What is Conservation Law Enforcement?

“Law enforcement” can be a useful term for talking about certain problems and solutions in conservation, but we should make sure the term is clearly defined. In this post, I consider what “law enforcement” means across a couple conceptual dimensions to offer the following definition:

Conservation law enforcement (n.) - the practice of using coercion, education, incentivization, and legitimation to align human behavior with the expectations set by laws for the conservation of biodiversity and natural resources.

Why Should You Think About This?

A growing awareness that conservation laws are being broken is leading to consideration of how to address the problem through improved law enforcement.

For example, according to USAID, two core strategies to address the illegal wildlife trade are to “Build Law Enforcement Capacity” and “Strengthen International and Interagency Cooperation in Data Sharing and Enforcement” (USAID 2017). Similarly, the UK government’s Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund has “Strengthen Law Enforcement” as one of its four core strategies (UK Department for Environment 2018).

However, where terms such as “wildlife products” and “illegal wildlife trade” are commonly defined (e.g., Moreto and Lemieux 2015, USAID 2017), the general solution of “law enforcement” tends to be poorly defined in the conservation field. And even worse, it seems many lay persons are unaware of the wide range of activities that it may entail.  

So let’s avoid confusion and limiting our professional toolkits by considering different aspects of the “law enforcement” concept.

Coerced and Voluntary Behavior Change

For a number of years now, I’ve had conversations in which I’ve been asked how “behavior change methodologies” can be combined with “law enforcement.” I find this to be a really funny sort of question. Isn’t the point of law enforcement to change certain undesired behaviors, or to ensure that the desired behaviors continue?

What seems to be meant by “behavior change methodologies” are those intervention methods that emphasize voluntary behavior change, such as conservation marketing (Wright et al. 2015) and payments for ecosystem services (Wendland et al. 2010). For instance, check out a recent “behavior change” toolkit by the folks at Rare (link). They strongly imply that regulatory enforcement as a strategic concept is a single strategy or common set of activities; is sufficiently understood to not require formal specification in a behavior change toolkit; and is fundamentally flawed in comparison to voluntary behavior change strategies.

Conventional legislation, incentives, and education still have their place and may still be the most effective intervention in some situations. However, where that is not the case, or where implementation and enforcement is impossible, these behavioral tools offer both an alternative and a new lens through which to think about the conventional tools. (p. 8)

The key message is not that conventional thinking — using regulations, incentives, and information campaigns —is always wrong. Rather, that it is incomplete, and depends upon several assumptions that are flawed. (p. 19)

What conservation professionals seem to be mean by “law enforcement” are those intervention methods that emphasize coerced behavior change brought about through punishments, such as the use of financial penalties, forcible confinement and incapacitation, the loss of resource-access privileges, or even just the instillation of fear of such punishments. (See our post on deterrence for more about this fear aspect).

From my perspective, this sort of linguistic distinction mischaracterizes the repertoire of law enforcement actions.

While certainly law enforcement can and often does include coerced behavior change methods, contemporary law enforcement strategies are quite often paired with voluntary behavior change methods.

For instance, in the enforcement of laws for public order and safety (i.e., policing), many organizations now focus on improving the fairness of their procedures for interacting with the public, as this can lead to a greater sense of legitimacy and, in turn, this can lead to voluntary compliance (Sunshine and Tyler 2003). A great experimental example comes from Queensland, Australia, where some traffic cops were given a script to read to motorists that were randomly stopped at roadblocks for breath testing to detect drunk driving, while others carried on ‘business as usual’ (Mazerolle et al. 2013). The script had officers explain their organization’s motivations for the stops (i.e., the high number of deaths among motorists), reinforce that the stop was at random, and express gratitude for each motorist’s participation. The findings suggested that such small interventions can and do improve motorists’ perceptions of police legitimacy.

Similarly, in the enforcement of conservation laws, there are some standout organizations that publically emphasize voluntary behavior change as a goal. For example, the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, in its 2017 National Compliance and Enforcement Policy, highlights that it seeks to obtain voluntary compliance through demonstrating 1) the benefits of any rules (to the environment, industry, etc.), 2) how the rules achieve that beneficial outcome, and 3) how to comply with the management rules.

The Range of Voluntary Behavior Change Methods

So what might we identify as voluntary behavior change methods for law enforcement?  Frankly, I think this list will vary a lot from expert to expert. But from my perspective, I think there are three obvious types: education, incentivization, and legitimation.

Let’s consider each in turn.


Perhaps because “ignorance before the law” is not a viable defense in most societies and circumstances, “education” for legal compliance is poorly appreciated in academic discussions, and even so in the field of conservation (Keane et al. 2011).

And yet, you cannot get around the fact that a range of law enforcement personnel—from police officers to customs officials to forestry officers—may well act as educators, such as by engaging with their constituent communities to explain legal matters or making themselves available to answer practical questions.

For conservation, this conceptual gap likely impoverishes conservation planning.  From my own experience, I know that a lack of legal knowledge is a key driver of non-compliance in within many rural communities. For instance, in the green sea turtle fisheries operating in Caribbean Nicaragua, many fishers are unable to accurately describe the laws that govern them. In my own interviews with over thirty fishers, I found that most did not know the cut off limit for retaining catches (a 72cm long chest plate on the sea turtle), and even more telling, most incorrectly believed that the size limit was a minimum size limit, when the law clearly established a maximum size limit. That is, the fishers couldn’t even tell me if they were legally required to toss back the “big ones” or the “little ones.”

