Patrols work, but community conservation needs rethinking, study finds

  • A recent study of Uganda’s Kibale National Park found that nine species of mammals, including five species of monkeys, have grown in abundance over the decades, suggesting conservation efforts are working.
  • Patrols appear to deter poachers from setting traps, which often unwittingly trap the park’s endangered chimpanzees and other primate species.
  • But the prosperity of neighboring communities and a better relationship between park managers and locals has not translated into a reduction in illegal activities such as poaching or firewood removal.
  • “Over the next 10 years, we must find new ways to engage the community so that conservation plans remain successful,” said first author Dipto Sarkar.

Kibale National Park in Uganda is a primate paradise, home to 13 species of primates including chimpanzees. And while these great apes and ape species are frequently trapped in traps set for other animals, conservation efforts seem to be making a difference, according to a recent national park study.

Park populations of nine species of mammals, including five species of monkeys, have increased in abundance over several decades, according to the study. “It is a resounding success as a package”, Dipto Sarkar, first author of the article in the journal Conservation of animals, said about the conservation strategy. “The Uganda Wildlife Authority [UWA] does a good job of working with people and protecting biodiversity.

The study suggests that the patrols have deterred poaching in Kibale. However, the impacts are less clear for other conservation strategies, such as livelihood programs. The study found that growing prosperity in nearby communities has not translated into a reduction in illicit activities such as hunting and logging; in fact, researchers have found a positive correlation between a community’s wealth and its illegal resource extraction.

A black and white colobus monkey in Kibale. Image by Dipto Sarkar.

Ahead of the Convention on Biological Diversity summit this year, a campaign to expand the coverage of protected areas (PAs) to at least 30% of the planet’s surface by 2030 is gaining momentum. It also draws attention to the functioning of existing PAs, particularly those in developing countries.

Tropical countries that are home to more than half of animal and plant species are often poor. More than a fifth of Uganda’s population lives below the poverty line. It is the responsibility of communities living around PAs to secure wildlife. They also bear the highest costs by forgoing access to traditional resources.

The 1982 World Parks Congress in Bali, Indonesia, marked a shift from the “fortress” conservation model that excluded resident communities to approaches that integrate the well-being of people living near PAs. So far, the evidence for the effectiveness of these approaches is patchy.

It’s really good that the authors have tried to bring together data on wildlife trends, patrols and socio-economics in the same study,” said Rob Critchlow, from the University of York in the UK, who did not participate in the new research. “That rarely happens.”

Kibale National Park. Image by Alex Dudley.

Kibale National Park is home to one of Africa’s oldest research stations, largely due to the enduring fascination with our closest cousins: chimpanzees. It is one of the few places where long-term data for these parameters is available.

Kibale rangers are equipped to record infractions by entering GPS location and type of activity, such as the presence of traps or evidence of charcoal production, into an app. Sarkar, currently at Carleton University in Canada, has worked in the national park for several years, focusing on the intersection between geography and environment.

In the new paper, Sarkar’s team used nearly 5,000 such records between 2006 and 2016 to determine where illegal activity took place inside the park and how patterns changed over time. They analyzed how changes in patrol efforts related to reported illegal activities, particularly hunting.

“We found that increases in patrols conducted by UWA were correlated with decreases in trap use over our decade of monitoring,” the study authors wrote. These are not organized poaching operations, but rather bushmeat hunting and sometimes farmers killing wild animals to secure their fields.

Communities living around Kibale mainly depend on the forest for bushmeat and the collection of firewood and edible plants. They eat bush pigs and duikers, a kind of antelope, but traditionally don’t eat primate meat like chimpanzees. But traps do not discriminate. Although not fatal, these traps can maim animals for life. By one estimate, about a third of Ugandan chimpanzees suffer lasting physical injuries from snares.

A metal snare detected on the edge of Kibale by one of the Kibale Snare Removal Program’s regular patrols. Image by Alex Dudley.

The UWA has increased the risk associated with illicit activities through better patrols over the years. At the same time, it supports communities by providing jobs and improving access to health care. The distinct impact the two have had on saving wildlife is harder to pin down.

