for National Geographic News
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.
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