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OPINION: Saving Wildlife From the Specter of Trade

By Adam Cruise Elephants, rhinos, and other wildlife across the globe are being slaughtered for their tusks, horns, pelts, and bones with no end in sight. Last week, the battle lines for an offensive were drawn. At a conference in Cape Town, South Africa, experts from around the world gathered to tackle the problem. Unfortunately,...

Rural communities living alongside game parks in South Africa still largely survive at a subsistence level often below the poverty line. (Photo by Colin Bell)
Rural communities alongside game parks in South Africa still largely survive below the poverty line. (Photo by Colin Bell)

By Adam Cruise

Elephants, rhinos, and other wildlife across the globe are being slaughtered for their tusks, horns, pelts, and bones with no end in sight.

Last week, the battle lines for an offensive were drawn. At a conference in Cape Town, South Africa, experts from around the world gathered to tackle the problem. Unfortunately, they have to fight on two fronts.

While it is widely acknowledged that crime and the illegal trade are the primary drivers of prodigious declines in wildlife over the past decade, they’re ably abetted by an influential, if not unintentional, ally: Those who favor a legal trade in wildlife.

The umbrella cause is otherwise known as Sustainable Utilization and Development. The promoters, which include such august bodies as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, are unashamedly anthropocentric.

Wildlife is regarded exclusively as providing “vital goods and services for mankind,” according to a recently released paper by the International Trade Centre, “The Trade in Wildlife: A Framework to Improve Biodiversity and Livelihood Outcomes.”

Their concern is that wildlife, as a means of satisfying human needs and desires, cannot sustain rising demand for their products, such as ivory or rhino horn, unless it is properly “managed” or “regulated” (read “consumed” and “exploited”).

But the perfidiousness of the powerful pro-trade lobby is that its agenda is promoted under the guise of conservation, preservation of biological diversity, and poverty alleviation, when in fact it’s in the name of vested interests and profit through materialist self-aggrandisement.

The catastrophic results of this approach speak for themselves.

In 2008 the world, through the supervision of CITES, voted for a sale of an enormous stockpile of ivory that had been collected by the southern African bloc of countries.

It was thought that stockpiling could reduce conservation risks, as demand peaks are more readily met and high prices smoothed over time.

Yet Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa, and Botswana as well as the buyer, the Chinese government, were set to make a substantial financial return, and they did.

But the sale also triggered an unrivaled interest in ivory, since causing elephant populations in both Africa and Asia to plummet to dangerously low levels.

A different picture in Botswana where rural communities receive direct financial benefit from tourism without investing a dime. (Photo by Colin Bell)
The picture is different in Botswana, where rural communities receive direct financial benefit from tourism without investing a dime. (Photo by Colin Bell)

South Africa’s Official Conservation Policy

But selling off stockpiles is just the tip of the iceberg. Sustainable Utilization, which embraces hunting—even canned hunting—is South Africa’s official conservation policy.

This comes with the release of Draft Management Plans for rhinos and lions.

South Africa wants a down-listing of wild lions on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species. The idea is to provide enough lions in captive-bred facilities to capitalize on the international canned hunting market as well as that for lion bones in Asia.

A down-listing provides the legal framework to do so. The country also wants to initiate the harvesting of rhino horn from captive-bred facilities in an effort to boost production—which is already under way with lions.

Asian traders started taking an interest in South African lions in 2008, when the decline in tiger numbers became acute. Lion bones are now filling the gap, and there has been a sharp increase in lion products sold in Vietnam, Laos, and China.

The South African Department of Environmental affairs says that 1,630 pounds (739 kilograms) of lion bones were legally sold to the Asian market in 2012 as compared to just 121 pounds (55 kilograms) the year before.

It stands to reason then that rhino horn from captive-bred rhinos will fulfill a similar role.

As a result, the South African government is expected to push for a review of the legalization of rhino horn trade in October 2016, when the country hosts the 17th CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP17).

In Zimbabwe, recent actions concerning wild elephants indicate that country’s desire to draw income from both live wild animals and wild animal products.

Saviour Kasukuwere, Minister for the Environment, Water and Climate, went on record at the Kasane conference earlier this year in Botswana saying that Zimbabwe is “open for business” in terms of selling wild elephants.
A few weeks later, the parliamentary Portfolio Committee backed him up, urging the country to find a way to export a large number of live elephants, stating in a press release that “The country will realize significant revenue from elephant exports.”

Counterattack By Trade Skeptics

Skeptics of legal trade who met in Cape Town have gone for a frontal attack—fighting fire with fire.

Alejandro Nadal—a professor of economics at El Colegio, in Mexico, and an expert in macro trade markets and trends—warns that these governments are blinded by “a veil of ignorance” when it comes to understanding the markets, not only for elephants and rhino horn but for all wildlife products.

He asserts that there has not yet been a comprehensive and rigorous enough study of the market drivers and behaviors.

It’s possible, Nadal warns, that Asian demand for ivory, rhino horn, and other products could be a “runaway market” and that a legalization of trade “will accelerate the demise of wildlife.”

Most of the other experts at the conference echoed this sentiment.

