Cameras for Conservation: Direct Compensation as Motivation for Living with Wildlife

Executive Summary

Most endangered species rely on private land for their survival, which means landowners are crucial partners in conservation. However, landowners can often view wildlife as a liability. For example, predator species such as wolves may pose a threat to livestock and their livelihoods Landowners may also fear new government restrictions on their land to protect wildlife. In this paper, Laura Huggins, Olivia Hansen, and Harrison Naftel explore how to help turn wildlife into an asset rather than a liability.

Through cameras for conservation programs, nonprofit organizations install camera traps on private land and pay landowners for photos showing they are welcoming wildlife onto their property. Every time landowners capture an image of wildlife, they receive a cash reward. The authors examine three case studies of camera trap initiatives in Belize, Mexico, and Montana. Their goal is to identify whether such programs may be valuable for conservation.

The authors first examine the New River Region program in Belize and the Living with Felines project in Mexico. Local nonprofits created both programs to help the native jaguar population recover. They worked to establish contracts with local landowners who agreed to have camera traps placed on their land. Landowners also agreed not to interfere with wildlife. The landowners were then paid for each image of a jaguar or other endangered animal on their land. The Wild Sky project established similar contracts with ranchers whose property surrounds the American Prairie Reserve—a private nature preserve in northeastern Montana.

The full effect of camera programs on wildlife numbers is still uncertain, and more data will be needed to understand the impact. One of the key outcomes of the projects was changing cultural norms surrounding wildlife. The authors found evidence that camera programs helped improve local attitudes toward predators in particular.

The cameras for conservation programs examined in this policy paper are all run by non-profit organizations. However, the authors did identify several policy implications for how these types of programs could complement and enhance existing conservation programs:

  • Direct payments to landowners may be more effective than indirect programs that compensate landowners for loss of livestock.
  • Camera trapping programs collect valuable scientific data that could help inform conservation efforts.
  • Collaboration between state and federal wildlife agencies, nonprofit-led camera programs, and landowners could result in positive outcomes for wildlife.

This research illustrates how positive, incentive-based programs can help change attitudes toward conservation. Future conservation efforts are likely to be more successful if they respect cultural norms and rely on incentives rather than punishment. This research can help inform more cooperative, and thus more successful conservation going forward.

Read the full paper.

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