A global decline in wildlife populations is driving a rise in violent conflicts, organised crime and child labor around the world, according to a policy paper published in the journal Science.
The paper highlights how losses of food and employment from wildlife decline cause increases in human trafficking and other crime, as well as foster political instability.
The authors call for biologists to join forces with economists, political scientists, criminologists, public health officials and international development specialists to collectively tackle a complex challenge.
“This paper is about recognising wildlife decline as a source of social conflict rather than a symptom,” said lead author Justin Brashares, associate professor of ecology and conservation at the University of California, Berkeley.
“Billions of people rely directly and indirectly on wild sources of meat for income and sustenance, and this resource is declining,” he says.
“It’s not surprising that the loss of this critical piece of human livelihoods has huge social consequences. Yet, both conservation and political science have generally overlooked these fundamental connections.”
Fewer animals to hunt and less fish to catch demand increasingly greater effort to harvest.
Labourers, many of whom are children, are sold to fishing boats and forced to work 18-20 hour days at sea for years without pay.
“Impoverished families are relying upon these resources for their livelihoods, so we can’t apply economic models that prescribe increases in prices or reduced demand as supplies become scarce,” said Brashares.
“Instead, as more labour is needed to capture scarce wild animals and fish, hunters and fishers use children as a source of cheap labour. Hundreds of thousands of impoverished families are selling their kids to work in harsh conditions.”
The authors connected the rise of piracy and maritime violence in Somalia to battles over fishing rights. What began as an effort to repel foreign vessels illegally trawling through Somali waters escalated into hijacking fishing, and then non-fishing, vessels for ransom.
“Surprisingly few people recognise that competition for fish stocks led to the birth of Somali piracy,” said Brashares.
“For Somali fishermen, and for hundreds of millions of others, fish and wildlife were their only source of livelihood, so when that was threatened by international fishing fleets, drastic measures were taken.”
The authors also compared wildlife poaching to the drug trade, noting that huge profits from trafficking luxury wildlife goods, such as elephant tusks and rhino horns, have attracted guerilla groups and crime syndicates worldwide.
The authors give examples of local governments heading off social tension, such as the granting of exclusive rights to hunting and fishing grounds to locals in Fiji, and the control of management zones in Namibia to reduce poaching and improve the livelihoods of local populations.
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