Helped by ungoverned forest, poaching, trafficking and other wildlife crimes have intensified the conflict between wildlife and people as they compete for land and resources.

Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organisation, developed a guide modelled on problem-oriented policing (POP) used by police agencies worldwide that has shown to reduce crime by an average of 34 per cent.

PREMIUM TIMES’ Yusuf Akinpelu spoke with Panthera’ssouth and southeast Asia regional counter-wildlife crime coordinator, Rob Pickles, who talked about how Nigeria can harness its wildlife wealth, improve herding, tackle illicit trafficking by militia groups and prevent another pandemic.

PT: Prided for its enormous wildlife wealth, Africa is home to some 90 species of mammals and 2,000 species of freshwater fish. Why does it matter to preserve these animals?

Pickles: Earth’s biodiversity is one of the life support systems of humanity. The faster we eat or destroy wild creatures and wild places, the faster we sow the seeds of our own demise. Careful stewardship of the treasure trove of wildlife is about more than the ethics of wiping out non-human species but recognising the unwritten value these species play in our economies and daily survival.

PT: Nigeria is home to one of the largest groups of herders around. So, poaching, in retaliation for loss of herds can be expected. Could you explain what methods you have developed to address this?

Pickles: Of course, nobody wants to live with the threat of a predator causing loss of income over their herds. There have been excellent methods developed to reduce the likelihood of a predator attack happening, whether creating predator-proof fencing, guard dogs, or changing husbandry practices to make depredation less likely.

Problem-oriented wildlife protection here would involve first researching the nature of the predation problem, then selecting a response that works best for that context.

PT: Zoos have proven to be another wildlife conservation method, but their management has not been top notch in some places likely because patronage is low. What can change this?

Pickles: Zoos can play a role in educating people about wildlife conservation and raising necessary funds to support direct conservation work on the ground. Certain zoos are involved in successful efforts to breed critically endangered species to release them back into the wild.

Unfortunately, these cases are far too rare. Many zoos are primarily run for profit and the entertainment of patrons and conservation is not a priority, nor is the welfare of the animals held. In the worst-case scenario, zoos and private collections have acted as mechanisms to launder wild animals into the trafficking chain.

Change is needed and starts with zoo patrons asking how much of their entry fee is going to protect the animals in the wild while boycotting institutions with imperfect records. At the national level, policies to tighten regulatory oversight of zoo operations is vital.

Panthera supports the efforts of the American Zoo Association’s Species Survival Plan, the European Zoo Association’s European Endangered Species Programme and other breeding programmes managed by members of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums to advance the conservation of wild cats through public awareness and education, research, demographic and genetic back-up for wild populations, and in some cases, reintroduction of captive-bred animals into the wild.

PT: Away from the animals, lives of rangers are also at risk. In Africa, for instance, nearly 600 rangers charged with protecting wildlife were gunned down by poachers between 2009 and 2016. What policing strategy can be used to tackle this?

Pickles: Rangers play a vital role in protecting Africa’s wildlife, and sadly too often pay the price for this. Problem-Oriented Policing (POP) as a policing strategy arose to move away from focusing on arrests to reduce crime and instead focus on preventing the problems occurring in the first place.

Research shows that problem-oriented policing reduces crime by an average of 34 per cent, whereas there is no evidence that standard policing reduces crime.

In the guide, we’ve translated POP for wildlife officers and practitioners to encourage new ways to think about reducing wildlife crime problems, with much greater emphasis on prevention than a reaction to poaching incidents. It also emphasises the importance of evaluation to make sure we learn from what works rather than getting stuck repeating the same mistakes.

PT: How do we strike a balance between earning legal foreign exchange revenue from wildlife trading and illegal trading of them?

Pickles: Illegal wildlife economies damage national natural heritage and impoverish the nation. Under certain circumstances, legal trade can work for some species, provided regulatory oversight is strong, and the status of the traded species is regularly reassessed. If not, it can be a recipe for disaster.

Rob Pickles

PT: Poached animals are often tipped to be vectors of diseases such as Ebola and SARS, and as we are suspecting, COVID-19. Are there ways to disincentivise eating these animals because ban alone has not helped?

Pickles: Indeed, bans are not always the best solution. If support for the ban among the general public is weak, then enforcing the law becomes an enormous challenge, which can eat up the time of law enforcement officers, weaken morale and invite bribe-taking.

Bans can be useful instruments governments can apply to deal with a particular group of offenders, but only at the right time and when the government can commit enough additional resources to enforce the ban and offer people who suddenly lost their livelihoods a transition to an alternative-packing prisons or imposing fines that may drive further criminal acts to pay off should be avoided at all costs.

ALSO READ: Federal Government partners Germany, UNODC to stop wildlife crime

The risk of another zoonotic disease emerging is a very real threat, and we all want to avoid a repeat of the COVID-19 pandemic. Reducing our consumption of wild animals will help us avoid another outbreak, but we have to be pragmatic about how we tackle the issue.

Different groups of people eat wild meat for various reasons. The approach to reducing the desire for wild meat in communities where this is necessary will need to look very different from reducing the desire among urban elites that consume wild meat as a luxury.

PT: Poaching has been linked to armed militia groups in Africa suspected of trafficking, and it often occurs alongside other crimes including terrorism, banditry, corruption and money laundering. Does your scheme address this?

Pickles: Indeed, organised crime groups and insurgents engage in illicit economies to drive profit and resource operations, regardless of the product type. That especially includes high-value wildlife products that can easily be harvested, concealed and transported.

Investigating and prosecuting actors involved is essential, but we’ve learned from attempts to weaken the drug trade by taking out kingpins that long and expensive investigations can easily fail and decapitating the head of an organisation usually results in a power struggle and swift replacement.

Problem-Oriented wildlife protection helps wildlife authorities identify ways to close down criminal opportunity structures to prevent the trade from re-emerging.

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