Role of local communities fighting illegal wildlife trafficking

Local communities living alongside wildlife conservancies have significant and sustainable roles to play in protecting wildlife. They should not be abused as proxies in poaching syndicates, including sanctioning illegal poaching activities. Countries with game reserves and national parks, and blessed with varieties of wildlife species need to re-orient their communities and give them a chance to be partners in wildlife and biodiversity conservation. This requires the crafting and promotion of sustainable community-based approaches designed to counter illegal wildlife trafficking. These communities have been living adjacent to wildlife sanctuaries for quite some time and are better placed to protect the animals. This is because they have comprehensive knowledge of the animals’ movement patterns, feeding patterns and their behaviours.

Besides combatting wildlife trafficking, some wild animals are threatened with extinction hence they need to be preserved. These are the rhinoceros and pangolins. Their preservation would save as the country’s framework of preserving its heritage. Some of these animals have their images on the country’s currency, while some birds are used as the country’s national emblems. Lion, Elephant, Rhinoceros, Giraffe, Pangolin, Leopard, Buffalo and Zebra are examples of animals whose images are used by Zimbabwe to showcase its wildlife diversity and tourist attractions. In this regard, if poaching is not eradicated then the country will have images of these great animals only on paper. These animals are part of a broad network of sustainable value chains, addition and beneficiation. They contribute to the country’s wealth creation, recreation and culture. Some are revered as totems, while some add beauty to the serene environments like forests and at the same time they contribute to the ecological balance of nature, hence they need to be preserved.

In order to minimise poaching, government, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other implementing partners need to provide education, training and awareness as well as incentives to local people so that they give maximum cooperation and commitment in protecting flora and fauna. This empowerment will range from modern wildlife protection and conservation methods integrated with the locals’ power of indigenous knowledge systems (IKS) in dealing with wildlife. In this regard, communities need to have direct and indirect benefits from wildlife proceedings as local stewards, voices, eyes and ears of the government. The communities’ advantage of having adequate and sufficient knowledge of wildlife protection, basing on their indigenous knowledge systems, should never be undermined. In this conservation discourse, communities should be the first point of call in defence against poaching and besides their IKS wealth, communities have unlimited experiential knowledge banks and reserves in managing wildlife. These also form some comprehensive networks in communities’ attempts to communicate forest values, ideologies and standpoints, thereby improving the people’s world views.

Sometimes the communities’ views may clash with the governments’ priorities, regulations and conservation approaches, that is why interactive participatory networks and communication tools can be harnessed to level matters. At the end of the day, it’s the government which calls the shorts, while conservation regulations should be followed and it would be significant for the government to be consultative, reach out to the communities concerned, collaborate and integrate. This also does not mean that relevant communities should invest arresting powers in their own hands, but they need to continue performing roles of vigilance, monitoring and evaluation.
Besides traditional means of wildlife conservation and protection, relevant authorities should move a gear up and empower informed members of communities concerned with computer literacy skills.

These are important in improving their mode of interaction by using the internet, WhatsApp and Facebook in order to relay information faster. They can also come up with online groups for information sharing, tracking and monitoring the presence of poachers. All these networking strategies are aimed at reinforcing the community voices and transform them in this ongoing debate about illegal wildlife trafficking. On the ground, trained community-based ant-poaching units can carry out strategic and regular controls as well as collaborating with the game rangers through information sharing and value chains.

As long as there will be international markets for trafficked wildlife species and products, poaching activities will increase. Currently, these international syndicates have gone online to market their illegal wildlife trafficking activities and lure poachers with money for wildlife products such as skins, hides, tusks, teeth, hooves, tail-skins, feathers from wild birds, shells of ostrich eggs and many more. One major undoing about the whole process is that these vital local communities are rarely invited to international conferences on wildlife trafficking in order to communicate their concerns, experiences and views.

Communities also need to realise some of the benefits for protecting wildlife. The benefits can include employing some communities members as game rangers, building schools, clinics and safaris camps,where villagers work as tour guides in those remote areas. Wildlife protection NGOs would then promote the discourse of wildlife protection and conservation. If communities’ members are not empowered and without relevant skills, they will become hardened poachers themselves, who can even collaborate with international gangsters and poachers. In order to strengthen communities’ voices and participatory methodologies, the government should have comprehensive knowledge and understanding of community needs, wants and necessities. What these communities normally need is not meat, as people would want to believe. They need poverty eradication, empowerment with lifelong skills and occupations so that they do not see poaching as the only option for survival. Above all, empowering them will contribute to biodiversity conservation, environmental sustainability and resilience.

These communities are required to meet regularly, interacting, networking and reporting on their progress, including challenges and recommendations. They also need to hold community wildlife fairs, where the government rewards them with awards, for the good work they do in minimising illegal wildlife trafficking.

Relocation of these communities may not be the answer because they would always find their way back into the forests because they can be taken away from the forests, but no one can remove the forests from their minds.

 Peter Makwanya is a climate change communicator. He writes in his personal capacity and can be contacted on: petrovmoyt@gmail.com

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