How Does The Public Feel About Crimes Against Wildlife?
Wildlife crime threatens the existence of species such as elephants, rhinos and sea turtles around the world. The global trade in animal parts obtained during illegal hunting or fishing is thought to be worth around $59 billion per year.
Regulation in this area is intended to reduce the risk of species extinction while balancing the commercial (and sometimes recreational) practices of hunters and other people. Common types of restrictions include licensing requirements, limiting the quantity of a particular species that can be hunted, and defining the types of traps and other killing instruments which may be used. However, estimates of the amount of ivory and other illegal animal products being traded suggest that the level of wildlife crime is increasing.
The public have been somewhat inconsistent in their level of concern for the violation of laws meant to protect wildlife. In a well-publicized case in 2015, an American trophy hunter killed a lion named Cecil during an illegal hunt in Zimbabwe. This was widely condemned by celebrities and politicians, though the killer avoided prosecution. Meanwhile, the illegal killing of many animal species continues worldwide, mostly receiving an indifferent response from the public.
This 2019 study explored the attitudes of college students towards wildlife crime. It aimed to understand how the students perceived various offenses in terms of seriousness, wrongness, and harmfulness. It also aimed to compare these findings with the perception of offenses against persons or property. A survey was carried out using a random generator to select participants, resulting in 97 completed responses. Of these, 19 people reported being hunters themselves, and 44 had fished (this group included all hunters).
The survey design followed a model used in previous studies which focused on criminology research and the perception of other types of offenses. Participants were asked to rank, on a scale of 1 to 10, a list of crimes categorized as property, person, and wildlife offenses. Five offenses were given for each category. Each offense was ranked according to how serious, wrong or harmful the person thinks it is. The mean average and standard deviation were then found for each of these data sets, in order to make easy comparisons between each category.
The study found that people viewed wildlife crime to be significantly less serious than either property or person offenses. For example, on average, participants felt that the least serious property offense (shoplifting a pair of socks) was still more serious (4.23) than any single wildlife offense, such as shooting a turkey outside of turkey hunting season (4.02) or fishing without the required license (3.67). Similarly, stealing socks was seen as more wrongful than any wildlife offense. However, it was considered the least harmful of all the listed crimes against property, people or wildlife.
Of the five wildlife offenses given, four resulted in the death of the animal (shooting a deer with the use of headlights to ‘freeze’ them first, shooting a deer outside of hunting season, shooting a turkey outside of hunting season, or removing a fish from the water which is less than the required legal weight for fishing). Here, the crime which involved the killing of a fish was ranked as less serious (3.12), less wrongful (3.64) and less harmful (3.82) than those which resulted in the death of other species. This highlights a general lack of concern for the lives of fishes compared to mammalian species, which can be a problem within the animal advocacy community as well.
The researchers viewed seriousness as a combined effect of harmfulness and wrongfulness, with offenses against the person (especially those resulting in death) seen as the most serious of all. There was little difference in perceived harmfulness of offenses against property and wildlife. This led the researchers to question how well the public understands the reasoning behind wildlife regulation, which is there to protect human and environmental interests as well as, to some extent, the welfare of the animals themselves. The presence of hunters and fishers in the sampled group allowed for some speculation over whether those participants would feel differently than others towards wildlife crime. However, no significant difference was found in their responses.
The study reveals the importance of understanding the basis of laws and policies related to wildlife protection. If we can understand why people generally feel that, for example, stealing from a shop is more serious than killing a deer, we can better target advocacy campaigns towards addressing those reasons. Advocates might also reflect on any lingering bias which could be slowing down progress towards a future in which no animal is treated as property, or an object of entertainment or sport.