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 Poaching is more than an enforcement problem

                                                                    Not really a farm animal

In a recent article with the above title in the journal Conservation Letters, authors Dan Challender and Douglas MacMillan claim that law enforcement and anti-poaching measures are attracting a lot of funding these days, but that this has not halted the path to extinction for many species with commercial value. They say that approaches investing too heavily in enforcement will ultimately prove inadequate as

“ regulatory approaches are being overwhelmed by the drivers of poaching and trade, financial incentives for poaching are increasing due to rising prices and growing relative poverty between areas of supply and centers of demand, and aggressive enforcement of trade controls, in particular bans, can increase profits and lead to the involvement of organized criminals with the capacity to operate even under increased enforcement effort”

The authors seem to like long sentences. They then say that “new and bold strategies are needed urgently” and sum them up as follows:

1.In the immediate future, communities should be incentivized and enabled to conserve wildlife;

2.In the medium term,  prices should be driven down by regulated trade, ranching and farming and using taxes to benefit conservation;  and

3.In the long term, demand should be reduced in consumer countries.  

I would agree with priorities 1 and 3, but have great doubts about the applicability of much of what they propose in priority 2. Let me explain. 

We have talked much about the possibilities of regulated trade and seen the highly disappointing results. For example, many conservationists blame the “one-off” ivory sales authorized by CITES (to China and Japan) in 2008 for the disastrous elephant poaching epidemic we are witnessing today. The number of elephants poached from January 2012 to date stands at 80,365 according to one website attempting to keep track

The reasons for the increase in poaching are diverse and complex, and include considerable corruption within the ivory source countries, involvement of local militias operating in largely failed states, some evidence of involvement of terrorist groups, involvement of highly organized criminal networks, etc. But what is also clear is that roughly 70% of the poached ivory ends up in China. Clearly, the attempt of a “regulated” trade by CITES only stimulated an ever-growing demand by a market fuelled by ever-growing prosperity. China blames the poaching on lack of law-enforcement by the source states, but neglects to enforce the illegal trade within China except for a few token seizures of illegal shipments and a recent largely symbolic show of destroying a few tons of tusks and sculptures. 

I have said this many times before – the market for ivory is simply too large to be satisfied with a “regulated” trade, and even if the trade prices were kept low, the difference between buying ivory legally and poaching an elephant is still hugely in favour of hiring poachers. And anyway, with demand from China and Thailand hovering around 25,000 elephants per year, there is no hope of a legal supply. 

Not deterred, the South African government has announced it will seek legalized trade of rhino horn stockpiles as one means of decreasing the rapidly escalating levels of poaching of rhinos in that country. There, official figures show that 1,004 rhinos were poached in 2013 compared to 668 in 2012, an increase of 150%. Again, there has been little research done on the levels of demand in the destination countries (mainly Vietnam, but also China), and the enormous increases from year to year of the numbers of rhinos poached (2012 also showed an increase of about 150% over the numbers poached in 2011, etc) indicates that demand is ever-growing despite the sale of rhino horn being illegal. 

If there is no understanding of demand levels, selling off South Africa’s stocks of rhino horns (and then legalizing rhino horn in the buyer country) is unlikely to make even a dent in the growth of demand. And again, with the price of rhino horn allegedly set at about $60,000, it will always be cheaper to carry on poaching.

Remarkably, the authors say that farming and ranching should be used to supply the demand. This is of particular interest as they well know that elephants – a species of major concern for the current illegal trade in wildlife products - cannot be “ranched”. As an aside, Dan Callender is an expert in pangolins, another species greatly involved in the illegal wildlife trade and another species that cannot be farmed or ranched. 

In terms of demand reduction it is an option vigorously being pursued in China and Vietnam, but it is likely that significant results will take decades to appear. Simply because, in the case of ivory, the trade is legal in China and possession of ivory has deep cultural roots as well as a means of displaying wealth and status. If Chinese can openly and legally purchase ivory then few will forgo owning it out of an unfamiliar concern for animal conservation – something hardly part of Chinese culture it would seem. The authors are correct in therefore saying that demand-reduction should take a long-term approach. 

Which brings us back to their most urgent recommendation – involving communities. I fear, from all indications, that the headlong rush towards anti-poaching and law enforcement priorities will relegate the communities to remain the poor stepchild of any funding initiatives. But this is precisely where the most immediate and lasting differences can be made.

Simply put, poaching syndicates will find few willing recruits among communities that value wildlife and are not negatively affected by its presence. Also, community members with sustainable employment might think twice about getting involved in illegal activities and facing arrest, imprisonment, fines, seizure of property, etc. At present, desperate people will take those risks without much reflection on consequences. 

The trouble is, of course, that such community assistance programmes might not be perceived as “sexy” as, for example, equipping rangers, buying drones and helicopters, or displaying seized ivory. It will take time to implement community schemes but once in place they can be durable and function long into the future. And it will contribute increasingly to a concept that few are referring to  –“supply reduction”. 

Picture credit:

Dan Challender is co-chair of the IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group 

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Posted by Chris Macsween at 14:42

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