Philosophical Perspectives on Conservation Crimes

Everyone comes from a different perspective and looks at problems through their own lens.  They may be influenced by their peers, previous experience or ideology, but no two people see the world in the same way. The same holds true in how conservationists approach conservation crime research, the types of questions we ask, and the types of work we engage in. We can look through different lenses from many unique angles.

For example, wildlife crime can be studied by economists who want to know how market costs impact the desirability of certain species. A geographer may look at the physical characteristics of the environment to understand spatial and social distributions of poaching.  Biologists and ecologists can explore the links between physiology and behavioural and ecological factors that influence population dynamics of illegally hunted animals. And criminologists may explore compliance with hunting rules in national parks. These approaches all look at issues of poaching, yet each discipline offers new theories and methods for examining different parts of a problem.

Beyond disciplinary differences, the diverse community of wildlife crime researchers also varies widely in terms of their different, non-discipline specific philosophical lenses.

Bio, Eco, Anthro

Here are three philosophical approaches to consider when you think about the foundations of a wildlife crime study or prevention projects (see Wyatt, 2013 for more in-depth descriptions):

  • Biocentric: Puts the needs of wildlife above that of people. Wildlife viewed as a victim of harm caused by humans.

  • Ecocentric: Balances the needs of humans with those of the environment. Biological resources viewed as something to use sustainably.

  • Anthropocentric: Puts the needs of people above the environment. Biological resources viewed as something to be used, even if there is environmental degradation.

Each of these perspectives suggests very different frames of reference and advocacy. Consider the development of a project to reduce poaching in a national park in Africa. A biocentric approach may strive to save the most animals from hunting as possible without regard for the needs of the local community.  An anthropocentric approach may focus on the needs of local hunters who poach animals to feed their families, thus developing a program that prioritizes the prevention of human suffering. While an ecocentric approach may try to balance the needs of both by allowing hunting, but limiting it to specific regions, times of year or species.

Philosophical perspectives are also important when considering the development of laws. Some argue that even though something isn’t illegal, it may still be harmful to the environment and should therefore be prevented (Wyatt, 2013). This includes issues of animal welfare and how wildlife can suffer inhuman conditions or abuse when subject to trade (Nurse, 2016). From the biocentric approach some have also explored the philosophical rights of animals and questioned whether killing animals is murder (a term labeled 'theriocide') (Beirne, 2014).

Which Perspective is Correct?

There is no right or wrong answer in choosing which perspective you wish to use when developing policy or implementing a program to combat wildlife crime. You may even shift perspectives based on the particular problem you are tackling. What is important is to self-reflect and consider which type of approach you are taking to help you place your work into context. For example, if we are implementing a biocentric anti-poaching program with highly punitive consequences for those who poach, we might want to step back and consider the impact on the local community.

By recognizing that differences in perspectives exist we can be better equipped to collaborate and build strategies that account for the various needs and challenges associated with wildlife crime and the intersection of humans with nature.


Selected References

  • Beirne, P. (2014). Theriocide: Naming animal killing. International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy, 3(2), 49-66. Open-Access Link.
  • Nurse, A. (2016). Beyond the property debate: Animal welfare as a public good. Contemporary Justice Review, 19(2), 174–187. Closed-Access Link.
  • Wyatt, T. (2013). Wildlife trafficking: A deconstruction of the crime, the victims and the offenders. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan. Amazon Link.

Header Photo Credit: Rachel Boratto