Wildlife crime: Understanding the human and social dimensions of a complex problem

This week in North Philly Notes, William Moreto, editor of Wildlife Crime, writes about how criminology as a field has much to offer in the understanding and prevention of wildlife crime.

In recent years, wildlife crime has generated considerable public attention. This can be partly attributed to growing concerns over environmental issues, including climate change, as well as increased attention on wildlife trafficking and its impact on the status of endangered iconic megafauna, like elephants and rhinoceros. The hard sciences, including biology, has tended to take the lead in the assessment and investigation of crimes that harm the environment, including the poaching and trading of wildlife products. This is not surprising given that the unsustainable overharvesting of wildlife can result in long lasting ecological and environmental impacts, as well as potentially devastating public health concerns resulting in the consumption of unregulated and unsanitary wildlife products.

Although wildlife crime has historically tended to fall within the purview of the hard sciences, the role of the social sciences, including geography, psychology, and economics, have increasingly been recognized in both academic and non-academic circles. Indeed, while wildlife crime is very much an environmental issue, it is also inherently a human and social problem as well. Recently Bennett and colleagues (2017) helped reinforce this reality when they published an article in a leading conservation journal, Biological Conservation, demonstrating the role that 18 distinct social science fields have within the conservation sciences. Noticeably missing from this list, however, were the fields of criminology (the study of criminal behavior), criminal justice (the study of how the criminal justice system responds and operates), and crime science (the study of crime). For ease, and I hope my fellow colleagues can forgive me, but I’ll refer to this group collectively here as “criminology.”

Wildlife Crime_smCriminology as a field has much to offer in the understanding and prevention of wildlife crime, while also contributing to broader conservation science topics. The volume, Wildlife Crime: From Theory to Practice, adds to the conservation science literature by underscoring how criminological theory and research can provide unique insight on a complex problem like wildlife crime. Questions related to the why specific activities and practices are outlawed, how such regulations are viewed by communities who are affected, why individuals begin, continue, or desist as offenders, how the criminal justice system responds to such actors, and what strategies can be developed in addition to the criminal justice system are all discussed in the volume. Additionally, scholars detail their experiences conducting research on active offenders involved in wildlife crime and further highlighting the very human aspects from those involved in such activities, as well as the researchers who perform such study.

Finally, the inclusion of practitioners in the volume who are or were involved in day-to-day conservation practice cements the need for more social science research that directly focuses on those tasked with the implementation and management of conservation policy and regulation. Essentially, by better understanding how conservation policy is implemented and the real-world challenges faced by individuals who work on the front-line is essential in understanding what strategies can be effective, what may be unsuccessful, and what may ultimately prove to be counter-productive or even harmful. In sum, Wildlife Crime: From Theory to Practice contributes to the growing literature on wildlife crime by illustrating the value of viewing the issue from a criminological perspective, promoting the need for increased academic-practitioner collaborations, and reinforcing the place of social science within the conservation sciences.

 

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