The Science of Conservation Crime


A scientific understanding of human behavior is critical for effective conservation practice and to improve humans’ ability to predict and adapt to environmental change. The type of human behavior that society defines or perceives as criminal is omnipresent, but to date the conservation community has lacked an effective mechanism for thinking and talking about it, and for addressing it. The emerging field of conservation criminology offers a model for understanding this type of illicit human behavior and the emotions, cognitions, and institutions that affect human relations with the environment.

Conservation criminology is the multi- and interdisciplinary approach to understanding environmental crime and danger. Thinking about the science of conservation crime is essential; human behavior that results in or contributes to environmental change can substantially harm environmental and human health (Gibbs et al. 2010). Widely known events, such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the extinction of Mauritius’ endemic Dodo (Raphus cucullatus), and potential invasion of Asian carp (Hypophthalmichthys nobilis) into the U.S. Great Lakes, provide examples of the diverse nature of the harm posed by humans to the environment and vice versa.

Even for many conservation professionals, the natural world and the human world are separate and the relation between the two is largely unconsidered and unexplained. This gap in knowledge is to the detriment of conservation practice aimed at preventing or responding to events and phenomena that may harm the health of the environment and humans. Conservation criminology offers a means to consider more explicitly the nexus of human–environment relations and interactions. For example, humans can affect fish stocks through unsustainable harvest and fish habitat through release of toxins. Conversely, fish affect human health through bioaccumulation of toxins and human economies through their value as tourism draws (e.g., diving with sharks). Risk, therefore, is present on both sides of this human–fish equation. Empirical and interdisciplinary social science can produce valuable insights into how humans assess, perceive, and respond to these risks and may offer some ability to predict how conservation practices may affect these risks.

Conservation criminology offers a framework for effectively dissecting the criminalogical aspects of the human–environment interface through integration of the three traditionally disparate fields of criminology and criminal justice (historically focused on understanding human behavior and crime control), natural resource conservation and management (traditionally focused on understanding natural systems and their interactions), and formal risk and decision sciences (originally concentrated on expert, technical, and systematic approaches to characterizing risks). Over time, these core disciplines of conservation criminology have increasingly embraced interdisiplinarity, collaboration, and stakeholder engagement.

In addition to providing a holistic way of thinking about conservation issues, conservation criminology offers a unique approach for teaching and practicing conservation (Gibbs et al. 2010). Conservation criminology suggests it is feasible to mitigate or adapt to phenomena and events that are global; that affect diverse stakeholders in diverse ways; that affect both human and natural systems; that commonly lead to irreversible outcomes, such as extinction, even though such outcomes may not currently be regulated or criminalized; and for which outcomes of response options are uncertain. For example, the release into the environment of estrogen-based pharmaceuticals can feminize fish, of antidepressants can protract frog development, and of anticonvulsants can affect emergence of aquatic insects and thus aquatic ecosystem function (Kidd et al. 2007). These releases are not currently illegal. By exploiting differing but complimentary streams of dedicated theory, methods, and practice from each of the three core disciplines, conservation criminology offers insight about, for example, the effects of toxic releases on water and aquatic species, potential effects of regulating release disposal, relation between disposal and exposure, and potential penalties society considers appropriate for noncompliance.

The model enables conservation social scientists to describe, predict, and explain effects of practices intended to influence human behavior and to reduce negative effects of environmental change on humans, other species, and ecological systems. Conservation criminology is culturally and experientially constructed. It does not rely solely on the input of technical experts; it also incorporates public perceptions and values. To this end, the approach offers an opportunity for conservation professionals and others to focus on narrowly defined conservation problems and proactive or reactive policy decisions while comparing problems to build transferable knowledge (Gibbs et al. 2010).