So what sorts of activities might constitute education for conservation compliance? Here are a few examples:

  • Meeting with community members to explain legal changes (e.g., the implementation of hunting licenses);

  • Posting notices in public areas explaining the finer points of laws (e.g., catch size limits); and

  • Teaching supporting enforcement organizations (e.g., police, customs) the specifics of international conservation treaties (e.g., CITES).


Beyond education, I believe “incentivization” is a meaningful method for obtaining voluntary compliance in law enforcement.

By this term, I mean anything that would make compliance easier or more appealing (positive incentives), or make non-compliance difficult or less appealing (negative incentives), for those subject to law.

For example, in the regulation of traffic, do motorists find it easy or difficult to obtain their annual inspections and renew their driving licenses? What if the costs of these inspections and licenses were rather high? You can probably guess that this would lead at least some people to delay inspections and licensing, or even skip it all together.  If the incentives aren’t there, or even properly understood, you might get far fewer motorists obeying traffic laws.

In the practice of conservation, misaligned incentives are a frequent contributor to non-compliance problems. Returning to my example of Caribbean Nicaragua, consider the costs of complying with the local fishing license requirement for a villager in a remote coastal area, such as Set Net Point. Each year a vessel captain will need to obtain a vessel inspection certification, a qualified captain certification, and a fishing license, yet these licenses will only be available in the municipal seat, a couple hours away by boat. This means that a fisher will incur a decent gas bill, and, worse still, licensing may require lengthy waits and multiple returns if the municipal inspectors are unavailable during their official working hours ( a common problem). It would make sense then that at least some fishers decide not to follow the licensing rules, which is exactly what happens.

So what sort of activities might constitute incentivization for conservation law enforcement? Here are a few examples:

  • Visiting hunters in remote villages to have them apply for hunting permits, thus reducing participation costs by not requiring them to visit far-off cities;

  • Providing new gears to commercial fishing vessels, such as in the case of circle hooks to reduce turtle bycatch, thus lowering the costs of gear compliance; and   

  • Liaising with conservation organizations to improve the marketing of legally-compliant sustainable resource products, thus helping to provide meaningful, alternatives to consumers.


Finally, “legitimation” is a third potentially meaningful method for obtaining voluntary compliance. Actions that legitimate, or “make just,” laws and their implementing organizations are widely accepted to contribute to voluntary compliance among academics (Tyler 2004), so it makes sense to include them here.

This method, however, is rather unlike the other methods mentioned above. This is because legitimation has a great deal to do with how law enforcement organizations and their agents behave, so activities to coerce, educate, and incentivize can all be opportunities for legitimation.

The key consideration for determining if an activity is legitimating is the extent to which it might be expected or perceived as appropriate by the public. If assigning a financial penalty is perceived to be appropriate by the offender or broader community, then it would constitute both coercion and legitimation. If providing an annual workshop on the content of hunting regulations is perceived to be appropriate by the hunting community, then it is both education and legitimation. And, if delivering licensing services directly to remote fishing communities becomes an expected practice, then it is both incentivization and legitimation.

In recent years, enforcement activities that produce legal and organizational legitimacy have been growing in popularity. Consider the example cited above on improving the procedural fairness of officer-motorist interactions in Queensland, Australia. Such work is less commonly discussed in conservation settings, but it could work all the same. Legitimation work might likewise consist of finding ways for hunters (or fishers, loggers, etc.) to feel more greatly respected in the course of routine interactions with rangers (or fishing inspectors, forestry officers, etc.).

So what sort of activities might constitute legitimation for conservation law enforcement? Here are a few examples:

  • Applying financial penalties and other punishments that are perceived to be appropriate by the public;

  • Engaging in education and incentivization activities that are expected by the public;

  • Implementing new training standards so that officers have the tools to interact with the public in a respectful manner; and

  • Instituting organizational accountability measures to apply corrective measures to officers that do not meet the professional standards of their post.

Summing Up

In close, I hope a case has been made for a definition of conservation law enforcement that is broadly inclusive of actions to produce both coerced and voluntary behavior change.

So here repeated is my own working definition of conservation law enforcement:

Conservation law enforcement (n.) - the practice of using coercion, education, incentivization, and legitimation to align human behavior with the expectations set by laws for the conservation of biodiversity and natural resources.

Questions? Critiques? Your comments are very much appreciated.

Selected References:

  • Keane, A., Ramarolahy, A. A., Jones, J. P., & Milner‐Gulland, E. J. (2011). Evidence for the effects of environmental engagement and education on knowledge of wildlife laws in Madagascar. Conservation Letters4(1), 55-63. Open-Access Link.

  • Mazerolle, L., Antrobus, E., Bennett, S., & Tyler, T. R. (2013). Shaping citizen perceptions of police legitimacy: A randomized field trial of procedural justice. Criminology, 51(1), 33-63.

  • Sunshine, J., & Tyler, T. R. (2003). The role of procedural justice and legitimacy in shaping public support for policing. Law & Society review37(3), 513-548. Open-Access Link.

  • Tyler, T. R. (2004). Enhancing police legitimacy. The annals of the American academy of political and social science, 593(1), 84-99. Closed-Access Link.

  • USAID. (2017). Measuring efforts to combat wildlife crime: A toolkit for improving action and accountability. Open-Access Link.

Photo Credit: Mark Gibson, 2018, “A Game Warden Inspects an Illegal Hunting Camp for Signs of Use.”