Dr. E.J. Milner-Gulland, Tasso Leventis Professor of Biodiversity at Oxford
Dr. Milner-Gulland with a baby saiga antelope
in Kalmykia, Russia during the calving period.
“You can’t be a professor in conversation unless
you actually get your hands dirty.”
Photo by Caroline Howe

Dr. E.J. Milner-Gulland, Tasso Leventis Professor of Biodiversity at Oxford, went into conservation because she “had always wanted to do something that was useful.” She began forming her interdisciplinary approach as a young biology Ph.D. student. Tasked with working on the ivory trade, she unwittingly jumped feet-first into the fraught world of academia-meets-conservation, one where human egos could easily overshadow the wildlife they were ostensibly working to protect.

That was during the last big wave of poaching, in the mid-80s. The team she was working with was looking for hard evidence of the deleterious effect of the ivory trade on the elephant population to make a case for putting them on the protected “Appendix 1” of the UN Convention of International Trade and Endangered Species (CITES). “It was quite an eye-opener because it’s an incredibly political sphere,” says Dr. Milner-Gulland.

“All the things that governments and NGOs do to solve the problem can have very ambiguous effects on poor people.”

She realized that if she was going to make the tangible impact she’d always hoped for, she would have to broaden her field of view and look at the myriad causes of ecological harm. She started off modeling population dynamics. “The more I worked on it, the more interested I got in the social side and the more important it became for me to understand what makes people do what they do,” she says. Only then could she help change the behaviors that led to the declining African elephant population. At the same time, she couldn’t ignore the human effects of conservation, observing, “All the things that governments and NGOs do to solve the problem can have very ambiguous effects on poor people.”

By coming to the problem with the eye of science, and working with a host of outside experts including anthropologists, international development consultants, economists, and business people, Dr. Milner-Gulland and her team work to address the problems that affect both animals and people.

The periodic resurgences of poaching—one which we’re in the midst of today—lead to international panic in the conservation community that quickly spreads to the general public, resulting in increased militarization and law enforcement in poaching hot spots. But this, too, has been found to have ambiguous results on the community. “If you have people with guns coming into your area poaching for elephants, that can cause a lack of security for local people,” she says. “And in the longer run, losing elephants in a natural park can potentially lead to the loss of national heritage and the chance to make money out of tourism and biodiversity in the future.”

Rather than more money or incentives, they wanted current money to be used the way that they needed most.

“While some people are driven to wildlife crime because of poverty, the chain of drivers and incentives is much more nuanced,” says Dr. Milner-Gulland. The team is currently leading a project that takes this issue head-on with the provocative title “Pro-Poor Responses to Wildlife Crime.” The project is taking place around two national parks in Uganda, one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. Ivory and rhino horn poaching is a big problem there, but even more so are other less newsworthy wildlife crimes*: hunting for wild animals for food (or “bushmeat”), collecting firewood, and other illegal incursions into the parks.

Uganda’s national parks draw visitors from around the world hoping to glimpse forest elephants, mountain gorillas, and other creatures in their natural habitats. But what tourists on safaris are not aware of are the problems posed by the park to local people, who must constantly deal with wild animals raiding their crops, a problem that has far-reaching consequences. Animals taking the crops causes hardship and food insecurity, explains Dr. Milner-Gulland, and prevents kids from going to school because they have to stay home and guard those crops.

The team interviewed farmers, poachers in prison, park rangers, and other locals around the national parks to find out the root causes of the wildlife crimes. They learned that a few lynchpin poachers were responsible for most of the local activity. And in fact, law enforcement tended not to go after the “well-connected and well-armed” ivory gangs, but average people who were going into the park to hunt for food and presented easier targets. For the poachers who were active, wildlife authorities weren’t engaging with them to help them find alternate occupations.

They also asked everyone they interviewed what they would change to improve the situation. Surprisingly, they all had the same answer. Rather than more money or incentives, they wanted current money to be used the way that they needed most.

The benefits sharing program that was meant to divert a portion of the park’s revenue to the adjacent communities for them to use as they saw fit, from building schools to fixing infrastructure, wasn’t reaching them. This caused resentment among the locals, which in turn led them to enter the park illegally for food, wood, honey, and medicinal plants and herbs. “Probably the people who are getting most of the benefits are the richer people living farther away from the park anyway, not the people who are living right next to the park and having their crops eaten by baboons every day,” Dr. Milner-Gulland remarks.

The community asked that a portion of the money that was supposed to go to them be used to strengthen the arm of wildlife officials in charge of mediating human-wildlife conflicts: chasing away pilfering wild animals, assessing damage and offering compensation from the government if necessary. If these officials do their jobs, then the people can reap their harvests in peace.

In their attempts to stem the trade of ivory and rhino horn globally, Dr. Milner-Gulland’s and her team are now taking a lesson from an unlikely field: luxury marketing. The ivory and rhino horn trade dropped off sharply during the 90s and early 2000s. “It’s impossible to say to what we owe this drop,” she says—whether it’s due to policy change (such as the successful listing of elephants under the “Appendix 1”) or “better on-the-ground conservation.” But the social pressures of the high-profile conservationist campaigns of the 80s and 90s do seem to have contributed: “Europe and America were substantial markets for ivory in the 1980s, and the fuss around the CITES decision made it socially unacceptable to buy and own ivory, hence extinguishing these markets.” In Asia, on the other hand, as the economy began to grow, the demand for wildlife products has grown as well. Today the region represents the largest market for ivory and rhino horn.

“You can put fences around animals, but in the end there needs not to be demand.”

Now conservationists are taking things a step further with a new interest in understanding consumer desire and behavior: in Dr. Milner-Gulland’s words, “what it is that motivates people to buy wildlife products and trying to change the way they think about these products.” Collaborating with marketers who work with luxury brands in Vietnam, they’re hoping to understand just who the buyer is. While ivory and horn has historically been used for traditional medicine in China and other parts of Asia, there is now a new market of “rich businessmen wanting to impress people.” Ivory and rhino horn are seen as artwork, status symbols, and investments—the assumption being that the value of such materials will rise.

To combat this, Dr. Milner-Gulland and her team are focusing on changing the market’s perception of wildlife products. “I think if you do that you can make a much more effective campaign that really changes the way people relate to the brands. In the longer term, that’s the solution,” she says. “You can put fences around animals, but in the end there needs not to be demand.”

Throughout it all, she says the important thing is to come into anything interdisciplinary with an open mind and excitement to learn about how people do things, without judgment or preconceived political or ideological stances. “You have to have some flexibility,” she says. “You always have to come as a scientist.” Only then can one hope to find a solution that works best for all parties—no matter what species.

This article originally appeared in the Wild issue. Read part 2 of the feature The Fight to Protect Thailand’s Elephants. For more inspiring stories about women, check out What I Learned as a Woman Traveling Alone and The Journey of a Female Sommelier: From Paris to New York.