Corruption Top Threat to African Animals, Study Says

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
November 5, 2003
A new study shows that political corruption and bad governance, rather than human population pressures and poverty, may present the greatest threat to wildlife in developing countries.

The researchers found that high levels of corruption in African countries strongly correlate with declining elephant and black rhinoceros populations.

"The most corrupt countries are the least successful at protecting their important species and habitats," said Bob Smith of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent in England, who led the study. "Money that's earmarked for anti-poaching and conservation programs often ends up in the pockets of corrupt officials instead."

The most corrupt countries in Africa also have the richest biodiversity, according to the study, which is described in this week's issue of the science journal Nature.

But the news is not all bad. The researchers suggest that governments can tackle corruption and improve conservation by involving the private sector.

That's already happening in Kenya, where a two-year-old private consortium, the Mara Conservancy, which manages almost half of the famous Masai Mara game reserve, has stamped out graft and virtually ended poaching.

Poor Governance, Rich Wildlife

The study used so-called Corruption Perception Index scores provided by the international non-profit organization Transparency International. In 2003, that list ranked Bangladesh as the most corrupt country in the world, followed by Nigeria and Haiti.

Many African countries with a rich biodiversity, such as Cameroon, Kenya, Uganda, Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe, were also found to be highly corrupt.

The corruption scores were then measured against three well-surveyed components of biodiversity: African elephants, black rhinoceroses, and forest cover. Elephant and rhino populations both declined dramatically in the 1980s due to rampant poaching, before recovering in the 1990s.

"We looked at a range of factors, including human population density and poverty levels, but we found that the factor which best explained the changes in the numbers of elephants and rhinos was corruption levels," said Smith.

Bribery of wildlife officials to allow poaching to take place may not be as prevalent as it once was. "The biggest problem is that conservation money just isn't going where it's supposed to be spent," said Smith.

The results of the study also seem to correctly predict the ongoing decline in Asian elephant populations based on the corruption scores in Asian countries.

"Countries that have been losing their elephants tend to talk about a lack of funding as if it's an act of God," said Smith. "There's never any discussion of whether that country is partly responsible for what's going on."

Although the researchers also found a correlation between corruption and dwindling forests, there were other factors, such as gross national product, that better explained the loss in forest cover than corruption.

Tackling Corruption

But there are bright spots. Kenya, which has one of the largest elephant populations in Africa, is also seen as one of the most corrupt nations on the continent. In 2003, it ranked 122 out of 133 countries on the corruption index.

However, Kenya's new government, which came to power at the beginning of this year, is making important strides toward rooting out graft. Kenya has already started several innovative conservation schemes to protect its wildlife.

Take, for example, the Mara Conservancy. Before this private company took over management of the western half of the Masai Mara game reserve about two years ago, corruption was endemic. Money disappeared at the gates; revenues never reached local communities. The infrastructure was crumbling.

The new conservation program changed all that. Ticketing is now handled by an independent company. Thirty-eight percent of the revenue is re-invested in the game reserve by the Mara Conservancy, another 38 percent goes to the county council, and the remaining money goes to local communities where it's used for revenue-sharing schemes.

"By bringing in the new company and making all their ticketing transparent, virtually all of the opportunities for corruption have been removed," said Matt Walpole, a co-author of the study who has worked in Kenya for several years.

"There's been a complete transformation on that side of the reserve," he added. "Roads are being rebuilt, security is being jacked up, and staff is being paid. They're out on patrols, catching poachers where they are coming in."

So far, the Conservancy has arrested 215 poachers. The other, government-managed part of the reserve recently made its first poacher arrest in several years.

Cutting Bureaucracy

Researchers say that donors and conservationists must better plan their policies to take into account the problem of corruption. Giving more money could sometimes fuel the problem. The study results show that countries that are targeted for extra funding because of their high conservation value also have the highest level of corruption.

Instead, the researchers say, the key is better governance.

"Our results suggest that governments can do something to improve the effectiveness of their conservation efforts," said Smith. "There are many straightforward ways to reduce corruption: cutting down bureaucracy, paying people better, increasing budgetary requirements, and working more with the private sector."

He does not think bans on international trade in threatened species are the answer to conserving wildlife.

"Corruption levels are the most important factors in determining changes in African elephant and black rhino numbers, despite bans in the ivory and rhino horn trade and the international attention that both species receive," said Smith.

"This suggests that caution is needed when applying these outright bans in the face of continued demand, as there is evidence that they are ineffective and tend only to increase the wealth and power of corrupt officials."

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