a portrait of meredith gore

Doctoral Grad Is a Leading Researcher of Wildlife Crime

Meredith Gore, PhD ’06, travels the world to study the people behind the illegal trade in fauna and flora

By Beth Saulnier

It’s a thorny, intertwined problem that threatens people, animals, and possibly even global health. In parts of Africa, poachers who kill elephants for their tusks sometimes lace the carcasses with agricultural chemicals—with the aim of poisoning the vultures that feed on them.

Why? Because their circling can alert authorities to the poacher’s crimes.

Later, other people may come along and harvest the dead birds’ heads, feet, and wings, selling them in cities for use in traditional medicine and spiritual practices.

And as if the prospect of people consuming poisoned vulture parts weren’t worrisome enough: the birds could potentially serve as vectors for anthrax to move from rural to urban areas, and from animals to humans.

That could drive the spread of zoonotic diseases, or even provide the source for a deadly bioweapon.

Studying this complex and tragic situation—under a five-year, $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense beginning in early 2023—is just one of the projects that Meredith Gore, PhD ’06, has on her plate.

Shelves of rhino skulls
Rangers in South Africa piled skulls of rhinos—all illegally killed for their horns—outside their station.

A social scientist who earned her doctorate in natural resources on the Hill, Gore—now an associate professor of geographical sciences at the University of Maryland, College Park—is one of the few researchers worldwide who focuses on wildlife crime.

In addition to the major project on elephants and vultures in South Africa and Mozambique, Gore is studying such topics as sea cucumber trafficking in Mexico, poaching of sambar deer in Vietnam, and illegal logging in Madagascar.

“There’s no ecosystem, country, or human group that’s not impacted,” she says of wildlife crime. “It’s everywhere.”

There’s no ecosystem, country, or human group that’s not impacted. It’s everywhere.

But as Gore stresses, her work primarily involves studying creatures of the two-legged variety—the ones whose needs and habits so heavily impact the rest of the planet and its inhabitants.

“I say that humans are my species; I’m trying to understand different groups of people and how they operate,” she says. “I’m an expert in the human dimensions of global environmental change—I just study illegal global environmental change.”

A critically endangered diademed sifaka lemur
A critically endangered diademed sifaka lemur in Madagascar. The species faces the threat of extinction due to illegal logging and poaching.

Gore traces her passion for exploring how humans impact wildlife to her doctoral dissertation in CALS, where she studied conflicts between people and black bears in New York State.

As her advisor—Barbara Knuth, a professor of natural resource policy—notes, it was an early example of Gore’s gifts both for conducting top-flight research and effecting positive change.

As part of her doctoral work, Gore collaborated with environmental groups, civic associations, and state wildlife managers to identify and promote ways that humans could alter their behavior to reduce negative interactions with bears.

“She had the ability to not only address the academics and think about what she needed to do for her dissertation,” says Knuth, “but also have a distinct and positive impact in the community.”

Gore is the editor of her field’s seminal textbook: Conservation Criminology, published in 2017.

She also co-edited the spring 2022 book Women and Wildlife Trafficking, which explores the particular role that women can have as (in the words of the subtitle) “participants, perpetrators, and victims.”

Gore is the editor of her field’s seminal textbook: ‘Conservation Criminology,’ published in 2017.

“The work she’s doing in wildlife crime is not just targeted to ‘How do you stop the offenders from offending?’ but, ‘What are the underlying social conditions?’” Knuth observes.

“It gets into issues of equity and inequity—like, ‘How does food insecurity contribute to illegal harvest?’ Addressing them will certainly help with biodiversity conservation, but also with a number of social issues.”

While Gore spends a fair amount of her professional life traveling the globe, she’s in the midst of a notable, first-of-its-kind program that’s based in the U.S.: a pilot project, in collaboration with the Department of Justice and the Fish and Wildlife Service, devoted to restorative justice.

Meredith on a helicopter-based patrol with wildlife rangers
On a helicopter with wildlife rangers in Mozambique, as they patrol a perimeter fence designed to keep rhinos in—and poachers out.

The project allows people who have been convicted of wildlife trafficking—participants include smugglers of scorpions and turtles—to satisfy part of their parole obligations by helping Gore collect data on relevant supply chains, which will aid future prevention efforts.

“It’s turning traffickers into teachers; they’re teaching me about all these things that, as a researcher, I’ll never be able to see,” she says. “It’s an opportunity for them to give back—to bring a different kind of justice to nonhuman animals and to nature.”

Top image: Illustration by Cornell University; its source photo and all others in this story provided.

Published July 21, 2022


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