Volume 1, Issue 5 e26
Open Access

Engaging local communities in tackling illegal wildlife trade: A synthesis of approaches and lessons for best practice

Dilys Roe

Corresponding Author

Dilys Roe

Natural Resources Group, International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), London, UK


Dilys Roe, Natural Resources Group, International Institute for Environment and Development, 80-86 Grays Inn Road, London WC1X 8NH, UK.

Email: [email protected]

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Francesca Booker

Francesca Booker

Natural Resources Group, International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), London, UK

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First published: 09 April 2019
Citations: 35

Funding information Department for International Development, Grant/Award Number: Accountable Grant to IIED; UK Government


At numerous international policy forums, governments from a wide range of countries have made commitments to supporting community engagement as part of their efforts to tackling international illegal wildlife trade (IWT). Despite this, the major focus of anti-IWT strategies to date has been on law enforcement. There is no blueprint approach to community engagement and thus uncertainty on the part of the designers and implementers of initiatives intended to tackle IWT as to how best to proceed. In this paper we provide a synthesis of existing approaches to community engagement to tackle international IWT and review the evidence on their effectiveness. The synthesis illustrates the wide range of different community engagement approaches that have been utilized to date and could be explored by others. But it also highlights the lack of regular, robust monitoring of such initiatives. The dearth of evidence on effectiveness of community-based strategies to tackle IWT may not be any worse than the evidence on effectiveness of other approaches. Nevertheless, it presents a major conceptual and technical barrier to the uptake of community engagement approaches as well as hampering efforts to encourage national governments to implement the commitments they made through the high-level policy forums.


1.1 International commitment to engaging communities in tackling illegal wildlife trade

In October 2018, the UK government hosted the fourth in a series of high-level, intergovernmental conferences on international illegal wildlife trade (IWT). The London Conference, like the previous three conferences (London 2014, Kasane 2015, and Hanoi 2016) emphasized the importance of engaging communities to tackle IWT, alongside efforts to strengthen law enforcement; build effective legal frameworks and to reduce consumer demand for illegal products. Numerous other international policy forums have also emphasized this approach (Table 1). In the context of IWT and of the commitments made, community engagement can cover a wide range of approaches including, but not limited to, involving communities in law enforcement effort, for example, as community game guards; generating incentives for community-based conservation—for example, through tourism; involving communities in decision-making on IWT project design and implementation; recognizing and supporting community rights to manage and benefit from wildlife; reducing conflict between communities and wildlife in order to reduce motivation to support poaching. Responding to community concerns (see Table 1 for examples of approaches that governments have committed to).

Table 1. Examples of international commitments on engaging communities in tackling illegal wildlife trade
Event/policy statement Commitments made/recognition given
African Elephant Summit (December 2013) Engage communities living with elephants as active partners in their conservation
London Conference (February 2014)

Increase capacity of local communities to pursue sustainable livelihood opportunities and eradicate poverty

Work with, and include local communities in, establishing monitoring and law enforcement networks in areas surrounding wildlife

Kasane Conference (March 2015) Promote the retention of benefits from wildlife resources by local people where they have traditional and/or legal rights over these resources. We will strengthen policy and legislative frameworks needed to achieve this, reinforce the voice of local people as key stakeholders and implement measures which balance the need to tackle the illegal wildlife trade with the needs of communities, including the sustainable use of wildlife.
International Conference on Illegal Exploitation and Illicit Trade in Wild Flora and Fauna in Africa, Brazzaville (April 2015) Recognize the rights and increase the participation of indigenous peoples and local communities in the planning, management and use of wildlife through sustainable use and alternative livelihoods and strengthen their ability to combat wildlife crime.
UN General Assembly Resolution 69/314 on Tackling Illicit Trafficking In Wildlife (July 2015) Support … the development of sustainable and alternative livelihoods for communities affected by illicit trafficking in wildlife and its adverse impacts, with the full engagement of the communities in and adjacent to wildlife habitats as active partners in conservation and sustainable use, enhancing the rights and capacity of the members of such communities to manage and benefit from wildlife and wilderness; …
Hanoi Conference (November 2016)

… recognizing the importance of supporting and engaging communities living with wildlife as active partners in conservation, through reducing human–wildlife conflict and supporting community efforts to advance their rights and capacity to manage and benefit from wildlife and their habitats; and developing collaborative models of enforcement.

