Skip to main content
Biology LibreTexts

12.3: Environmental Law Enforcement

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    ( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorA}[1]{\vec{#1}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorAt}[1]{\vec{\text{#1}}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorB}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorC}[1]{\textbf{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorD}[1]{\overrightarrow{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorDt}[1]{\overrightarrow{\text{#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectE}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash{\mathbf {#1}}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    A single unlawful act—whether negligent or on purpose, by one single person or business—can harm countless ecosystems over a very wide geographic area. Such harm may persist for long periods of time (years, decades, and longer), and impact the lives of thousands of people. For that reason, mutual respect dictates that people and corporations alike abide by the environmental laws and regulations governing their activities. Unfortunately, while most people and businesses comply with environmental laws, it seems that there will always be those who take more than their fair share, corrupt government officials who facilitate smuggling, and greedy corporations that ignores the laws or searches for ways around them for profit. Consequently, there is a constantly need for government structures to evaluate whether environmental laws and regulations are enforced, whether violators are prosecuted, and whether amendments or new laws are needed.

    Mutual respect dictates that people and corporations alike abide by the environmental laws and regulations.

    Environmental laws can be enforced in several ways. In general, the system works when offences are investigated, and violators are apprehended by law enforcement officers, such as the police (Figure 12.5). Vigilant citizens can also play a role by reporting offences to authorities; financial rewards are increasingly being offered as an incentive for citizens to report environmental crimes. Some districts, environmental agencies, and protected areas may also employ dedicated environmental compliance officers, such as game rangers and anti-poaching units, to monitor human activities that may negatively impact biodiversity. Sometimes, the mere presence of environmental compliance officers is enough to deter illicit activities. With adequate enthusiasm, training, support, and equipment, these teams can have a positive impact on an area’s biodiversity and its people in a short period of time.

    Figure 12.5 Rangers at Garamba National Park, DRC, found 73 kg of giant ground pangolin (Smutsia gigantea, VU) scales (from about 20 animals) and two elephant tusks in this handcuffed poacher’s possession. Considered the world’s most trafficked animals, Africa’s four pangolin species (and Asia’s four species) are threatened with extinction (IUCN, 2019). Photograph by Naftali Honig/African Parks, CC BY 4.0.

    When caught, violators are usually punished by being charged fines and/or civil damages, and/or being sentenced to time in prison. Serve severe penalties can act as strong deterrent to those who consider engaging in environmental crimes. For example, Zimbabwe recently sentenced a rhinoceros poacher to 35 years in prison (Rademeyer, 2016), Nigeria sanctioned 26 mining companies for not complying with environmental laws (NAN, 2015), and Cameroon fined two ivory traffickers US $500,000 plus five years in prison (WWF, 2017). While such severe fines are usually reserved for major offences involving charismatic species, a South African court recently signalled that all biodiversity matters by sentencing a Spanish couple in possession of illegally collected plants to 12 years in prison, in addition to a US $150,000 fine (Steyn, 2015). As always, it is critically important that every violator is treated equally under the law, whether the violator is the owner of a company that dumps noxious chemicals into a river, a corrupt government official who facilitates smuggling of illegal wildlife products, or an individual caught hunting illegally in a protected area.

    New technologies in environmental law enforcement

    While environmental law enforcement is the single best predictor of conservation success across Africa (Hilborn et al., 2006; Tranquilli et al., 2012), catching and prosecuting perpetrators can be a difficult and dangerous task. Over the last few years, an increasing number of law enforcement officers have died while protecting the environment (WWF, 2016). Journalists reporting on environmental crimes are also increasingly persecuted, kidnapped, and even murdered (RSF, 2015). Well-organised environmental crime syndicates linked to drug smuggling, terrorism, and other human-rights abuses use increasingly sophisticated tools and tactics to evade detection. Moreover, armed poachers frequently outnumber law enforcement officials. Consequently, refining old and developing new strategies in environmental law enforcement are increasingly necessary.

    In Kenya, molecular methods have helped increase conviction rates for environmental crimes from 43% in 2013 to over 90% in 2016.

