Donors can be reluctant to invest in countries with a bad reputation. Credit: © GettyImages

The countries with the most corrupt governments have the worst conservation records but the most species, suggests a new study. The report's authors urge those funding and carrying out conservation projects to factor this into their planning.

"If the money isn't getting through, sending more money isn't going to help," says team member Robert Smith of the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK. Donors are reluctant to invest in countries with a bad reputation, and people are more reluctant to work there.

Remedies can be as simple as ensuring that conservation personnel are well paid, trained and motivated, and keeping close tabs on accounts, Smith suggests.

The finding puts hard figures on what most working in the field have suspected, says Peter Kareiva of Seattle-based conservation organization the Nature Conservancy. "Corruption inhibits effectiveness, and we don't deal with it well enough," Kareiva says. "Most of the people working in conservation are biologists, who tend to think that the problems are biological."

The link also has implications for regulating the trade in animal products such as ivory and rhino horn. Prohibiting legal sales may simply drive up prices and create opportunities for criminals. "It just becomes a means by which élites can gain access to resources," says development researcher Kate Brown of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK.

Others believe that the underlying problems are economic, rather than political. Corruption undermines conservation when it pays better, notes Dick Rice, chief economist with Conservation International, based in Washington DC.

Wildlife workers are often badly remunerated, making bribes more attractive. Conservation policy frequently carries relatively little clout with governments and law-enforcement agencies, and the success of conservation projects can be difficult to gauge. All of these factors make projects vulnerable to crooked financial practices.

Conservationists must realize that they are operating in a market, Rice says. "Often the only people offering communities anything for their resources are the people who are destroying them," he laments.

Round the horn

Smith's team took figures from a 'corruption perception index' produced by the German organization Transparency International. This uses public opinion polls to score governments on a scale from zero - the most corrupt - to ten.

For animals, corruption explains trends better than any other factor. Credit: © Corbis

The researchers compared each country's score with the rate of change in its forest cover and, for African countries, in its elephant and rhino populations1.

Rhinos, elephants and trees are disappearing most quickly in countries with the worst governance scores, such as Sudan and Ethiopia, the team found. Higher-ranked nations, such as South Africa and Botswana, have healthier wildlife populations. For the animals, corruption explained the trends better than any other factor.

The influence of corruption on wildlife goes beyond Africa. Efforts to conserve Indonesia's forests, for example, have been hampered by illegal logging, supported by corrupt officials despite a raft of protective legislation2.

Because of such considerations conservation organizations already focus their efforts on better-governed countries, says Kareiva. In less stable ones, he adds, the best approach is to try to gather basic biological information - "to learn what to do should the situation improve".