The active participation of local people is critical to effective monitoring and law enforcement as well as sustainable socioeconomic development.

London Conference

(October 2018)

It is important to highlight the impact of the illegal wildlife trade on the sustainable livelihoods of communities, and the importance of countries' obligations to uphold agreements made with indigenous and local communities… we will work to support sustainable livelihoods which provide an alternative to engagement in the illegal wildlife trade. We recognize the essential engagement role and rights of local communities and indigenous people to ensure a sustainable solution to addressing the illegal wildlife trade. We also recognize the importance of local communities acknowledging the value of protected species and habitats, and the benefit this value can bring.

Despite the commitments made to community engagement, the major focus of anti-IWT strategies has been on law enforcement (often including military tactics, personnel and equipment (Duffy, 2014; Hübschle & Shearing, 2018). For example, analysis by the World Bank shows that $1.3 billion of donor funding was committed to tackling IWT between 2010 and 2016, equivalent to approximately $190 million per year, peaking at $316 million in 2014 (Wright, Bhammar, & Mukeshkumar, H. Gonzalez Velosa, A.M. Sobrevila, C., 2016). The analysis shows that approximately 46% of the funding was allocated to protected area management to help prevent poaching, and a further 19% went to law enforcement including intelligence-led operations and transnational coordination. Only 15%, by contrast, was allocated to initiatives intended to support sustainable use and alternative livelihoods.

One explanation for the lack of attention to community engagement is that the current spate of IWT is viewed as a conservation “crisis” (e.g., GEF Secretariat, 2014; Nellemann, Henriksen, Raxter, Ash, & Mrema, 2014; ZSL, 2016) requiring a quick, direct, on the ground response—a race against time (e.g., Hammer, 2014; Vidal, 2016). Community engagement strategies, however, take time and are complex. Communities are diverse. Socioeconomic, political, legal, and environmental factors influence the nature of their interactions with wildlife and hence different perceptions of, and attitudes toward IWT (Biggs et al., 2015; Hübschle, 2017). There is, therefore, no blueprint approach to community engagement and thus uncertainty on the part of the designers and implementers of initiatives intended to tackle IWT as to how best to proceed.

In this paper, we review documented examples of initiatives that have sought to engage communities in tackling IWT. We provide a synthesis of the different approaches to community engagement that have been employed, and review the evidence on their effectiveness. The synthesis illustrates the wide range of different community engagement approaches that have been utilized to date and could be explored by others. But it also highlights the lack of regular, robust monitoring of such initiatives. The dearth of evidence on effectiveness of community-based strategies to tackle IWT may not be any worse than the evidence on effectiveness of other approaches. Nevertheless, it presents a major conceptual and technical barrier to the uptake of community engagement approaches as well as hampering efforts to encourage national governments to implement the commitments they made through the high-level policy forums.


This paper is based on a desk study of secondary data. No primary data collection, no individuals were names and no other ethical issues applied. We identified relevant case studies of community engagement to tackle international IWT through three key sources: (a) case studies submitted to the “Conservation, Crime and Communities” online database hosted by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED; http://communitiesforwildlife.iied.org/); (b) presentations given at a series of “Beyond Enforcement” workshops in South Africa (IUCN-SULi, 2015); Cameroon (IUCN-SULi 2016a) and Hanoi (IUCN -SULi 2016b); and (c) a semi-systematic, keyword-driven review of English language, peer-reviewed and “grey” literature undertaken in November 2016, and updated in January 2019. In that review we used Scopus and Google Scholar to identify relevant material (details of the key word search strings are terms are provided in Table S1, Supporting Information). We recognize that there is a vast body of literature on community-based conservation and community-based natural resources management (CBNRM) (see Cooney, Roe, Dublin, & Booker, 2017 for a recent review). However, we only included in our analysis studies that explicitly mentioned that the initiative was intended to tackle IWT.