Will Travers, president of the Born Free Foundation, believes the risks of trade are too great. He favors instead a precautionary approach: concentrating on reducing demand.

Paula Kahumbu, CEO of Kenyan conservation NGO WildlifeDirect, said that a legal trade would put the entire continent’s wildlife at risk.

In Cape Town an international panel of experts showed concerns over the effectiveness of legalizing trade in wildlife. (Photo courtesy South African Institute of International Affairs)
At the Wildlife in Crisis conference in Cape Town, an international panel of experts showed concerns over the effectiveness of legalizing trade in wild animals. (Photo courtesy South African Institute of International Affairs)

Wildlife Tourism: A Green Economy

Sustainability can come in non-consumptive and non-exploitative forms, in what has been termed a “green economy.”

Much-needed income is generated from tourism, specifically wildlife-watching tourism. It’s already big business. In many sub-Saharan countries, especially in East and southern Africa, wildlife tourism is one of the most lucrative sectors in their economies.

According to a recently published study by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), Africa is exceptional when it comes to mammal diversity. Unsurprisingly, African countries are the world’s premier destination for wildlife tourism, with visitors coming especially to see the Big 5: elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards, and African buffaloes.

The UNWTO study shows that wildlife tourism has been increasing steadily, with an average annual growth rate of just over 6 percent a year between 2005 and 2013. During that period, arrivals grew from 35 million to a new record of 56 million.

International tourism revenue for Africa in 2013 reached U.S. $34.2 billion. That number is predicted to more than double during the upcoming decade and jump to $134 million in 2030, thanks to an explosive rise in media coverage and Internet communication.

Conservation issues, an awareness of the risk of extinctions, and the moral stigma of hunting and trading also contribute to tourists’ motivation to observe wildlife ranging freely in their natural habitats.

Legal Trade: A Minuscule Revenue Source

Alejandro Nadal says that legal trade in wildlife contributes little to economies: By “using the best and the most optimistic estimates, like the total value of all the flows (and even of estimated stocks) of rhino horn going out of South Africa, we can then compare it with total GDP. That’s going to be a minuscule coefficient.” At the same time, there is very little cross-over between wildlife tourism and wildlife trade.

If profit is the driver behind sustainability, governments ought to lean toward non-consumptive tourism—observing wildlife on safaris, gorilla trekking, bird or whale watching excursions—as opposed to hunting or fishing.

With 80 percent of the total annual sales in the tourist sector coming from wildlife watching, and only a tiny percentage coming from legal trade in wildlife, governments would be wise to ditch the economically misguided practice of the latter.

According to the UNWTO study, an average group of six wildlife watching tourists spends an average of $433 per person per day on a ten-day safari, with an additional out-of-pocket average expenditure of $55 a day.

These visitors do not want to find out that wild elephants are sold to a circus or zoo in the Far East or be forced to gawk at a semi-tame rhino from behind a fence knowing that some part of it is going to be shipped overseas to support a nefarious trade.

Tourism, not trade, is the way forward to sustain both wildlife and rural communities. (Photo by Colin Bell)

South Africa Can Lead

I speak as a South African. My country has a real chance to lead the continent, and the world, by making the shift to a green economy.

We need to summon the political will to confront criminality while providing real alternatives to poaching in what Nadal refers to as “agricultural reform,” another of whose benefits can be the prevention of habitat loss.

Rural communities, formerly supressed under apartheid, living alongside our game parks have received little economic benefit from them in the decades since—aside from poaching.

Most of these people, and especially the women, were long excluded from partaking directly in the management and financial dividends of South Africa’s famously popular game parks.

Employment in the form of rangers, guides, and lodge managers generally went to white South African males. This left rural communities subsisting often below the poverty line.

Speaking at the Cape Town conference about rural communities and protected areas, Moshakge Molokwane, National Secretary for People and Parks, said that “not much has changed for the people on the ground.”

Legalizing trade will not, as the government hopes, solve the problem.

“It’s impossible,” Nadal says, “to think that you can have a development strategy that relies on the extraction and sustainable use of wildlife. I believe there’s no historical example of a country that emerged from the trap of low productivity by trading in wildlife.”

In Zambia, poachers are being convinced to pursue alternative livelihoods such as beekeeping, vegetable gardening, and carpentry, along with farming.

Botswana and Kenya too have introduced successful community-based approaches that benefit from agriculture and wildife tourism.

With 40 percent of Botswana’s land given over to wildlife conservation—one of the highest percentages in the world—Botswana is a pertinent example: Along with its agricultural programs, the country has successfully tapped into tourism (the economy’s second biggest sector, behind mining) by issuing hefty annual rentals for lodges and operators and levying a royalty of 6 percent of their total take to underwrite community programs via local government agencies.

In this way, communities living in or alongside wildlife reserves earn upwards of 35 percent of the profits accruing from every safari lodge in Botswana.

As Paula Kahumbu emphasized in her talk, South Africa needs to adopt green economy solutions that are suited to its circumstances.

Adam Cruise has a philosophy degree in environmental and animal ethics from the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa. He specializes in wildlife conservation and wildlife crime and has traveled throughout the continent documenting and commenting on the key conservation issues and crises that face the continent.

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