The academic study of wildlife crime falls between two distinct disciplines: criminology and conservation science. Traditionally, the discipline of criminology has focused on the study of conventional street crimes (e.g. robbery and burglary); criminal law has been limited in its ability to address crimes against nature, as the criminalization of human behavior is constructed by the state and society it exists within- it is therefore evolving, subjective and dependent on time and place. Historically, the exploitation of resources and wildlife has not been addressed in traditional criminal law, therefore remains a subject that has received limited attention from scholars of criminology. At the same time, conservation science has traditionally fallen within the purview of conservation biologists and ecologists and not social scientists, which has left the study of wildlife crime and specifically, the international trade in wildlife, largely in the realm of the natural sciences. This highlights a common dilemma in the social-ecological systems interface, where seemingly independent disciplines function in isolation from one another while addressing a shared complex issue or problem.
However, given the increasingly multifaceted nature of the ecological, social, and political processes of conservation, the growing awareness of wicked problems and complexity of implementing sound conservation policy, contributions of the social sciences within the conservation sciences has grown. Thus, while conservation science and specifically wildlife crime studies, have traditionally favored quantitative over qualitative methods, natural science problems are embedded in human and social systems, therefore qualitative methods provide a means to both complement existing natural science knowledge and to generate new forms of knowledge within a study system.
Wildlife crime is driven by many factors including: poverty, social marginalization, political transition, cultural and traditional beliefs, globalization, human-wildlife conflict and crime opportunity (Moreto and Pires 2018). Despite the scope and complexity of these drivers, and the fact that many of them are rooted in the human and social dimension, the fields of criminology, criminal justice and crime science have only very recently joined the discussion on wildlife crime (Van Uhm 2016; White 2008; Gibbs et al. 2010). My research in the Russian Far East on tiger trafficking, adds to this growing interdisciplinary scholarship and operates within an emerging wildlife crime framework, with an emphasis on integrating two traditionally very distinct disciplines, criminology and conservation science, to better understand the structure and organization of the illegal tiger trade in Russia.
There are three main perspectives that challenge traditional approaches to criminological inquiry: green criminology, environmental criminology, and conservation criminology. Green criminology extends the scope of conventional criminology to include acts that cause ecological damage, regardless if they are recognized in traditional law; the central question transitioning from not whether an act is or is not punishable, but whether it is harmful. Inquiry is premised on the underlying distal socio-political, economic and cultural factors associated with environmental crimes and harms. Environmental criminology is an applied and crime-specific approach, grounded in understanding the spatiotemporal and contextual situational characteristics of crime events, rather than the perpetrators. Emphasis is placed on the proximal correlates of crimes-the study of the criminal event itself- to identify situational specific strategies for prevention. Conservation criminology broadens the conceptual framework from solely a criminology perspective to multidisciplinary, drawing on criminal justice, risk and decision sciences, and natural resource conservation and management. This merging of disciplines has engendered a collaborative and applied focus: a more holistic view of conservation issues, a view that is not solely reliant on experts but is culturally and experientially constructed and provides a means to consider more explicitly the nexus of human–environment relations and interactions.
These three theoretical perspectives have driven the study of wildlife crime within criminology, but have been, in general, operating in isolation from one another. Although within the broad field of criminology they might reflect different assumptions, they share fundamental concerns about the exploitation of wildlife species and wildlife crime, thus convergence of theory and method should be desirable. In recognition of the complexity of my research on tiger trafficking in the Russian Far East, I merge all three perspectives.