Our search identified 50 different examples of community-based initiatives for tackling IWT—full details of the initiatives and the sources of information on them are provided in Table S2. This was a considerably smaller number than we had anticipated (especially given the body of literature on community-based conservation and CBNRM) and there are a number of reasons for this. First, much of the literature on community-based conservation interventions is descriptive in nature and lacks a specific focus on international IWT—although for IWT project design represents a valuable and under-utilized resource, as discussed in Cooney et al. (2017). Second, of the literature that specifically focused on IWT, in many cases, it was difficult to determine whether the species of focus were destined for the local market versus the international market. Third, and of most relevance to this discussion, much of the practical experience of engaging communities to tackle IWT has not been formally documented or is buried in project reports and other documents that are not easily accessible. Others have experienced related challenges when attempting to review similar literature. For example, Mossaz et al. (2015) found a much greater richness of community-based lion-conservation initiatives on the ground compared to that in the literature.

Just over half (n = 27) of the initiatives we identified had been established specifically to address IWT. The remainder had been established to address multiple threats, and tackling IWT was just one objective of a more comprehensive program. For example, we found three initiatives that were intended to address human–wildlife conflict (HWC) from snow leopards as a primary objective but included actions to tackle poaching as a secondary objective, since HWC can result in communities deliberately engaging in, or supporting, IWT as a means to remove the species they are in conflict with (Mishra et al., 2003; Simms, Moheb, Salahudin, & I.,, & Wood, T., 2011; Wilke, Painter, & Jacob, 2016). In two cases, tackling IWT was not originally an objective but has been incorporated into project design in response to emerging threats. The Chunoti Co-management Committee in Bangladesh, for example, was formed to regulate local extraction of forest resources, particularly nontimber forest products but, in response to wildlife poaching and illegal logging, has evolved to include all-women anti-poaching patrols (UNDP, 2013a). Similarly, the Mali Elephant Project was initially established to find sustainable solutions to managing land and natural resources that benefit both local communities and elephants. Only recently, in response to increasing destabilization in the region and associated poaching by insurgents, IWT has become a focus of the project (Canney & Ganamé, 2015).


We found more examples of community-based initiatives in Africa than in other regions (25 in Africa compared to 19 in Asia and 6 in Latin America). Only 2 of the 50 were transboundary or multicountry initiatives—vicuña management in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Peru (Lichtenstein, 2015; Stølen et al., 2009); and the Greater Kilimanjaro Landscape Project in Tanzania and Kenya (Fitzgerald & Muruthi, 2015). The initiatives covered both fauna and flora, but the most common target was large land mammals, especially African elephant (Loxodonta africana) which was targeted by 32% (n = 16) of the initiatives and black rhino (Diceros bicornis) targeted by 20% (n = 11). Other frequent (targeted by at least four initiatives) targets were white rhino (Ceratotherium simum); tiger (Panthera tigris); and various timber species. Figure 1 summarizes the focal species of the initiatives. We are aware that there are other key species that are common targets for IWT beyond those identified here. For example, lions are increasingly targeted for bone trade (Williams, Loveridge, Newton, & Macdonald, 2017). However, the species listed here are the only ones for which we found documentation of community-based initiatives to tackle IWT.

Details are in the caption following the image
Numbers and types of species targeted in community-based anti-IWT initiatives


The initiatives we reviewed employed a wide range of strategies for engaging communities (Figure 2) with many using a mix of different approaches within one initiative (34% is employed in just one strategy, the remainder employed multiple). The strategies employed aligned closely the “Theory of Change for Engaging Communities in Tackling Illegal Wildlife Trade” developed by Biggs et al. (2017) and further refined by Skinner et al (2018). The Theory of Change (ToC) is not described in detail here but essentially suggests four main pathways in order to strengthen community action against poaching and reduce community support for poaching, ultimately resulted in reduced pressure on wild species from IWT. A series of enabling governance conditions underlie all the pathways, so the ToC also highlights the need for actions to strengthen governance at all levels from local to international. The four pathways are:
  1. Increase the costs of participating in illegal wildlife trade;
  2. Increase incentives for wildlife stewardship;
  3. Decrease costs of living with wildlife; and
  4. Support livelihoods that are not related to wildlife.
Details are in the caption following the image
Types and prevalence of different community engagement strategies

We discuss each of these below, in the order in which we found the most case studies.

