Incentives are crucial to engaging rural communities in conservation and counter-poaching efforts;
• Governments continue to ignore the proven value of devolving the governance of wildlife to rural communities to achieve conservation goals;
• The top-down, increasingly militarized approach to poaching historically favored by many NGOs and governments has led to restricted livelihood options, human rights abuses and other hardships in rural communities that help drive disenfranchisement, resentment and anger toward conservation and limit the potential for local cooperation in efforts to deter wildlife crime; and
• Local ownership of conservation efforts is important to success.

Incentives, devolved governance and local investment are characteristic of many hunting areas in Africa. The report’s findings echo what hunters have told policy makers for years based on firsthand experience. In Zimbabwe, for example, the Communal Areas Management Program for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE) has engaged and incentivized local communities to fight wildlife crime since the 1980s. CAMPFIRE’s multiple tools include ensuring that district councils receive 50 percent of revenues from tourist hunting ventures. The money funds health care, sanitation and educational development projects and creates jobs—starting with anti-poaching scouts.

In the Dande North and East Safari Areas, which are governed under the CAMPFIRE program, scouts with the Dande Anti-Poaching Unit, a joint venture between the local community and a hunting outfitter, have played an essential role in deterring IWT. In 2015, a six-month undercover operation involving DAPU resulted in the arrest of three Zambians who were crossing into Zimbabwe to poach elephants. Each received more than nine years in prison. In April of this year, the DAPU unit assisted the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority with the arrest of an individual selling cyanide to suspected poachers. That same month, DAPU was also instrumental in the arrest of a well-known poacher named “America,” as well as an ivory dealer who was likely a middleman in a larger trafficking operation. Since 2010, DAPU has apprehended 60 suspected poachers in the remote area where it operates.

The success of organizations like DAPU, however, cannot be taken for granted. The report notes that unilateral bans on the import of hunting trophies can curtail “the potential incentives derived from benefit flows from wildlife management to some communities, with implications for conservation outcomes.” This is exactly what happened when the Obama administration abruptly enacted a moratorium on elephant trophy imports from Zimbabwe in 2014 without consulting Zimbabwean wildlife authorities or other stakeholders. The effects of this moratorium were almost instantaneous, with Zimbabwe’s safari industry seeing a 30 percent decline in business within the first 12 months, according to the Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe. These decreased revenues translated into a concurrent devaluation of healthy elephant herds by rural people and decreased operating capacity for counter-poaching programs like DAPU, which reported a five-fold increase in elephant poaching incidents in their area while the moratorium was in effect. While the moratorium was eventually lifted following litigation brought by the National Rifle Association and Safari Club International, it caused years of damage from which CAMPFIRE communities are still recovering.

While hunters have been largely sidelined in global discussions about wildlife crime, this is starting to change—at least in the United States. In a move that now seems prescient in the wake of the report’s release, SOI Zinke’s new IWCC is a cabinet-level advisory body charged with increasing public awareness regarding the law enforcement, conservation and economic benefits resulting from Americans traveling abroad to hunt. Just one reason the IWCC’s formation represents a step in the right direction is because it serves as a platform through which ideas for integrating the report’s findings can be discussed, and appropriate policies can be proposed. This is especially necessary considering the weight given by the U.S. National Strategy on Wildlife Trafficking (NSWT) to command and control top-down approaches and the contradiction between the space it gives to engaging rural communities in efforts to deter IWT and its explicit prescription of limiting the import of legally-acquired hunting trophies to achieve its law enforcement objectives.

To prevent a replay of the events in Zimbabwe and bring the NSWT in line with the best available research and on-the-ground experience, the language in the strategy should underscore the key role hunting operations play in deterring wildlife crime by creating incentives and providing eyes and ears at the point of origin. Any language suggesting that limiting American hunters’ right to import legally-acquired hunting trophies is necessary to deter IWT should be deleted. Moreover, these changes should be backstopped by Congress and the Trump administration by revisiting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) permitting authority under the ESA and improving it to ensure it does not undermine the successful efforts of conservation partners and is exercised more in concert with international agreements like CITES.

As a party to CITES, the United States also should use its presence to shape the Convention’s Secretariat into a body more philosophically engaged in deterring IWT and delivering conservation through economic incentives, sustainable use and trade. In recent years, the Secretariat used social media and other platforms to promote top-down approaches to address wildlife crime with little attention paid to the impact that devolution, incentives, sustainable use and markets could deliver in curtailing illicit activity at the start of the supply chain, limiting or disrupting entire criminal enterprises. With the search for a new CITES Secretary General currently underway, the opportunity exists to make decisions that increase the Secretariat’s awareness and focus on the value of bottom-up, market and sustainable-use based approaches to deterring wildlife crime, and use its bully pulpit to encourage the same among all CITIES parties.

The challenge in addressing IWT, of course, transcends conservation. The involvement of armed militants and international crime syndicates has necessitated increased cooperation between agencies like the USFWS and counterparts within the DOS and USAID. Opportunities exist in the programs of both of the latter bodies to support the report’s recommendations through refocusing their efforts. While the DOS has been sending a liaison to IWCC meetings, other key agencies and departments have not. Increased communication and cooperation between the IWCC and the members of the civil service tasked with stemming IWT should be a priority so the latter has an understanding of the critical role that hunters play in attaining that goal.

Like the recent report from the international community shows, sustainable use—including hunting operations—plays a critical role in conserving wildlife by creating economic and political conditions that discourage poaching and illicit wildlife trafficking. By better integrating hunting and hunters into its policy and program responses to address IWT, the United States can secure its role as a global leader in both wildlife conservation and law enforcement and help safeguard the world’s outdoor heritage.

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About the Author: Catherine E. Semcer is Chief Operations Officer of Humanitarian Operations Protecting Elephants (H.O.P.E.), a U.S.-based non-profit organization that provides training, advisory assistance and procurement services to African anti-poaching programs by leveraging the skill sets of U.S. veterans and the capacities of commercial businesses. A longtime hunter, Semcer is also a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (ICUN) Sustainable Use Livelihoods Specialist Group (SULi), a global-expert network that promotes both conservation and livelihoods through enhancing equitable and sustainable use of wild species and their associated ecosystems. You can support H.O.P.E.’s efforts to secure a future for Africa’s wildlife by visiting*Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are strictly her own.