    One of the most promising developments in wildlife conservation has been the rapid development of molecular and other analytical tools and increased data processing capacity, leading to better detection, tracking, and prosecution environmental crimes. One promising development has been the increased use of genetic analysis to aid law enforcement. For example, DNA barcoding—a genetic analysis method that can identify the species of unknown tissue samples—helped expose illegal trade in five species of cycad (Encephalartos spp.), each of them threatened and listed on CITES Appendix I (Williamson et al., 2016). Elsewhere, biologists have started using stable isotope analysis—a technique that analyses an animal’s diet—to determine the origin (captive-bred or wild-caught) of parrots that are for sale (Alexander et al., 2019), and whether rare cycads were wild-collected before or after the practice was banned (Retief et al., 2014). To fully harness the power of molecular methods, wildlife agencies in South Africa and Kenya have even set up dedicated wildlife crime forensic laboratories (Wasser et al., 2007, 2015), where conservationists work closely with forensic scientists to solve wildlife crimes (Box 12.1). These initiatives have already paid off in Kenya, where molecular methods have helped increase conviction rates for environmental crimes from 43% in 2013 to over 90% in 2016 (ODPP, 2017)!

    Box 12.1 Insect Biodiversity Helps Solve African Wildlife Crimes

    Martin H. Villet

    Southern African Forensic Entomology Research Laboratory,

    Department of Zoology and Entomology, Rhodes University,

    Grahamstown, South Africa.

    Poaching and pollution are crimes akin to murder and poisoning and forensic biologists have a set of vitally important tools to convict perpetrators of such crimes: insect biodiversity.

    While police detectives sometimes evaluate insects found at crime scenes to help solve murders, forensic entomologists and anti-poaching investigators can use the biodiversity associated with the decomposition of carcasses to solve poaching crimes. The flies and beetles involved in decomposition are like two hands of a clock, flies ticking along in days and beetles indicating weeks.

    At least 14 families of flies, including blow flies (Calliphoridae, Figure 12.A), flesh flies (Sarcophagidae), house flies (Muscidae), cheese skippers (Piophilidae), and soldier flies (Stratiomyidae), breed on carcasses in Africa (Villet, 2017), some of them arriving within an hour of the death of the animal to start the decomposition clock. They lay eggs, which hatch into larvae that eat the carcass and grow at a steady pace. The age of these larvae can be estimated by measuring their size when a carcass is found, providing a minimum time between death and discovery. The larvae eventually mature into pupae that give rise to adult flies; this process can also be calibrated to inform the timeline of evidence.

    Figure 12.A Adult blow flies (Chrysomya marginalis) emerging from a savannah elephant carcass, with barn swallows (Hirundo rustica, LC) feeding in the background. Photograph by Cameron Richards, CC BY 4.0.

    Over 90 species of beetles from at least 10 families also breed on carcasses (Villet, 2011), and can be used to cross-validate evidence from fly larvae; their longer life cycles provide a record that spans a longer period of weeks. Beetles also arrive in a sequence linked to the decomposition process. This pattern of ecological succession starts with clown beetles (Histeridae) and rove beetles (Staphylinidae) that prey on fly larvae, followed by hide beetles (Dermestidae) and carrion beetles (Silphidae) that feed on the dried tissues left by the fly larvae and, finally, by spider beetles (Anobiidae) and hair beetles (Trogidae) that eat the hair, feathers, scales, skin and cartilage left at the end of decomposition (Villet, 2011). The ecological succession clock covers a month or more, depending on the weather and the characteristics of the carcass.

    Insect biodiversity can reveal other forensic details, too (Villet, 2015). For instance, insects that feed on drugged or poisoned animal tissue can bioaccumulate contaminants and provide samples for analysis even after the carcass has become too decomposed to analyse directly. Insects may even indicate the presence of these contaminants through their behavior. Animal remains that have been transported from elsewhere and dumped may harbour insects that indicate the route that was travelled. For example, poached parts of African animals bearing insects from Asia have almost certainly travelled through those areas.