4.1 Increasing incentives for wildlife stewardship

The most common approach to community engagement in the 50 initiatives was Pathway B: increasing incentives for wildlife stewardship. Out of the 50 case studies we identified, 70% (n = 35) included some mechanism for generating positive incentives for community-based conservation. The most common strategy was wildlife-based tourism, which featured in 63% (n = 22) of the 35 cases studies with an incentives component. In one case (Shaw, 2014) tourism was targeted specifically at known poachers as an alternative, legitimate form of income generation. In all the other cases, however, the tourism interventions were not specifically targeted at known poachers but more broadly at the local community. The tourism strategies employed included both support for community-owned tourism initiatives (e,g, Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust (UNDP, 2013b) and Il Ngwesi Group Ranch (UNDP, 2012a) and revenue-sharing from private sector owned/managed tourism enterprises. In these cases, the revenue was frequently used for community-wide social benefits including infrastructure (e.g., irrigation channels, health clinics, roads, and schools) and social services (e.g., access to education bursaries or to health services); or for supporting alternative livelihood schemes (and so overlapping with Pathway D—support non-wildlife-based livelihoods). In many of the examples a committee comprised of local community members was responsible for deciding how tourism revenue was used.

Another mechanism for generating conservation incentives was through sustainable, consumptive use of wildlife including trophy hunting (four case studies) and legal trade (eight case studies). Examples of sustainable legal wildlife trade included certified sustainable timber trade (Waldhoff & Vidal, 2015); cactus nurseries (Pulido & Cuevas-Cardona, 2013); vicuña capture and shearing (Lichtenstein, 2015); aquarium fish trade (Fernandes, 2006); and crocodile ranching (Delago & Sierra Diaz, 2015). In the latter case, the ASOCAIMAN cooperative in Colombia was established to manage the local population of American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) in Bahia de Cispata through egg harvesting and re-release of juveniles. These activities were carried out in anticipation of a transfer of the population from CITES Appendix I to II and the possibility of the resumption of a trade in crocodile skins. Ten years after the cooperative was established, at the 17th Conference of Parties to CITES In 2016, the downlisting proposal was accepted (CoP17, Rec.11).

In eight case studies, incentives were generated through payment schemes similar to payments for ecosystem services (PES) schemes. In Olderkesi Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya, for example, a high-end tourism operator pays a land lease to the members of the Olderkesi Group Ranch for exclusive access to a 7,000 acre area of land set aside for wildlife. Penalties are deducted from the payment for infringements of the conservancy agreement including poaching and livestock grazing (Cottar, 2015). In the case of the Bird Nest Protection Programme, monitoring staff investigated all cases of nest failure to determine the cause, and payments were not made if nests failed due to human disturbance or collection (Clements et al., 2013). The Snow Leopard Enterprise program drew up contracts with participating communities whereby the program guaranteed purchase of handicrafts in exchange for herders committing to a complete ban on poaching (Mishra et al., 2003). The Nam Nern Night Safari project set up Village Development Funds (VDFs) with payments made from river safari tourism and bonuses for safari sightings of rare animals, any violations or infractions (such as poaching) reduced payments to VDFs (Eshoo, Johnson, Duangdala, & Hansel, 2018). Other, less common, strategies for generating conservation incentives included assured access to/regulated hunting and harvesting of subsistence resources (seven case studies) and conservation jobs such as ecological monitoring (Zimmerman, Peres, Malcolm, & Turner, 2001) and reforestation work (Pohnan, Ompusunggu, & Webb, 2015).

4.2 Increasing the costs of participating in IWT

Increasing the costs of participating in IWT (Pathway A) was the second most common community engagement strategy. In 66% (n = 33) of the 50 initiatives local people were involved in law enforcement activities of some type including game guarding, patrolling, and intelligence gathering. It was not always clear from the case studies exactly what law enforcement activities were pursued but 67% (n = 22) of the 33 initiatives with a law enforcement component provided clear evidence of the existence of community patrols. In 10 cases community members were employed by the IWT initiative to undertake patrols, and in 12 cases the patrols were carried out on a voluntary basis (although often with some form incentive including uniforms; Kock, Amin, & Jnawali, 2010, food; UNDP, 2012b, or one-off joining rewards, e.g., UNDP, 2013a). In seven case studies, another strategy was to provide rewards for intelligence gathering. These included direct financial rewards but also other nonfinancial incentives including mobile phone airtime credit (Linkie, Sloan, Kasia, Kiswayadi, & Azmi, 2014). For one case, the Prey Lang Community Network, community members had autonomously established their own community patrols, motivated by the risk of losing their resources to illegal loggers (Turreira-García, Meilby, Brofeldt, Argyriou, & Theilade, 2018).