Three examples illustrate distinct aspects of the potential for conservation criminology to provide scientific and policy insights: illegal trade, conflict timber, and unsustainable fishing in conservation zones. Illegal trafficking in species ranks third in illicit monies generated by international commerce behind trade in drugs and arms and has been estimated to be worth US$20 billion annually (Name 2009). Black-market trade in species and products such as tortoise shell jewelry from Hawksbill sea turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) or bear gall from Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus) may be minimized by application of forensics or scientific tests and techniques associated with crime detection. Novel methods for extracting mitochondrial DNA allow for identifying the sources (e.g., geographic, species) of traded items and informing more precise allocation of monitoring and enforcement resources. Forensics can offer insight into, for example, the spatial distribution of illegal trade, origin of poached species, characteristics of poachers and traders, and effective intelligence operations and investigations. Examples of the latter include the optimal way to collect and share information about conservation crime prevention and how museums and universities can maintain a secure chain of custody of confiscated products and adequate security protocols to support prosecution of illegal acts during criminal proceedings. The integration of this information under the conservation criminology umbrella allows for assessment of risk to humans and other species, the degree of monetary benefit poaching extends to those who engage in it, and the extent to which various policy actions may abate risks and illegal activity.

The extent, role, and effects of organized crime syndicates in extracting commercially, ecologically, and culturally important hardwoods from protected areas (i.e., “conflict” timber) is thought to be increasing. For example, illegal harvesting of Malagasy rosewood, ebony, and pallisander trees (Dalbergia and Diospyros species) destined to become musical instruments or furniture for luxury Chinese and U.S. import markets, is booming (Global Witness and Environmental Investigation Agency 2010). Evidence of the role of organized crime in deforestation includes a high degree of planning (e.g., conscription and outfitting of poachers) and sophisticated smuggling techniques (e.g., counterfeit documents, cargo concealment) for cross-border movement. Conservation may be aided by insight into, for example, the social context and networks within which organized crime occurs and operates and how syndicates respond to regulatory shifts. In many instances, crime rings illegally use the infrastructure, actors, and networks legal traders use (Naylor 2005). Defining, describing, and regulating this divide between illegal and legal activity is essential for effective conservation action. Numerous institutions would benefit from deeper understanding of ways to identify and educate consumers about the effects of their behavior on the species they harvest, transport, or purchase either knowingly or unknowingly from or for “timber barons.” Finally, conservation criminology can elucidate the ability of community groups to collaborate with law enforcement personnel in policing and enforcing civil, regulatory, legal, or normative rules.

Noncompliance with conservation-oriented regulations, such as those governing hunting and use of protected areas, threatens the security of conservation and the species such actions are intended to protect. Although security is a term commonly associated with contemporary crimes such as terrorism, the concept is relevant to conservation in that it connotes safety from threats and the ability of conservation actions to diffuse danger to species and the people that interact with them. For example, fishing and conservation zones dictating total allowable catch (TAC) quotas for local and commercial fishers were designed to conserve a commercially valuable abalone fishery (Haliotis midae and H. spadicea) in South Africa. However, noncompliance with such regulations persists (Hauck & Sweijd 1999). Considering local-level motivations for noncompliance with TAC and zone regulations can provide insight into perceptions of procedural justice (e.g., institutional legitimacy, fairness of rules) and community involvement in decision making. Examining the conditions associated with noncompliance can inform situational crime prevention, such as the physical modification of the environment within which crimes occur. Thinking about noncompliance can help society better understand the effects of regulations on reducing the vulnerability of ecological and human systems to change. In addition, understanding stakeholders’ motivations for noncompliance can help evaluate efficacy of interventions.

The conservation community is committed to helping people adapt to the negative effects of environmental change and mitigating the undesirable effects of human behavior, especially those deemed criminal, on the environment. To fulfill these goals, we need to consider integrating the three social science disciplines of criminology, natural resource conservation and management, and risk and decision science. The conservation criminology framework offers one science for such a path forward. Broad perspectives are paramount for a full and clear understanding of the interactions of risk, natural resource management, and criminology at the human-environment interface. Such perspectives can help us better define strategic policy goals and generate effective and appropriate conservation actions. Conservation criminology is demonstrating promise in research, teaching, and practice by expanding the perspectives of those involved in the collaborative conservation process and also by providing novel, empirical evidence for positive change. Including scholars from the three core fields provides a solid scientific foundation for normative discussions surrounding decisions to engage in certain conservation practice and extends the perspective of those involved in the collaborative process.


The author thanks M. Wegan, M. Nelson, and M. Mascia for their input.