    The diversity of insects can also provide evidence of environmental crimes involving pollution, a field called environmental forensics. Lethal levels of pollution will change the structure of insect communities, affecting the most sensitive species first. This insight underlies the certified South African Scoring System for aquatic biomonitoring and related scoring systems developed in other African countries for rating the health of rivers based on the biodiversity of their invertebrate inhabitants (Villet, 2015). Sub-lethal levels of pollutants affect insect reproduction and development, which can be detected in impaired reproduction in adult insects and developmental anomalies in insect larvae (Villet, 2017), including increased asymmetry between the left and right sides of the body (termed fluctuating asymmetry) and peculiar developmental patterns. Such research is called environmental forensic entomotoxicology, and it is an exciting new field linking the study of insect biodiversity, environmental damage, and conservation biology.

    Conservationists have also become more mindful of the strategies they use to plan and conduct law enforcement monitoring. For example, park managers in Chad now use sophisticated mapping technologies to plan and monitor vulnerable wildlife as well as anti-poaching patrols (Box 12.2), while conservationists working in Cameroon are using acoustic sensors which identify times and areas of increased poaching activity (Astaras et al., 2017). Biologists in the Albertine Rift in turn use a spatial planning software package called Marxan (—generally used to identify the locations of new protected areas—to ensure law enforcement activities are more cost effective (Plumptre et al., 2014). To keep staff out of harm’s way and to cover more ground, environmental agencies have also started using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for law enforcement monitoring (see Box 15.1).

    Conservationists are becoming more mindful of the strategies they use to plan and conduct law enforcement monitoring.

    Box 12.2 Protecting Elephants in a Hostile Region

    Lorna Labuschagne

    Previous Address:

    African Parks, Zakouma National Park,

    N’Djaména, Chad.

    Current address:

    Frankfurt Zoological Society, Serengeti Conservation Project,

    Arusha, Tanzania.

    “Extinction is forever” is a phrase we hear often, but perhaps don’t consider deeply enough. The passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius, EX) in North America is a prime example. Early naturalist accounts describe how this species were once so numerous that flocks blackened the sky, and yet it was possible to kill each one. Africa’s elephants are currently under similarly huge pressure, especially in Central and West Africa. The well documented story of the elephants of Zakouma National Park in Chad is a good example, where an estimated 4,000 elephants lost their lives between 2002 and 2010 to feed the insatiable demand for ivory (

    In the past, a densely-packed elephant herd was an effective defence against horsemen with spears, whose hunting method centred on isolating an individual. With armed groups coming from as far afield as Darfur, Sudan, the modus operandi of the poachers on horseback has not changed much over the past 200 years, except that the spear has been replaced with an automatic rifle. With today’s poachers shooting indiscriminately into a tightly packed herd, the result is a devastating massacre. In the past, as many as 60 elephants of all ages were killed in a single attack in Zakouma, with many dying later from festering bullet wounds and small calves ending up lost or orphaned. The trauma of such slaughter on these intelligent animals is hard to imagine and is perhaps best understood by the fact that the Zakouma herds stopped breeding for almost five years. So how does one endeavour to stop such carnage on a free-roaming population, and allow elephants to live a normal life again, especially in an open system where herds range widely?

    Each area in Africa is different, and it is important to remember that what works in one area will not always work in another. To address a poaching problem, the situation must be carefully assessed, historical information evaluated, and a “feel” for the threats acquired. It is also important to remember that no anti-poaching team can function without the support staff that keeps them equipped and mobile (mechanics, buyers, bookkeepers, etc.).

    Below is a list of key initiatives forming the basis of an efficient protection system for a conservation area (Figure 12.B).