4.3 Supporting non-wildlife-based livelihoods

We identified activities to support non-wildlife-based livelihoods (Pathway D) in 44% (n = 22) of the 50 case studies. The types of approach were very varied but fell into two main categories: support for small enterprises (11 case studies) and provision of social services such as clinics, schools and infrastructure (19 case studies) with most case studies including both. Examples of small enterprises included: value addition to wool-based handicrafts as an alternative to poaching snow leopards and their prey (Mishra et al., 2003), organic farming and domestic mushroom cultivation as an alternative for reformed poachers (Galster, Schaedla, & Redford, 2010) and wheat planting to reduce reliance on livestock and increase household income (UNDP, 2012a). Provision of social services included: funding primary school education (Terry, 2013), running a health awareness campaign and testing for HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis (UNDP, 2012a), supporting villagers to obtain a recognized identity through voting cards and ration cards (Shah, 2016), and providing subsidies to a clothing factory employing local women (Dinerstein et al., 2013).Often non-wildlife-based livelihoods interventions were funded by the income generated through pathway B—typically from tourism or trophy hunting revenue.

4.4 Decreasing the costs of living with wildlife

The least common ToC pathway was C—decrease the costs of living with wildlife. One driver of illegal wildlife trade—whether direct involvement or tacit support for poaching by outsiders—is anger and resentment at the cost of living with wildlife (e.g., Harrison et al., 2016). Of the 50 case studies, 16% (n = 8) included activities aimed at reducing and/or mitigating HWC as part of their community engagement strategies. In the Ruvuma Elephant Project in Tanzania, for example, crop raiding by elephants has been linked to revenge killings by local farmers or by support (turning a blind eye if not active encouragement) for poaching. The project's human–elephant conflict mitigation program has involved the use of chilli pepper fences and beehive fences which both act as a deterrent to elephants and also provide a source of income generation (Lotter & Clark, 2014). Similarly in Nepal, communities living in the buffer zone of Bardia national park have been supported to grow crops that are unpalatable to rhinos and other wildlife—such as mint, citronella, and camomile—but have the potential to generate income (Martin & Martin, 2010).

One community engagement strategy not emphasized in the ToC (although arguably an enabling condition underpinning each of the four pathways) is education and awareness raising, which featured in 32% (n = 16) of the case studies. This ranged from innovative approaches such as a community soccer tournament (UNDP, 2015) to more conventional conservation awareness workshop (Khatiwada, 2015).


Of the 50 initiatives identified, only 38% (n = 19) reported on their effectiveness (either in terms of reducing poaching or maintaining/increasing wildlife populations), although a further 16% (n = 8) noted that the initiatives were at too early a stage in their development to assess effectiveness. In many cases the methodology by which effectiveness was measured was not clear. We do not, here, make any judgments of the validity of the reported effectiveness. Here we simply synthesize the results of those initiatives that passed some comment on effectiveness—whether anecdotal or empirical.

Of the 19 case studies that reported on effectiveness, 74% (n = 14) reported that they were effective (although in four of these cases effectiveness was partial, that is, it varied over time or was site specific). In the case of the Northern Rangelands Trust, for example, the community conservancies were unable to contain the massive spike in poaching levels from 2009 to 2012, but following this they increased their investment in community patrols and informants and increased their collaboration with the Kenya Wildlife Service and the police. As a result, poaching levels have declined since 2012 (King & Craig, 2015). The Mali Elephant Project also reported success in containing poaching but from 2015 they have experienced a deterioration in security (in the form of a jihadist insurgency) and an escalation in poaching. Nevertheless, the project suggested that even the limited anti-poaching activities that have undertaken since 2015 would have been impossible without the local intelligence supplied by community members (Canney & Ganamé, 2015). In the Saving Sumatran Tigers initiative (Linkie et al., 2015), snare detection rates increased in the project area and tiger prey populations stabilized, but tigers and their prey continued to be poached in the wider Kerinci Seblat landscape. For the Nam Nern Night Safari project, preliminary result suggest that payments from wildlife sighting reduce threats from illegal hunting and trade, but other factors may have also contributed to the observed outcomes including under-reporting of hunting signs (Eshoo et al., 2018).

