Ronald Clarke, University Professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers–Newark and a luminary in academic criminology circles worldwide, knows he can disappoint those who ask him for answers to what makes bad guys tick. “I look at the situation of the crimes; I’m not really interested in the person committing the crime. I’m much more interested in how they do it,” says Clarke, who was honored in November with the Chancellor’s Excellence Award.
In recent years, Clarke has been drawn exclusively to a particular kind of crime: wildlife poaching. Although he has spent more than 40 years probing problems affecting humans, he would like to finish his career figuring out what can be done to protect species worldwide that are threatened by profit-seeking humans.
Clarke’s move toward wildlife crime, and away from subjects such as terrorism and organized crime, started in 2009, while studying the poaching of African elephants. He eventually published a paper on the subject with a graduate student (among their findings: the elephant population in only four or five African nations stabilized or increased after an international ban on ivory). But the idea of a professional leap away from the perils facing humans toward those confronting animals began nearly 20 years earlier, when Richard Leakey, the well-known conservationist and paleoanthropologist, visited Rutgers.
“In the late 1980s, when I was dean of the School of Criminal Justice, Leakey gave a talk about the effort to prevent or interrupt the trade of ivory. I didn’t forget about it,” says Clarke. “His idea of burning ivory tusks seized from poachers was an imaginative way to call attention to the plight of elephants.”
Most poaching happens because governments are ill equipped to monitor the vast, inaccessible areas where it occurs. “The countries concerned cannot afford to patrol these areas adequately,” he says. And although international rescue groups have made strides, some countries aren’t doing their part to curb demand for prized animals. China, for one, has been sluggish in its efforts to reduce the demand for ivory, he says.
(Actress and alumna Kristin Davis has joined the fight to protect elephants in Kenya. Read about her efforts.)
Since completing the paper on elephants, Clarke and his graduate student have studied crimes against fish, rhinos, South American parrots, and Indian tigers, choosing his subjects based on their vulnerability to extinction. For example, there are now only about 1,450 tigers in India (most of them in the country’s 42 tiger reserves), down from an estimated 100,000 tigers in 1900, he says. His findings have been as distinct as the species being studied. “There’s no blanket solution” to poaching, he says. “Every problem demands tailor-made solutions.”
Most of his research takes place in Newark, though the tiger research, undertaken in 2010, did involve fieldwork. At one point, it took a harrowing turn. At one of the tiger reserves, his team couldn’t get out because a tiger that day had mauled somebody (not related to their group), resulting in a death. But the study, like each of Clarke’s handful of wildlife projects, proved valuable. He and his team zeroed in on ways to involve the community in tiger-rescue efforts. “One of the things I kept reading is that conservation has to rely on the surrounding community. You’ve got to have people buy in.”
By the end of the study, Clarke and his team wrote a paper on how better to invest Indian communities in protecting tigers; upon its publication early this year, they will present their findings to influential people in the Indian government whom Clarke has come to know through his non-wildlife criminology work.
Despite their influence, and despite his own, he doubts that they will speedily enact changes in the tiger reserves that the study indicated were warranted. “You can say, ‘You should read this; it should influence your practice’”—the main goal, really, of any policy-oriented researcher. “But one of the things I’ve learned is that it’s hard to get people to change their practice,” Clarke says.
It is a frustration he has been accustomed to for decades. One of his first tastes of the tendency to resist change that might reduce crime came in the 1980s in London, where he worked as the head researcher in the Home Office (the British government’s office that addresses domestic crime). “People are very person-centric” and tend to focus on psychology rather than the effects of a situation in explaining behavior, he says.
“Almost no one will believe what I tell them, and that does make it hard,” says Clarke, who is working on a new project on Indian tigers while taking a yearlong sabbatical that will end in September. He is not inclined to give up, though: “You keep trying.” •
— Tammy La Gorce