When Laws Meant to Save Endangered Animals Hurt Them

A scientist finds that efforts to preserve imperiled wildlife can backfire unless conservationists take local cultures into account.

Bali starlings. (Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images)

May 18, 2015· 1 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

The law was supposed to protect the Bali starling from extinction. It almost had the opposite effect.

As detailed in a paper published Monday in the journal Oryx, Indonesian laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s were designed to stop people from collecting the bright, beautiful, and rare Bali starlings from the wild. Instead, the birds became popular gifts among Indonesia’s elite. More and more birds were stolen from their remaining habitats until they were declared extinct in the wild in 2006.

Although the birds have since been bred in captivity, and some have been released back into the wild, author Paul Jepson of the University of Oxford says the dark days of the past have a lesson for today: Laws and conservation efforts that focus merely on preventing wildlife trafficking may not serve the purpose of saving species from extinction.

Instead, Jepson’s paper suggests that tapping into local cultural values may take precedence over enforcement. In the Bali starling’s case, laws were later relaxed to allow what Jepson refers to as “crowd-breeding”—a network of backyard enthusiasts who bred the birds at home and boosted their population in captivity. When these captive-raised birds were later released into the wild, the act was celebrated with a religious ceremony. This earned the Bali starling a position as a sacred bird—which, he argues, gave it more protection than law enforcement did.

Jepson said the case study of the Bali starling “has comparative interest for any species that have iconic attributes.” China’s giant panda, which has become a species worthy of national pride, is another example of the phenomenon.

The paper illustrates how a focus on enforcing the law can put too much pressure on the wrong people. In the case of the Bali starling, the enforcement role was put on the shoulders of the forestry department, who told Jepson, “We’re foresters,” not cops.

Rangers had little power outside the forests and not all that much inside them, where their authority paled compared with that of high-ranking officials who often owned the forests or just came in and took the birds when forestry personnel were not present.

Another thing that hurt Bali starling conservation, according to Jepson, was that the international organizations participating in efforts to save the species had contrasting or limiting perspectives and plans. One was focused on preserving the species’ genetics, while others were focused on limiting human impact on the birds’ habitats. None, Jepson argued, focused on the people who could help save the starlings.

Jepson said this is still all too often the case. “There are many different types of conservation organizations,” he said. “However, as the history of the ivory trade shows, the pragmatic ‘wise-use’ perspectives of on-the-ground conservationists have increasingly given way to the arguments and worldviews of conservation professionals working in NGO headquarters in Western cities.”

Many conservation groups do put a lot of effort into on-the-ground work. TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, recently held a symposium called "Beyond Enforcement" that looked at the role local communities play in protecting rare species. Richard Thomas, global communications coordinator for TRAFFIC, called legislation and enforcement “only part of a suite of measures that can help protect threatened species.”