In a further three initiatives the evidence for effectiveness was mixed or unclear. For the Alam Sehat Lestari Reforestation Project in Gunung Palung National Park, for example, interviews with community members revealed that some thought that the project had greatly helped to reduce illegal logging, but interview responses to other questions suggested that community members were conflating the impact of the initiative with the impacts of external influences (Pohnan et al., 2015). In the Cactus Nurseries project in Mexico, interviewees reported that the introduction of nurseries had enhanced local residents support for cacti conservation, but this appeared to be contradicted by a large increase in the number of plants seized from illegal trafficking in 2012 (Pulido & Cuevas-Cardona, 2013). In other cases, the community engagement approaches were part of broader IWT strategies and there was no assessment of their effectiveness independently of the wider initiative.

Two initiatives were reported as not effective: a report on the CAMPFIRE program in Zimbabwe (Manyena, Collins, Mudimba, & Mudimba, 2013) provided anecdotal evidence that poaching had increased; and a review of the Aceh Forest and Environment Project (Linkie et al., 2014) found that despite arrests and prosecutions as a result of intelligence from community informants, illegal logging still persisted at the same level at the end of the project as it did at the beginning. Figure 3 summarizes the findings on effectiveness and Table S3 provides details on the effectiveness measures used and the assessment methodology.

Details are in the caption following the image
Reported effectiveness of community-engagement initiatives

We found no apparent link between the reported effectiveness of an initiative and the type or number of community engagement strategies employed (Table 2). The high number that have not reported on effectiveness make patterns even harder to discern as does the fact that there is a recognized bias against reporting on failures (Cressey, 2009)—within our data set we only have two initiatives which have documented a lack of effectiveness.

Table 2. Types of community engagement strategies employed and effectiveness reported
Case study name Involvement in law enforcement Incentives for wildlife stewardship Human–wildlife conflict mitigation Non-wildlife-based livelihoods Education and awareness-raising Reported effectiveness References
The Greater Kilimanjaro Landscape (Kenya and Tanzania) X X X Effective Fitzgerald and Muruthi (2015)
The Rhino Rangers Incentive Programme (Namibia) X X Effective Muntifering, Hambo, Uiseb, and du Preez (2015)
Ruvuma Elephant Project (Tanzania) X X Effective Lotter and Clark (2014)
Lupande Development Project (Zambia) X X Effective Lewis, Kaweche, and Mwenya (1990)
Chunoti Co-management Committee (Bangladesh) X X X Effective UNDP (2013a)
Tmatboey Community Protected Area Committee Ecotourism and Bird Nest Protection Program X Effective (relates only to the bird Nest protection Programme) Clements et al. (2013)
Buffer Zones (Nepal) X X X X Effective Martin, Martin, and Vigne (2014), Martin and Martin (2010)
Rhino Conservation in West Bengal (India) X X X Effective Martin and Vigne (2012)
Conservation International do Brasil—illegal logging of Mahogany X Effective Zimmerman et al. (2001)
Community-based management of the Arapaima (Guyana) X X X Effective Bicknell and Chin (2007), Fernandes (2006)
Northern Rangelands Trust (Kenya) X X Partially effective King and Craig (2015)
Mali Elephant Project X X Partially effective Canney and Ganamé (2015)
Safeguarding Sumatran Tigers (Indonesia) X Partially effective Linkie et al. (2015)
Nam Nern Night Safaris (Laos) X X Partially effective Saikim, Prideaux, Mohamed, and Hamzah (2016)
CAMPFIRE (Zimbabwe) X X Not effective Manyena et al. (2013)
Aceh Forest and Environment Project (Indonesia) X Not effective Linkie et al. (2014)
Khama Rhino Sanctuary Trust (Botswana) X X Unclear Sebele (2010)
Alam Sehat Lestari Reforestation Project (Indonesia) X Unclear Pohnan et al. (2015)
Cactus Nurseries and Conservation (Mexico) X Unclear Pulido and Cuevas-Cardona (2013)


