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Trends in conservation funding track popular narratives about the illegal wildlife trade

Conservation efforts have become increasingly militarized in the last 20 years, in part because of political narratives that link the illegal wildlife trade to terrorism and national security. Image credit: Francis Massé

Conservation efforts have become increasingly militarized in the last 20 years, in part because of political narratives that link the illegal wildlife trade to terrorism and national security. Image credit: Francis Massé

Trends in conservation funding are changing, according to a recent study in World Development. “We see a shift toward funding conservation work that’s increasingly about combatting wildlife trafficking,” says coauthor Jared Margulies, a human-environment geographer at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

The trend, based on data the authors tracked between 2002 and 2018, is shaped, in part, by changing narratives about conservation at the highest tiers of government. Politicians have increasingly framed the wildlife trade as a threat to national security in response to claims, typically from international nonprofits, that link wildlife trafficking to international crime. According to the study, politicized language in government documents and speeches then influenced funding priorities for conservation projects on the ground, shunting more money to law enforcement to fight the illegal wildlife trade. Although this research predates the onset of COVID-19, it shows how narratives—such as those suggesting international health threats from wet markets peddling produce, meat, or live wild animals—can dramatically shape conservation funding, Margulies adds.

Coauthor Francis Massé, who studies rhino and elephant poaching in Mozambique and South Africa, noticed that conservation funding and priorities there were increasingly focused on militarized law enforcement to address poaching, and that this funding comes at the expense of other conservation priorities, such as habitat protection and monitoring. “My question was really, is this specific to my own research and this site, or is it a broader trend?” says Massé, a human geographer at Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne in the United Kingdom.

To find out, he and Margulies analysed 16 years of funding data from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) Division of International Affairs, the lead U.S. government wildlife conservation agency. The data accounted for more than $301 million allocated to 4,142 projects from 106 countries between 2002 and 2018. The researchers categorized each project based on the kind of conservation activity it supported, whether non-law-enforcement habitat conservation, scientific research, education, capacity building, or combatting wildlife trafficking, among other categories. By tracking the money over time, they identified a shift in conservation funding, with an increasing amount of money allocated to projects to fight wildlife trade, often by funding law enforcement.

To understand why they saw the trend, the researchers interviewed key stakeholders and pored over executive orders, Senate committee meeting transcripts, and other government documents, scrutinizing timelines, dates, and the language used to describe conservation. The researchers hypothesized that funding at USFWS was responding to a change in the narratives around conservation, particularly the framing of illegal wildlife trafficking as a geopolitical problem at high levels of government. Interviews with stakeholders and government documents revealed more and more language referring to illegal wildlife trafficking as a matter of national security—for instance in foreign policy speeches by Hillary Clinton and John Kerry that linked the issue to funding for terrorist groups. Despite those links being largely debunked later on—false claims by certain conservation groups—the national security narrative elevated the wildlife trade to a higher funding priority in the U.S., Margulies says. “If you want to understand why transformations of the environment are happening in particular ways, you should follow the money,” he says.

Long before COVID-19, the illegal wildlife trade was a hot topic in foreign policy, especially in geopolitical circles concerned with national security and organized crime. Donors such as the World Bank, USAID, and other large international funding organizations have given more than $1.3 billion in foreign aid since 2010 to combat the illegal wildlife trade, amid mounting concerns that it threatens global security.

Peter Stoett, Dean of Social Science and Humanities at Ontario Tech University, near Toronto, Canada, sees the results of the recent paper as further evidence that “prevalent narratives can drive policy,” he says. He hopes that the COVID-19 pandemic will broaden conservation’s current, narrow funding focus on illegal wildlife trade to other variables, including habitat destruction, invasive introduced species, and climate change.

The most vocal conservation call coming from the pandemic has been for a global ban on markets selling wild exotic animal meats. But such a ban, Margulies says, could actually drive many current activities into hidden black markets, where they would be even harder to regulate and track. Tight regulation of wild meat markets is essential if we are to conserve biodiversity and avoid unsanitary conditions,” Stoett says. “But that alone will not suffice if land use changes such as deforestation and overfishing continue unabated in certain areas.”

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