“Patrols could be an effective deterrent against illegal activity, which I believe is one of the main reasons for implementing ranger patrols,” said Critchlow, who has also studied the effectiveness of protected areas in Uganda. “But measuring precise deterrence is very difficult.”

The study authors monitored changes in patrol effort by converting recorded incidents into an index of illegal activity. Still, Critchlow pointed out that patrol data doesn’t always accurately capture the underlying trend of illegal activity. The assumption is that the patrols are uniform over space and time, he said, but “this is unlikely because ranger patrols will rarely cover a survey area perfectly.”

Kibale is vast, spanning 780 square kilometers (300 square miles), the size of New York City. Human population density in areas adjacent to Kibale increased more than tenfold between 1959 and 2002. A growing population is one of the reasons for increased pressure on the PA, driven by an ever-increasing demand for food, materials construction and firewood.

The researchers created a profile of the communities using surveys conducted by other research groups in 2006, 2009 and 2012, extracting data on park-related employment, livestock ownership and housing. They compared it to trends in illegal activity at the time of the surveys.

The team found a positive correlation between the wealth of nearby communities and illegal resource extraction. “We know that as communities get richer around the world, their protein consumption increases before plateauing,” Sarkar said. This could translate into increased demand for bushmeat, the main source of protein for communities.

Sarkar noted that a long-term study of these consumption trends should take place over several generations.

The results complicate the notion that poverty targeting automatically reduces reliance on protected areas. Yet both Sarkar and Critchlow stressed the need to continue investing in community programs.

“The forest as a model fortress is so bad for the communities living around the park; we would prefer community conservation,” Sarkar said. “It’s the ethical thing to do.” If that doesn’t set back conservation goals, community well-being is worth pursuing, the authors argue in the paper.

Supporting communities might also be the most sustainable path in the long run.

“Over the next 10 years, we have to find new ways to engage the community,” Sarkar said.

He said creating more poultry farms is one option to meet the growing protein needs of communities as they move out of poverty.

Ecotourism may not support PAs because many do not boast charismatic species like chimpanzees. The COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted the downsides of overreliance on tourism revenue. According to Sarkar, more research stations could help bring people into the fold. “We don’t want them to be just field assistants,” he said. “We would like them to have the opportunity to become world-class researchers.”

From this perspective, better living standards, more education and awareness would enable residents to play a greater role in conservation, he said.

There is another reason why decoupling wildlife protection from what might be considered development goals can backfire. “Unless biodiversity goals and community well-being are linked, the capitalist forces that primarily determine human well-being will overwhelm conservation efforts,” Sarkar said. “At some point, people will ask themselves why protect the forest? Let’s cut down the forest and build more factories.


Brooks, J., Waylen, KA and Mulder, MB (2013). Evaluation of community conservation projects: a systematic review and multilevel analysis of attitudinal, behavioral, ecological and economic outcomes. Environmental proof, 2(1). doi:10.1186/2047-2382-2-2

Critchlow, R., Plumptre, A., Driciru, M., Rwetsiba, A., Stokes, E., Tumwesigye, C., … Beale, C. (2015). Spatiotemporal trends in illegal activities from data collected by rangers in a Ugandan national park. Conservation Biology, 29(5), 1458-1470. doi:10.1111/cobi.12538

Kiffner, C., Thomas, S., Lecturer, T., O’Connor, V., Schwarz, P., Kioko, J. & Kissui, B. (2019). The Community Wildlife Management Area supports mammal species richness and densities similar to those of a national park. Ecology and evolution, ten(1), 480-492. doi:10.1002/ece3.5916

Mackenzie, CA and Hartter, J. (2013). Demand and proximity: drivers of illegal forest resource extraction. Orix, 47 years old(2), 288–297. doi:10.1017/s0030605312000026

Sarkar, D., Bortolamiol, S., Gogarten, JF, Hartter, J., Hou, R., Kagoro, W.,… Chapman, CA (2022). Exploring multiple dimensions of conservation success: long-term wildlife trends, anti-poaching efforts, and revenue sharing in Kibale National Park, Uganda. Conservation of animals. doi:10.1111/acv.12765

Malavika Vyawahare is Mongabay’s Africa Editor. Find her on Twitter: @MalavikaVy

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