The diversity in type and mix of community engagement strategies employed in the IWT initiatives reviewed here make it difficult to draw clear, quantifiable conclusions on what works and what does not. Nevertheless, they show that community-based approaches can be effective in tackling IWT. They may not be effective in every case—just as other types of approach are also likely to be variable in their success (Challender & MacMillan, 2014; Cooney, Roe, Dublin, Phelps, et al., 2017; Travers, 2016). Our review demonstrates that there are plenty of examples of community engagement initiatives resulting in a reduction in poaching and/or an improvement in wildlife numbers. Some common lessons emerge from the initiatives we reviewed which can help inform best practice in future design of such interventions.

In many cases success was based on developing initiatives that were locally driven and responsive to the local context (e.g., Muntifering et al., 2015, 2017; Steinmetz, Chutipong, & Seuaturien, 2006). Involving communities in actually defining solutions, not just engendering a culture of passive reliance on externally provided benefits, was reported to be key. The Mali Elephant Project has found that having local people identify solutions is more effective than imposing externally defined ones (Canney & Ganamé, 2015). Steinmetz et al. (2006) point out that in too many cases, local people are used to be thought of as being the source of problems rather than being invited to define or solve them. This is consistent with the finding of Brooks, Waylen, and Mulder (2012) who, in a review of community-based conservation projects (not IWT-specific) found that local involvement in project design was positively linked to attitudinal, behavioral, ecological, and economic outcomes.

Linked to this is the need for communities to feel ownership of the initiative and to have a voice in decision-making about it. UNDP (2012a) points out for example that community participation in Il Ngwesi's governance structure is fundamental to its long-term sustainability. Similarly, in Northern Rangelands Trust (Kenya) King and Craig (2015) suggest that the inclusive nature of conservancies is key to their influence and success. By contrast, the study of CAMPFIRE (Manyena et al., 2013) found that a key obstacle to success was that decision-making took place outside of the local area. Good governance is central to the success of CBNRM in general, not just in the context of IWT, as discussed in Cooney, Roe, Dublin, and Booker (2017) and elsewhere.

Another key lesson is the need to understand the root causes of poaching and develop proactive rather than reactive strategies to address it (Lotter & Clark, 2014). Poaching is not always driven by poverty (e.g., Duffy, St John, Büscher, & Brockington, 2016; Harrison et al., 2016; Knapp, Peace, & Bechtel, 2017), but where it is, then functioning, sustainable benefit flows need to be put in place and benefits need to be realized early on. Martin and Martin (2010) noted, for example, that in 2008 and 2009 the communities living in the buffer zones of Bardia and Chitwan national parks in Nepal received more benefits from tourism than they had in previous years and subsequently put more efforts into wildlife conservation resulting in a significant decline in the number of rhinos poached. They highlight the importance of communities living around Chitwan and Bardia National Parks in Nepal to continuing to receive significant benefits in order to sustain this outcome. Similarly, in the ASOCAIMAN Cooperative in Colombia the commitment of local people to crocodile conservation was driven by an expectation of benefits to come – once trade in skins was permitted (Delago & Sierra Diaz, 2015). Benefits need not be financial, however. In the Namibia Rhino Rangers program, Muntifering et al. (2015) highlight the conservation motivation that can be instilled by providing uniforms, training and certificates.

Many initiatives highlighted the importance of long-term relationships between project implementers (and funders) and local people based on shared objectives, trust and reciprocity (Fernandes, 2006). Cottar (2015) notes, for example, that at Olderkesi Wildlife Conservancy winning over all the members entailed hundreds of community meetings and dozens of field trips over many years. A local support agency that understands—or is even part of—the local political economy can be particularly helpful (Canney & Ganamé, 2015).

