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A Misguided Bid to Legalize Wildlife Trafficking

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 6, 2014

(Photo: courtesy of IUCN/ David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation)

(Photo: courtesy of IUCN/ David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation)

 

Foreign Affairs magazine is getting attention today with an opinion piece arguing that wildlife trafficking should be legalized.  It’s not a new idea, and the writer also makes broadbrush statements that gloss over the nitty-gritty details.

Yes, 1920 prohibition of alcohol and the modern war on drugs both drove up the price of those commodities and created lucrative niches for criminal syndicates.  But both alcohol and drugs can be produced in almost limitless quantity.  That’s not true for wildlife. The writer uses the example of the vicuña trade to suggest how thoughtfully planned commercialization can save a species.  This is disingenuous.  Shearing an animal for its wool is different from de-horning, de-tusking, or, more often, just killing the animal that’s the source of a commodity.

Would it be possible, for instance, to produce enough elephants to meet the current demand for ivory? The writer says 22,000 elephants died at the hands of poachers last year. WCS puts the number much higher, at 35,000.  Either way, elephants don’t grow–and don’t grow tusks–that fast.

I accept that trophy hunting elephants for a very high fee can benefit elephant habitat, under carefully controlled circumstances. But up to the moment of its death, the quarry still lives as a wild animal.  Most people–much less most animal activists–would balk at the idea of farming elephants for their tusks.  Would the elephants be slaughtered for their ivory? Or merely anesthetized for removal? The gender thing is a little confusing here, but what is the appropriate term for emasculation of a species?

Here’s an excerpt from the Foreign Affairs article:

Outright bans, then, are not the answer. For this reason, the South African government plans to propose lifting the ban on trading rhino horn at the next CITES meeting in 2016. South African officials argue that a legal trade would take profits away from criminal syndicates. Just as taxes on cigarettes fund education and health programs in the United States, similar levies would also provide ample funds for campaigns to combat poaching and reduce demand. Meanwhile, regular de-horning of the animals would increase the global horn supply, lowering prices and the attraction of poaching. Rhinos produce nearly one kilogram of horn each year, which can easily be harvested through a simple veterinary procedure. Farming the animals ethically, moreover, would allow consumers to demand horn products from sustainably managed sources.

To legalize the rhino trade, South Africa will need a two-thirds majority among CITES members. It can expect to run into stiff opposition from a group that will likely include the United States, Kenya, and a number of European countries. Animal welfare groups will also push hard against legalization. That said, CITES already permits the trading of live rhinos and some limited hunting. In January, the Dallas Safari Club auctioned the right to hunt an old rhino in Namibia for $350,000. (One bidder withdrew his offer of $1 million — money that could have gone toward protecting rhinos — after receiving a death threat from an animal welfare extremist.) Such hunting fees can provide a critical source of revenue; in Namibia, they finance one-third of the government’s wildlife protection budget.

Peru embarked on a similar legalization process in 1979. To save the vicuña — a camelid that resembles a small llama — from extinction at the hands of hunters who prized its fine wool, the Peruvian government gave local communities the right to shear and market the animal’s wool. Now local herders protect the animals and also earn money from sale of their wool. Since then, the country’s vicuña population has grown from 5,000 animals — on the verge of extinction — to more than 200,000 today. CITES approved the policy in 1994.

Such a process of legalization, however, would not necessarily be a magic bullet. For a legal trade to work, governments would have to enforce a tight system of export permits and harvest quotas. Policing would still be needed to protect animals and forests. The success of a legal trade would also hinge on animal reproductive rates and the level of poverty in rural areas where the incentives to poach are high. But policymakers should heed the lessons of the drug wars. Bans fail because borders remain porous and officials corrupt. There is no wall high enough to counteract enormous financial rewards for breaking the rules to feed a voracious market.

Like the drug wars, restrictions on the animal trade reflect not only policy positions but also certain moral beliefs. Yet moralizing conservation organizations are typically based in wealthy countries and overlook the huge financial burdens that enforcement imposes on poor countries with already scarce resources. Such groups also minimize the potential benefits of taxing the wildlife trade, in the form of precious funds that would otherwise go to criminal outfits. Individual countries, then, will also have to make some informed decisions on their own. They would do well to consider what the United States has achieved in its war on drugs — now in its fourth decade.

There are some good examples of how carefully managed commercialization can save a species–the leather trade, for instance, helped get the American alligator off the endangered species list.  Tourism and trophy hunting brought the rhino back from near-extinction in South Africa (but in the end the horn trade also induced ranchers there to sell out their own conservation success.)

The article in Foreign Affairs glibly skirts all the real issues when it comes to the challenge of saving elephants, rhinos, and other species in a very crowded modern world.

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