To stop wildlife crime, conservationists ask why people poach

By January 11, 2020Antipoaching, Conservation
Rachel Nuwer, Scientific American | January 10, 2020

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Most people imprisoned in Nepal for wildlife crime share two things in common: they did not understand the seriousness of their offense, and they had little conception of how profoundly it would impact not only their lives but also the lives of their families.

In interviews with more than 100 people convicted of illegally killing or trapping wildlife, researchers found some lost their businesses and land following their imprisonment. A dozen men’s wives left them. Many respondents’ children had to drop out of school, and family members of some took jobs in other countries to survive. One man’s daughter found herself unable to marry because of the stigma of his crime, and another said his mother committed suicide out of shame.

“People really underestimate the risk of getting arrested and all of the social harm that comes from that punishment,” says Kumar Paudel, who led the research and is co-founder and director of Greenhood Nepal, a science-driven nonprofit organization that focuses on the human dimensions of conservation. He is also a graduate student in conservation leadership at the University of Cambridge.

Paudel and his colleagues uncovered these gaps in awareness of the punishments for poaching as part of an effort to better understand the motivations of, and impacts on, the people who are arrested and prosecuted for wildlife crime. Such information is critical for designing effective deterrent strategies yet is often lacking, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars governments and nonprofits have poured into combatting the illegal wildlife trade worldwide.

The researchers also took their findings, published Friday in Conservation Science and Practice, a step further: they teamed up with a well-known local musician to create awareness-raising songs that share key messages from their study. They hope this effort will ultimately benefit both people and wildlife. “I don’t think scientists should wait for decision makers to come and read their paper,” Paudel says. “They should find ways to inform policy and undertake conservation interventions on the ground.”

“Full Force” Crime Fighting

Nepal takes its antipoaching efforts very seriously, particularly for charismatic megafauna such as tigers and rhinoceroses, which receive the majority of global conservation funding and attention. Nearly 7,000 military personnel patrol the country’s protected areas, and wildlife-crime-related arrests increased more than eightfold between 2009 and 2014. Official data now report around 2,000 such arrests annually, and these efforts do seem to be helping.

Nepal celebrated zero rhino poaching for the first time in 2011 and has repeated that achievement several times since. Yet the possible social harms of the nation’s militarized conservation approach have gone unexplored. “This is a country that’s going full force, but we don’t know who they’re going full force against,” says Jacob Phelps, an environmental social scientist at Lancaster University in England and senior author of the new study.

Paudel, who has worked in conservation in his native Nepal since 2010, wanted to tackle this question to help develop targeted, fairer ways to combat poaching. Starting in 2016, after securing special permission from the government, he visited seven prisons across the country. He persuaded 116 people who had poached primarily rhinos but also tigers, red pandas and other species to speak with him. Paudel says it helped that he came from a similar rural background as most of the interviewees, 99 percent of whom were men.

Their answers offer nuance to experts’ understanding of the problem. Most respondents were from poor backgrounds, but surprisingly, nearly 90 percent of them said they resorted to breaking the law to make some extra money—not to meet basic economic and nutritional needs. “A really popular narrative in conservation is that poor people poach, but this overlooks other motivations by just blaming poverty,” Paudel says. A lack of awareness also factored in the decision to do so, he found. More than 90 percent of the interviewees said they knew wildlife poaching and trade were illegal, but just 30 percent understood the steep penalties involved, such as the possibility of a five- to 15-year prison sentence. Nearly half of the respondents said their imprisonment had negatively impacted their families’ livelihood, their children’s education or both.

Communities near protected areas have been particularly affected. For example, more than 20 percent of inmates in one prison near Chitwan National Park were jailed for wildlife crime, compared with about 3 percent of Nepal’s total prison population. “That’s mind-boggling, especially if you consider that many people are from the same communities that were originally expropriated” from their land to make way for the park, Phelps says. “We’re hitting them twice. That’s a huge social cost.”

Basudev Dhungana, who lives near Chitwan and is former chair of the Mrigakunja Bufferzone User Committee (which works with communities to use park revenue for local development), says he has seen firsthand the impacts described in the study. He knows several people who have been arrested for poaching, most of them heads of families. “Their arrest affects the livelihood of the family and education of their children,” he says. “Further, it affects the family’s prestige and dignity in society, because they are seen as a family of poachers.”

According to Annette Hübschle, a criminologist at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, who was not involved in the Nepal research but has interviewed rhino poachers in South Africa and Mozambique, the study provides “important, novel perspectives” on the motivations, drivers and impacts of people who engage in wildlife crime in Nepal. Yet she would have liked to see a deeper analysis on whether historical injustices, land evictions and political marginalization motivated people to retaliate or seek to reclaim land perceived as unfairly taken from them. Hübschle also wonders whether offenders agree or disagree with antipoaching rules. In southern Africa, for example, some communities contest the illegality of poaching, pointing out that hunting was their right prior to colonization. In Nepal, she says, “future research might want to explore this in more detail.”

Maheshwar Dhakal, joint secretary of Nepal’s Ministry of Forests and Environment, also believes the findings are important for shining a light on the reasons why individuals in the nation poach. While enforcement is necessary to curtail “greedy people who would like to be rich overnight,” he says, education would go a long way toward stopping others who are simply unaware of the seriousness of wildlife crime.

Singing to Stop Poaching

Paudel and Phelps agree that education could make a crucial difference on the ground, and they both say they felt a responsibility to act on their findings. They launched a fellowship program between Greenhood Nepal and Lancaster University to provide more opportunities to young Nepalese conservationists. Paudel also initiated a collaboration with a musician from the Gandharva ethnic group, whose traveling troubadours are famous in Nepal for their sorrowful ballads, played on a stringed instrument called a sarangi. Paudel wrote five songs based on his interviews. In “Shameful Name,” for example, a farmer in prison for poaching recounts how greed led to the loss of his freedom and his family’s dignity and implores the listener not to make the same mistake.

The songs are now available online as music videos and are being played on the radio and performed live in communities across Nepal. Paudel says more than 1,000 people have already seen the performances, and some were moved to tears. “Music is one of the simplest ways to communicate,” he says. “Even illiterate people can understand our songs.”

Dhungana attended a performance and agrees people responded well to it. “We all love the sarangi music,” he says. “This is a simple and an innovative approach to make communities aware of wildlife conservation.” He wonders, though, whether his neighbors will actually retain the songs’ messages over the long term. What’s really needed, he says, is for the government to invest not only in conservation enforcement but also in education and employment opportunities for communities near national parks. “Local people should be empowered to take advantage of the potential for conservation tourism and nature-based enterprises,” Dhungana says. “I think people will poach less if they get significant benefits from conservation.”