    Figure 12.B (2) A flow diagram example of an efficient anti-poaching strategy for protected areas. Diagram by Parc National de Zakouma/MEP-AP, CC BY 4.0.
    • Finding and Tracking Animals: To protect a species, a good understanding of its movements is needed. Several parks in Africa achieve this by fitting satellite GPS collars on individual elephants in different herds. Animal tracking has in the past been primarily used for research purposes, but today the data is also used to monitor elephant movements and adapt anti-poaching patrols accordingly.
    • Communication: It is impossible to stop poaching without good communication—be it by mobile or satellite phone, a radio network, or personal trackers with a messaging function. Where the terrain allows it, a digital VHF radio network should ideally be put in place with linked relay stations and portable radios to ensure communication throughout most of the protected area.
    • Central Control Room: A Central Control Room (CCR) (Figure 12.C) is where all anti-poaching activities are coordinated day and night. Ideally the park should work on a predictable but unpredictable anti-poaching system; rangers and their families know when they will be on patrol again (predictable), but the day-to-day deployment is unpredictable and coordinated by the CCR using all information available, such as real-time elephant movements, in their decision making. Where to deploy patrols should ideally be made by at least three people and the command then given to the Patrol Leaders, who are trained and equipped with GPS units. Where ranger posts or Forward Operational Bases (FOBs) are used, the unpredictable component can also include not knowing which ranger post or FOB they will be sent to, or with whom. A good rotational policy among rangers plays an important part in keeping rangers alert and motivated.
    • Anti-Poaching Monitoring Technology: Today sophisticated mapping techniques are especially helpful for planning and reporting. Not only that, many are available at no cost on the internet. These tools allow conservation practitioners to monitor, record, and display the movements of animals, anti-poaching patrols, aircraft, and poaching incidents, and plot all of them in different layers on a map or satellite image. This is a key component to monitoring the patrol effort and coverage of an area and should be coordinated by the team in the CCR.
    • Accessibility Throughout the Year: Although it can be difficult based on the area or budget, conservationists must be inventive in adapting to changing weather and field conditions throughout the year. Airstrips, for example, should be carefully placed to support rangers year-round; accessibility throughout the year is important for logistics but also for evacuation of ill or wounded rangers if needed.
    • Intelligence Gathering: Not much happens in rural Africa without somebody knowing about it. The key is to get that information to your CCR. Cell phones are increasingly common, and you might also consider having a toll-free phone number. In areas without good GSM coverage, another option is to put in place a “Village Radio” system, where digital VHF radios are programd in such a way that private calls can be made, allowing for a radio to be installed in a village and still protect the sensitive communications of a park. Having communication in key villages around a park, which speak with the CCR about any illegal activity that they have picked up in the surrounding communities, helps provide much needed security to local people and an important link with the park management.
    Figure 12.C An example of a Central Control Centre, which usually operates for 24 hours every day of the year. Photograph by Vanessa Stephen/Parc National de Zakouma/MEP-AP, CC BY 4.0.

    As protectors of elephants and other wildlife, park managers must assess the situation, decide what can be done in an area, and try it, but most importantly, park managers must employ an adaptive management strategy (Section 10.2.3) and continue adapting over time to a changing situation. Poachers change their strategies, and therefore so must park managers. Ultimately, the goal is to reduce the number of poaching incidents to allow wildlife populations to recover. This can be a daunting task with pitfalls among successes; always remember, keeping field ranger morale high is a key component to ensuring success.

    In recent years, some of the world’s biggest conservation organizations banded together to form the SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool) partnership. The main goal of the partnership is improving protected areas management, particularly environmental law enforcement, by enabling law enforcement officials and biologists to more easily collate and process information collected during monitoring and patrols. The partnership accomplishes this through the development of a freely available and fully customisable software package that includes real-time mapping, basic analysis tools, and automatic report generation abilities (Wilson et al., 2019). These features allow park managers to be more strategic in their conservation work by allowing them to better plan, evaluate, and implement their activities. SMART is rapidly becoming the standard in environmental law enforcement across the developing world, and several national governments in Africa have already adopted SMART as its environmental crime monitoring platform.

    Despite this progress, older technologies are still being used very effectively in law enforcement. To name a few examples, conservationists continue to rely on tools, such as passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags (Gibbons and Andrews, 2004) and embedding GPS transmitters (e.g. Christy and Stirton, 2015) to identify and track stolen wildlife products such as rhinoceros horns, elephant tusks, valuable timber, and expensive ornamental plants. Lastly, environmental law enforcement officials continue to rely so heavily on well-trained domestic dogs to detect trafficked wildlife products and apprehend environmental criminals that several organizations now specialise in training dogs for conservation purposes.

    This page titled 12.3: Environmental Law Enforcement is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by John W. Wilson & Richard B. Primack (Open Book Publishers) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.