Linking social theory to science for a more just conservation: the case of the ivory trade

Hello all!

As some of you may or may not know, my interests in the sciences (and outside of them) are a bit all over the place. I’m doing my thesis in hummingbird plumage evolution, however I’ve been exploring political ecology both in my undergrad career and in my graduate career secondary to my work in evolution and behavioral ecology.

I think it’s necessary for those in the sciences to understand the social frameworks within which they work and make recommendations. Historically, conservation has functioned in a colonialist framework that ideologically separates “human” and “natural” processes, often in coercive measures in what’s known as “fortress conservation.” These practices have been negative and problematic, particularly when carried out by developed nations forcibly in colonies, as people have been forcibly removed from parks and antagonism between conservation and disenfranchised locals have grown. Although the era of colonialism has passed, many of these practices and social effects of these practices have remained in a neocolonialist conservationism.

One of the most evident and interesting cases of this is militaristic conservation in Subsaharan Africa to combat wildlife exchange and particularly the ivory trade. There, “shoot-to-kill”/”shoot-on-sight” policies have been passed and internationally endorsed, legalizing and condoning the killing of suspected poachers on park grounds in an escalating “war for biodiversity.” This has been justified internationally because of the connection between the ivory trade and terror networks, who gain funds as middlemen, trading ivory from poachers to developing and developed nations – particularly China, Japan, and the U.S.

Is this just, though? and is this the right tactic we should be taking considering African elephant numbers due to poaching have continued to plummet in recent years despite increased resources in poaching prevention?

I think our approach is flawed. First, I think that the concentration by NGOs and by international groups on poaching rather than on decreasing demand abroad fails to focus attention on the indirect roots of the ivory trade. Furthermore, it fails to acknowledge the myriad reasons people may be driven to poach, effectively making us dehumanize African poachers and perpetuate a neocolonial outlook on conservation.

Studies of poaching incentives show that those participating in bush meat poaching are doing so because of a demand for bush meat in local areas, lack of stable governance, a lack of benefits of wildlife, lack of understanding rights over wildlife, and a lack of other viable livelihoods. The latter three are also viewed as incentives for ivory poaching, as well as a dissatisfaction or conflict with conservation policies and a global demand for ivory. Creating an all-inclusive definition for illegal hunting places both those reliant on bush meat (often poor marginalized groups) and those that take part in the ivory trade (yet again often poor marginalized groups, which may fund groups such as the Lord’s Resistance Army, in the same discursive category. Simultaneously, concentration on the American, European, Chinese, and Japanese consumer is ignored. Thus, the concentration on combatting the poor “African Other” by killing them rather than on the implication of the global North in consumption continues to support a colonialist conservation view and also purport a Malthusian perspective that targets the poor direct exploiters rather than the indirect market drivers. As a result, this black-and-white moral dichotomy between the evil African poacher and the morally upright park and international wildlife protection goals allows for human abuse of the locals while abdicating the roles of the North, similar to the previous colonialist conservation structure.

Social theories also illuminate ways we can rethink the role of elephants and thus our conservation strategies surrounding elephants. Rather than viewing them as resources, we can few them as individuals that affect change both in their ecosystem and amongst those that “speak for them” (mainly international NGOs and donors from affluent countries).

Conservation of elephants does matter, both to elephants and to people. Elephants are keystone species, meaning that they disproportionately affect their ecosystem. By trampling down large trees, elephants break up dense woodland and increase habitat heterogeneity. This allows increased seed dispersal and increased biodiversity, as well as increasing pastureland and ecosystem services. In fact, past over-poaching of elephants during the ivory trade of the 1800s led to decreased pastureland and ecosystem-level change in East Africa. So, decreasing poaching does benefit locals when they have access to parks. It also benefits elephants (obviously in that they aren’t killed but also) by decreasing the killing of matriarchs, those that are selectively poached, and thereby securing herd stability and recovery.

Elephants, though, are also viewed as flagship species by NGOs and thus increase funding and attention to conservation. They make great flagships given their charismatic features (everyone loves elephants, right?) and their similarity to humans (we’ve all seen those elephants paint videos) in both intelligence and social traits. The issue is, though, by humanizing the elephant we’re recreating a historically unjust system in a modern context: the poacher is dehumanized and the elephant humanized, making this war for biodiversity more digestible. Furthermore, this tension in who we prioritize can lead to local people feeling antagonized by conservation, particularly given their lack of power in decision-making. This can perpetuate the extreme human-elephant conflict we’re seeing.

So what should we do about conservation?

Obviously poaching is terrible. But our current strategy has only led to an arms-race between poachers and rangers. We have to concentrate our efforts on decreasing demand, which should also translate to decreased incentive to poach given the decrease in price. We should also acknowledge the incentives to poach and change our discourse surrounding poaching. Then we can develop strategy that targets different incentives. We should also create participatory management practices, which has had some success in South Africa and Namibia. We can then decrease tension and benefit both humans and elephants.


Sources here if you want to read more:

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CITES press release,

“Al-Shabaab Kenya attack: death toll rises to 147-live updates,” The Guardian, 2 April 2015,

Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton, “We all have a role to play in ending the ivory trade,” Financial Times, 23 February 2014,

Monica Medina, “The White Gold of Jihad,” The New York Times, 30 September 2013,



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