Multistakeholder partnerships were often central to successful initiatives, not just to get the necessary support for community engagement (e.g., through government endorsement) but also to generate the necessary mix of skills, science, technical and financial support, transparency, and accountability (e.g., Lichtenstein, 2015; Martin & Martin, 2010). The Black Mambas female game guards initiative in South Africa involves, for example, NGOs, government agencies, tourism entities, and law enforcement units. Reuter and Bisschop (2016) suggest that the inclusion of all these stakeholders has been vital to the success of the initiative. In the case of the Ruvuma Elephant Project, Lotter and Clark (2014) also identified the involvement of multiple agencies (Forest Department, Wildlife Division, district and village governments) as being central to the success of the initiative—each enhancing the transparency of the others.

A final lesson that emerges from the case studies reviewed is to identify and build on existing cultural norms. In the Mali Elephant Project, community leaders have issued edicts stating that the killing of elephants amounts to stealing from everyone. This is a powerful message in a culture where being labeled a thief is a disgrace (Canney & Ganamé, 2015). In the Arapaima fisheries project, the social pressure of having local players involved in, and supportive of, the conservation efforts is thought to have played a larger role in enforcing the fishing ban than the formal structures set up by the management plan (Fernandes, 2006). And in a project to combat illegal trade in mahogany it was found that providing medicine to the whole community was a more effective incentive than creating a few jobs because of the Kayapó social principle of egalitarianism (Vitos, Lewis, Stevens, & Haklay, 2013).


Community-based approaches to tackling illegal wildlife trade are not the silver bullet that is going to end the current poaching crisis. The sheer scale of the illegal wildlife trade, not to mention the involvement of highly organized, heavily armed, criminal gangs points to the need for effective law enforcement on the ground. However, top down (and particularly militarized) enforcement strategies, unless carefully managed, can produce a range of other (sometimes unanticipated) impacts that can collectively undermine local incentives to protect wildlife (Challender & MacMillan, 2014). Community-based interventions can complement formal law enforcement efforts if local people have a motivation (whether financial or non-financial) to protect wildlife (Cooney, Roe, Dublin, Phelps, et al., 2017). While there is no blueprint approach to engaging local communities there are a number of clear lessons that can help in the design and implementation of ongoing and new initiatives.

The lessons highlighted above resonate strongly with those drawn from decades of experience on community-based conservation—regardless of whether or not it has specific focus on IWT (Cooney, Roe, Dublin, & Booker, 2017). Key among these is the failure to move from policy commitments on community-based conservation to real implementation on the ground. Similarly in the case of engaging communities in tackling IWT. Policy commitments abound, but widespread implementation needs to follow. A quarter of the world's land is owned or managed by communities (Garnett et al., 2018). A community statement presented to the London Conference 2018 noted “We are the people who are the most affected by the illegal wildlife trade and can be the most powerful force to address this problem. But this will only happen if communities are empowered and can benefit from wildlife.” (IIED et al., 2018, p. 6). Signatories to the London Declaration on Illegal Wildlife Trade (UK Govt, 2018) affirmed their determination to meet the commitments already made in previous conferences and acknowledged that that wildlife management must be sustainable, and that communities must benefit directly from wildlife. Hübschle and Shearing (2018) note, however, that at least in the case of South Africa, rights that had been devolved to communities have actually be retracted in the pursuit of antipoaching strategies.

Our review shows that there are examples of successful approaches to engaging communities in tackling illegal wildlife trade. These need to be scaled up and scaled out, learning from experience and adapting approaches to fit specific contexts and meet specific challenges. But the core principles remain the same—communities need to be central not peripheral to conservation efforts. But, finally, efforts to engage communities need to be coupled with concerted efforts to rigorously monitor and document outcomes so that the effectiveness of these—and, equally this applies to other schemes—can be more accurately assessed and used to inform future project, program, and policy design.


Funding for the Conservation, Crime and Communities database was provided by UKAid from the UK Government through an Accountable Grant to the International Institute for Environment and Development.


    D.R. designed and secured funding for the project to collate evidence on community-based approaches to illegal wildlife trade. D.R. and F.B. identified case studies and populated the database. F.B. led the analysis of effectiveness. D.R. led the write up of results. Both contributed to and agreed the final version of the paper.


    Data used in this review is available in the database at https://communitiesforwildlife.iied.org/. Over time this data may be transferred to an expanded database held at https://www.peoplenotpoaching.org/. Additional data extracted from the literature is available on request from IIED (please contact [email protected]).


    The authors declare no conflict of interest.