By Douglas MacMillan
Rhinos, elephants and the big cats like lions and tigers are all at risk of extinction as a result of a resurgence in the illegal trade of their body parts. Newspapers in recent days have been filled with the gruesome pictures of rhinos and elephants, their horns and tusks ruthlessly cut away.
Current international policy is to significantly invest in anti-poaching strategies and to reduce demand. In my view this is doomed to failure, because policy makers do not fully understand the complex social, cultural and economic nature of the wildlife trade. It is not a simple law enforcement problem, as western based conservation NGOs would have us believe.
The illegal trafficking of ivory and other wildlife parts is a billion dollar trade and it is unrealistic to expect demand reduction to work in the short term. The crazy prices – by weight, more than gold, more than cocaine – that are being offered simply reflect the very high value rich Asian businessmen place on them. Demand reduction programmes are powerless in the face of market forces unleashed by globalisation and exponential economic growth in countries such as China and Vietnam. Cultural change to reduce demand takes time, and with only a few hundred black rhino left, for example, time is something we don’t have. Indeed, in the next five years, with the increased penetration of China into the African continent, prices will continue rising as the animals become scarcer and trade and supply chains even more established.
Greater emphasis on enforcement is also misguided. First, effective enforcement will only drive prices up, which in turn encourages more poaching. Second, enforcing trade restrictions in countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia that are rich in biodiversity but economically poor is highly problematic. Wildlife trade is intrinsically linked to livelihood strategies, tenure rights, governance issues and cultural practices along the length of the trade chain. A strict supply-based approach also generates negative outcomes for the rural poor who are most dependent on wildlife resources for their livelihood. In short, a political minefield, into which it is unlikely politicians will be tempted to stumble by funding the measures necessary to be effective. More....