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Countries with high levels of corruption are losing biodiversity faster than better-governed ones, according to a new study published in Nature.
The report suggests that this is partly because poorly paid officials in developing countries can be bribed to ignore conservation laws. Another reason is that government conservation departments often lack the political clout to enforce regulations.

The researchers, from the universities of Kent and Cambridge in the United Kingdom, also say that outright bans on trade in endangered species benefit corruption because they "encourage bribery and increase the power of corrupt officials" to circumvent bans.

The study compared an index of developing countries’ corruption with three indicators of biodiversity: forest cover, African elephant populations, and black rhino populations. Countries with the most corruption lost biodiversity faster as measured by all three indicators. The researchers also found that a country's overall species richness falls as its corruption score rises.

"Our results show that corruption levels are the most important factors in determining changes in African elephant and black rhino numbers, despite bans in the ivory and rhino horn trade," says one of the researchers, Robert Smith of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent. "Caution is needed when applying these outright bans as they are ineffective and tend to increase the wealth and power of corrupt officials."

Conservation groups, particularly those in developed countries, are likely to welcome the research. They have been trying to draw attention to the links between conservation and corruption in poor countries for some time.

"These findings are not a surprise, and are rather sad," says Alistair Gammell, director of international operations at the UK arm of Bird Life International. "Aid for biodiversity is so small that it is not surprising to see officials [that are] paid so little become tempted by money from those who want to rip forests or steal ivory. Governments simply need to fund nature conservation better."

But according to Madhav Gadgil, professor of ecology at the Indian Institute of Sciences in Bangalore, corruption has complex causes, and increasing salaries for poorly paid officials is not the answer. "Low salaries are not at the root of corruption," he says. "In parts of the developing world, some of the richest politicians are also the most corrupt."

Gadgil, a former chief science adviser to the UN’s Global Environment Fund, says that in his four years in the job he "came to the conclusion that giving more money to conservation issues can have the effect of strengthening corrupt officials".

Research into corruption is a sensitive issue in many poor nations, which is one reason, says Smith, why he and his colleagues decided not to name any of the countries they surveyed. The secretariat of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity was not prepared to comment on the research. Most of their member countries are from the developing world.

Smith says international donors would be "unwise" to use these findings as an excuse to switch conservation funding to better-governed countries. Instead, donors should concentrate on "developing a motivated, well-paid workforce, using more stringent accounting procedures and engaging the private sector".

Link to paper by Robert Smith and colleagues in Nature

Reference: Nature 426, 67 (2003)