Skip to main content

A Standout Presentation

During my time at the Pathways 2017 conference, I was able to attend a plethora of presentations from wildlife professionals, social scientists, and graduate students from around the world. One presentation that stood out to me was titled “Experiments to Understand Illegal Hunting for Wildlife Commodities.” The first thing that struck me was when Dr. Linklater, the presenting scientist, told us that the title was supposed to read “Games to Understand Illegal Hunting for Wildlife Commodities,” not experiments. At first, I was stunned. How would participating in games help elucidate poacher motivations and behaviors?

Dr. Linklater discussed two games, a scavenger hunt and a grab bag game, to model the motivations behind poaching behaviors. In the scavenger hunt game, students would search across campus for stakes that were valued differently. Other students posed as guards, and would confiscate all the stakes if the hunters were caught. Dr. Linklater ran multiple trials in order to implement different rules. For example, poisoning rhino horns is a common practice to discourage clients from buying the product. In order to mimic this devaluation, Dr. Linklater made most of the stakes worthless, while a few were still of high value. However, the “hunters” in this game still sought out the devalued stakes, making the deterrent less effective than previously thought.

The next game was a grab-bag game. This game involved students grabbing different colored balls out of a covered bin, with different colors representing monetary gains or guards. Each of the bins had different proportions of colored balls in order to replicate the different scenarios found in wildlife refuges. With both games, it was clear that devaluation of the stakes or balls did not have a substantial impact on harvesting behavior.

An elk right outside my room.

I found this presentation incredibly interesting, as I had never considered the use of games to model poaching behavior. At a time where wildlife trafficking is one of the primary threats to wildlife, it is important to make sure that wildlife managers are using preventative measures that work. This seminar showed me that a common used practice such as rhino horn poisoning, may not be as effective as we were led to believe. The one aspect of the game I did question was the lack of desperation among the participants. When considering the poaching of large game in Africa, many of the poachers have no income alternatives, which increases their desperation for any type of pay. I would predict that in these cases, it would not matter how high the risk is.

This presentation allowed me to see how diverse the field of conservation biology, and more specifically human dimensions of wildlife, can truly be. I would have never thought that games could be used to predict the behavior of poachers. I am very interested to follow-up on this research, Dr. Linklater described that he just developed an app that contained these games and is trying to deploy them in communities where poachers can be found in hopes to bring forward the topic of poaching.