Community voices missing from policy discussions on wildlife management
The welfare and survival of wildlife is endlessly debated at every level from international meetings to national debates. Conservation professionals alongside a diverse set of commentators - including academics, celebrities, princes and presidents - have all voiced their opinions on what needs to be done to save Africa’s wildlife. But one voice that is usually missing, is that of the local people who live alongside wildlife.
Efforts to include local communities’ views at the most recent Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Conference of the Parties in South Africa in October 2016, not surprisingly, failed on the basis that it is a government to government forum. But the fact that it agreed to the creation of a Rural Communities Working Group as a way for local communities to be heard, is an important step forward. But much more needs to be done to ensure that local people are heard at the national level. 
Living with wildlife is costly for local people
The stark reality is that living with wildlife brings with it a high cost. Lion attacks on livestock, for example, can cause African farmers losses equal to more than 10 per cent of their annual household income.
Anger over damage like this and to people’s homes as well as injury and even death caused by wildlife can drive people to get involved in poaching and the illegal wildlife trade, or to disrupt conservation efforts. More broadly, conservation itself has a long history of imposing major costs on local people, from loss of access to livelihood resource to forced eviction from reserves.
Unless the benefits from conservation exceed these costs, then local people are unlikely to take the steps needed to help protect wildlife. The African Wildlife Foundation reports that in Amboseli, a Kenyan wildlife tourism hotspot, retaliatory killings of elephants increased from one or two in 2011 to as many as 30 in 2016.
Incentives for conservation are critical
Getting the incentives right to ensure local people become protectors of wildlife and not poachers means making sure that the net benefits in broad terms from conservation - not just financially - exceed those gained from being involved in poaching or other illegal activities.
Engaging local communities in conservation is crucial. It is vital to reduce these costs of living with wildlife and to increase the incentives for conservation. In many cases, the incentives for conservation are derived from some of the very same activities that others are so keen to ban ― such as trophy hunting or legal, sustainable trade.
Bans undermine incentives
When trophy hunting first started coming under scrutiny after the killing of Cecil the Lion in 2015, the Namibian Minister of Environment and Tourism, Pohamba Shifeta, pleaded with animal welfare lobby groups to cease their campaign for a ban on hunting because of the negative conservation impacts it would have. Similarly, in 2016 when the EU was deliberating about whether or not to ban imports of trophies, traditional chiefs in Zimbabwe expressed their concerns to the EU ambassador to Zimbabwe, noting that a ban on trophy hunting would "result in the suffering of communities as the revenue generated was used to develop infrastructure and help vulnerable communities in Zimbabwe".
In addition to the problems caused by blanket bans on trophy hunting, trade bans are also a blunt instrument ― and they cut off the possibility of using such other tools as certification, national regulation and corporate social responsibility to secure conservation outcomes. Alex Kasterine of the UN International Trade Centre points out that bans can be more damaging than beneficial and that regulating rather than eliminating the wildlife trade could "improve sustainability and animal welfare practices and increases benefits for rural communities".
To ban or not to ban? Communities should help decide
It is unlikely there will ever be consensus as to whether wildlife fares better or worse if its use and trade are banned. The views of proponents and opponents in the debate reflect different ethical viewpoints as well as different interpretations of economics and conservation biology.
What shouldn’t be debatable, however, is the right of local people who live next to wildlife and who endure the costs of that proximity, to have a stronger – if not the strongest – voice in deciding about its future. If we want wildlife, then we also need to support wild livelihoods. Without local support, we can ban all the wildlife use we like but it won’t solve the poaching problem.