What’s the Best Way to Protect Wildlife: Armed Barricades or Open Gates?

While properly funded and trained law enforcement officers are needed to safeguard wildlife parks, community management is also essential.

wildlife conservation

(Photo: Daniel Munoz/Reuters)

Richard Conniff is the author of The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth and other books.

With the last of the wild elephants, rhinos, and tigers in immediate danger of being wiped off the face of the planet, it’s tempting to think that parks and other protected areas should adopt a shoot-to-kill policy toward poachers. This is, however, a dangerous idea—on par with, say, using drone warfare to win peace in Pakistan.

What I’ve instead seen in my travels suggests that you obtain better results, and they last longer, when you make neighboring communities partners in parks and other protected areas, so they have a sense of ownership. If local communities know that they will profit year after year from the wildlife and natural habitat around them, social pressure tends to shut down the criminals who kill for a quick buck.

Just last month, for instance, the journal Ecosphere published a study about the area around Chitwan National Park in Nepal’s Himalayan foothills. Beginning in 1996, the park created a 75,000-hectare buffer zone beyond its borders, with a bottom-up, non-exclusionary management plan devised by neighboring communities. Locals can no longer graze livestock in the buffer zone, but they get to decide how to divvy up firewood, fodder, and other resources there.  

The new study used camera traps and satellite imagery to analyze the effects, and it turned out that the buffer zone is now doing better than the park itself. Its forest has suffered less damage, and it’s also home to more tigers. The explanation is that top-down exclusionary management policies within the formal park borders have turned the park into government land and thus fair game. So the growing human population continues to venture there for whatever resources it can carry out. But local ownership makes the buffer zone “ours.” People call in wildlife authorities if they spot intruders, and they complain loudly if they sense unfair or imprudent management practices. Overall, the tiger population in the Chitwan District has increased from 91 in 2009 to 125 today, even as traditionally managed parks in neighboring India continue to lose tigers to poaching.

That’s the logic of community management that I find so appealing, particularly as an alternative to the developing militarization of parks, such as South Africa’s Madikwe Game Reserve. Reuters reported last week that infantry-style tactics were helping park rangers there turn back the tide of poachers.

Madikwe was once just the kind of community-focused protected area I had in mind. When I first visited in the 1990s, it was a bold experiment beginning to get off the ground. The organizers were taking 290 square miles of derelict ranch land—an area roughly as big as Salt Lake City—and turning it back into a wildlife habitat for the specific purpose of bringing tourist revenue into South Africa's North West Province. Since then, 30 lodges—two of them owned by local communities—have sprung up in and around the park to meet the tourist demand. Neighboring communities provide staff at all the lodges, and they share in the revenues.

Even so, Madikwe lost 18 rhinos to poachers last year and another nine in the first three months of this year. Maybe that shouldn’t be too surprising, since South Africa is the epicenter of the war on rhinos. I was, however, surprised. Apart from the benefits of community involvement, Madikwe is also protected by a 10-foot-high, 110-mile-long fence that’s built with steel-reinforcing cable and a 7,000-volt electric wire. Yet the only thing that seems to have deterred the poachers is providing the rangers there with proper weapons and training.

A former British special forces soldier, brought in by a South African foundation, put the rangers through a kind of boot camp. The reserve’s rangers, many of whom had no boots, got them, as well as other essential law enforcement equipment. “People are still saying this isn’t a low-level war,” said Declan Hofmeyr, the operations manager at Madikwe. “It’s not—it’s a full-out war. “

I get his point: This year’s death toll for rhinos in South Africa is on track to exceed 900 animals, up from 668 last year—and up from almost nothing just six years ago. The current madness is entirely a product of Asian economic prosperity and of the eagerness of rich suckers in China and Vietnam who are willing to fork over huge sums of money for bogus folk medicine. Hofmeyr also has the numbers to back up his argument: Not a single rhino has been killed at Madikwe since the properly trained and equipped rangers went to work on April 2. The good news is that there haven’t been any poachers killed either.

So what’s the bottom line?

Deterrence counts. But that doesn’t mean shoot-to kill militarization. It means routine law enforcement, properly funded and trained, from field patrols to courthouse to prison. Community management of wildlife—or comanagement with park authorities—is also essential. It has worked not just in Nepal but also in South Africa’s neighboring country, Namibia, where community conservancies control 40 percent of the land area—and where poaching of rhinos is almost nonexistent.  

You need to be serious, though, about both the deterrence and the community involvement. If Madikwe wasn’t even bothering to supply boots, much less weapons, to its ranger staff, that suggests something deeply wrong with the way it was sharing resources. Park rangers everywhere need to carry something better than a big stick, to paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt. But parks also need to speak softly, spread the wealth around, and win friends. 

The people living outside the gate should not be the enemy.

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