NEW YORK, Nov. 6 (UPI) -- The world's countries that are richest in biodiversity often have the most corrupt governments, said British researchers who, as a result, urged the international donor community to use its influence to encourage reforms to better protect nature.
"We hope that this research will bring out into the open a very important problem that, at the moment, a lot of people are reluctant to discuss," Bob Smith, a conservation biologist at the University of Kent in England, told United Press International. "There are many straightforward ways to reduce the effects of corruption, and the international community could play an important role in encouraging these reforms."
Though most biodiversity occurs in the developing world, those nations receive only 12 percent of the estimated $6 billion spent worldwide each year on managing protected wild areas. Moreover, for years, conservationists have noted how corrupt officials were undermining conservation efforts and siphoning off much of that $720 million.
"A lot of the problem is that money then doesn't get down to where it's needed," Smith said.
Government officials often are poorly paid, making bribes from poachers and others attractive. Indeed, wildlife represents the third largest illegal commodity in the world, following guns and drugs, according to Joshua Ginsberg, director of Asia Programs for the World Conservation Society in New York.
"And when conservation workers are poorly paid, even when they are motivated, they may not have the money for equipment or fuel to go patrolling," Smith added.
Smith and colleagues are involved in African elephant and black rhino conservation.
"We know from our work that it is relatively straightforward to protect these species if anti-poaching activities are properly funded and we also knew from experience that funding for these activities can be reduced by corrupt practices," Smith said. "So, we decided to investigate this link between corruption levels and changes in elephant and rhino numbers."
The researchers employed a trusted international measure of government corruption from Transparency International, a non-governmental organization headquartered in Berlin. They polled business people, risk analysts and academics to compare national corruption levels. Corruption is defined as the unlawful use of public office for private gain.
Smith and his team then compared a nation's corruption scores with its biodiversity level, calculated as the number of recorded mammal and bird species, using data from the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank in Washington, D.C.
They gathered black rhino and African elephant numbers from reports by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources in Gland, Switzerland, while data on forest cover were obtained from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, which monitors illegal logging.
In findings appearing Thursday in the British journal Nature, Smith and colleagues revealed countries with substantial numbers of threatened species and habitats often are corrupt. Corruption also was linked to changes in total forest cover.
"In some senses, this research tells us what we already knew," Peter Kareiva, lead scientist for the Nature Conservancy's Pacific Western conservation region in Seattle, told UPI. "It's widely known corruption can be a problem. No one would be surprised by that. But he put some numbers on that, some really concrete evidence. By doing such a good job, it compels us to deal with the situation more."
International bans exist against the ivory and rhino horn trade, but these new findings suggest the bans do not work. Corruption levels -- not poverty levels -- human population pressure or international bans best explained changes in elephant and black rhino populations in a number of African countries.
Indeed, bans may tend only to increase the wealth and power of corrupt officials, since they become the best people to go to for illegal trade of the contraband, Smith explained. He urged conservation donors not to give up on countries with corrupt governments.
"It's a matter of putting more effort on making sure projects work," he said. "A lot of these countries have the most biodiversity, so they shouldn't be ignored."
Ginsberg, a retired field ecologist at the Bronx Zoo in New York, called the findings "a useful argument for better governance. What it may mean is that conservation organizations should not act corruptly. It's lead by example."
Alternative actions, Ginsberg told UPI, include not paying bribes and paying "your staff a living wage. Just because the government pays $12 a month doesn't mean you should.," he said. "They're put in a difficult situation, and you cannot expect people to not pursue other income if they're not making a living wage."
Agencies will want to ensure transparency when it comes to budgets "to know how much money is being spent and where it's being spent, to identify where it goes missing," Smith said
Smith also encouraged sustainable use of wildlife, such as rhino horns, instead of outright trade bans in endangered species.
"If there's demand for a particular product, and it becomes more scarce so that its price goes up, you can have a system where people have an incentive to protect that valuable resource. That's a way of preventing corruption," he said. "South Africa has it with their rhino population. It's been fortunate in being able to spend more on rhinos, and now they're stockpiling rhino horns."
Charles Choi covers scientific research and new technology for UPI Science News. E-mail email@example.com