This post is from Robert Steinmetz, author of the recent article “Can community outreach alleviate poaching pressure and recover wildlife in South-East Asian protected areas?”. In this post, Robert gives his views and experiences on conservation practice and engaging with local people.

Indigenous people inside a Thai wildlife sanctuary discuss results of wildlife population monitoring that was conducted with collaboration of ecologists and sanctuary officials. Photo: Robert Steinmetz
Indigenous people inside a Thai wildlife sanctuary discuss results of wildlife population monitoring that was conducted with collaboration of ecologists and sanctuary officials. Photo: Robert Steinmetz

Most ecologists are passionate about the environment and want to protect it. After all, the natural world is our place of business so we care deeply about what goes on there. But what can ecologists actually do to conserve biodiversity? Of course, our ecological research often has important ramifications for conservation, and the ecological monitoring we design and conduct is a vital service to society for assessing the health of ecosystems, populations, and species. But conservation is essentially about human behaviour—a realm that most ecologists have little formal knowledge of. As St. John et al. (2014) point out recently in Journal of Applied Ecology, ecologists often lack skills in social science research methods needed to understand the motivations behind human decisions and actions. This is a major gap in conservation practice and applied ecology: without understanding people’s behaviour, how can we improve conservation outcomes and effectively apply the findings from our ecological research and monitoring?

A community patrolling and monitoring team, comprised of local village volunteers and park guards, documents signs of endangered gaur (Bos gaurus) and deer in a Thai wildlife sanctuary. Photo: Robert Steinmetz
A community patrolling and monitoring team, comprised of local village volunteers and park guards, documents signs of endangered gaur (Bos gaurus) and deer in a Thai wildlife sanctuary. Photo: Robert Steinmetz

A more fundamental obstacle holding ecologists back from engaging more with people is perhaps a lack of appreciation of the need for doing so in the first place. Biodiversity conservation is a complex process that integrates social, cultural, economic, psychological, and ethical considerations, in addition to ecological ones. But ecologists and conservationists naturally tend to focus on ecological research—our comfort zone—while leaning on law enforcement as the main way to reduce threats to wildlife and habitats. Law enforcement by state authorities is another sort of comfort zone for ecologists. Law enforcement appears as an obvious, logical, and direct solution to conservation problems and is routinely recommended (along with ‘political will’) by ecologists, governments, and non-government organizations working in conservation. But this habitual faith in law enforcement as the essential ingredient in conservation deserves some scrutiny.

It is true that conservation usually entails the creation of rules, and rules are meaningless without enforcement. This seems straightforward. But, without justice, enforcement is insincere, hollow, and even counterproductive. Working in Southeast Asia for the past few decades, I have observed that those entrusted to enforce the law are often major law breakers. This is not easy to say: politicians and police have been found to be involved in illegal land encroachment and wildlife trade, for example, over half of the known wildlife poaching incidents in Kuiburi National Park, Thailand, between 2008–2010 involved influential associates of provincial congressman, policemen, and government officials (Steinmetz et al. 2011 unpublished report). It is extremely uncomfortable and unpopular to raise this issue publically, let alone address it in practice; doing so upsets powerful people. It is more convenient socially and politically to focus blame on local people—those with little power. Traditional conservation approaches that call for ever-increasing levels of law enforcement ignore this reality.

Law enforcement is often applied unfairly in conservation. In 2013 a wildlife poaching gang consisting of three local farmers and one policeman were captured red-handed by park rangers in a park in Thailand. The farmers were prosecuted. The policeman was released. Judging from the accounts of park rangers and local people I have talked to in many countries in this region, such selective enforcement of environmental laws is common. Bluntly put, wildlife poaching and land encroachment in protected areas commonly involve strata of society that are ignored because of their wealth, status, or links to state power. Local people resent this discrimination. A villager in a park buffer zone once expressed to me: “We support your efforts to save tigers and other wildlife, and but we resent the fact that those with money and power go unpunished while regular farmers are persecuted for offenses in the park.” Local people are potential conservation partners, but the selective and unfair enforcement of the law pushes them away, undermining conservation efforts by alienating those living closest to the biodiversity we want to save.

Sambar deer—recovering in forests taken care of by local people, and benefitting from collaborations between ecologists and locals. Photo: Robert Steinmetz
Sambar deer—recovering in forests taken care of by local people, and benefitting from collaborations between ecologists and locals. Photo: Robert Steinmetz

Earlier I said that local people lacked power, but this is only partly true. Local people are often perceived as powerless, by others and indeed by themselves, but in fact local people have innate capacities for enacting great conservation achievements when empowered. Indigenous Karen people living inside a Thai wildlife sanctuary organized to obstruct urban-based poachers from operating, and helped monitor locally-designated wildlife recovery zones. Hmong people in mountainous northern Thailand replanted watershed forests, thereby restoring ecosystem health that had been degraded by their own (now more sustainable) land use practices. Farmers in the buffer zone of a Thai national park shifted attitudes and social norms regarding wildlife poaching, resulting in reduced levels of poaching and increased wildlife.

Giving credit where it is due. Ecologists working in Kuiburi National Park, Thailand, discovered that sambar deer were abundant in the homelands of indigenous people living inside the park. Sambar were rare elsewhere in the park. The local people had instituted rules against hunting sambar, enforced through social norms. Here the park is officially recognizing this conservation achievement. Photo: Robert Steinmetz
Giving credit where it is due. Ecologists working in Kuiburi National Park, Thailand, discovered that sambar deer were abundant in the homelands of indigenous people living inside the park. Sambar were rare elsewhere in the park. The local people had instituted rules against hunting sambar, enforced through social norms. Here the park is officially recognizing this conservation achievement. Photo: Robert Steinmetz

What do these examples of organic local conservation have in common? In all cases ecologists worked closely with the local people, involving them in research, discussing research results with them, supporting local initiatives, helping secure funds, equipment and connections, and most importantly—building their confidence to act. Local people are usually unhappy about the degradation of resources they depend on, but often perceive themselves as powerless to affect change. An overemphasis on law enforcement by outside authorities can unwittingly maintain this enervating sense of powerlessness.

Supporting local people to better understand local ecology and how to manage it is the pathway to creating ‘perceived behavioural control’, a primary determinant of human behaviour. Theories about what guides human behaviour are the purview of the science of psychology and have much to offer applied ecologists. The Theory of Planned Behaviour was elaborated recently by St. John et al. (2014) and was used to guide conservation interventions to improve park–people collaboration that reduced wildlife poaching in Thailand (Steinmetz et al. 2014). The Theory of Planned Behaviour identifies two other determinants of behaviour besides perceived behavioural control: attitudes and social norms. These can also be influenced through interactions with ecologists. By working more closely with local people, applied ecologists can enhance the capacity of local people to be stewards of the environment. But first we may need to adjust our own attitudes and social norms.

References

Steinmetz, R., Seuaturien, N., Chutipong, W., Poonnil, B., (2011) Experimental approaches towards tiger recovery in Kuiburi National Park Thailand. WWF Thailand and Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation. Bangkok, Thailand. Report available from the author: robtyn@hotmail.com

Steinmetz, R., Srirattanaporn, S., Mor-Tip, J., Seuaturien, N. (2014), Can community outreach alleviate poaching pressure and recover wildlife in South-East Asian protected areas? Journal of Applied Ecology. doi: 10.1111/1365-2664.12239

St. John, F. A. V., Keane, A. M., Jones, J. P. G., Milner-Gulland, E. J. (2014), Robust study design is as important on the social as it is on the ecological side of applied ecological research. Journal of Applied Ecology. doi: 10.1111/1365-2664.12352

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