By Michael 'Tsas-Rolfes
Is the prohibitionist approach really helping?
A consortium of U.S. environmental groups is aggressively promoting worldwide trade bans on elephant and rhino products as a means to save these species from extinction in the wild. Unfortunately, this approach reflects an overly simplistic, U.S.-centric worldview and imposes questionable policies on other countries, with potentially disastrous consequences for both their citizens and wildlife.
Endangered species policy in the United States follows a top-down, command-and-control approach that seeks to achieve wildlife preservation using measures such as prohibition, law enforcement, and confiscation. This paradigm originated with interstate trade restrictions under the 1900 Lacey Act and has gradually evolved to include uncompensated land acquisitions, land-use restrictions, and additional regulations on “taking” endangered species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
That same year saw the inception of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which was also materially shaped by U.S. thinking. CITES regulates international trade in endangered species and their products through a listing system. For species listed on CITES Appendix II, international trade is regulated with a permit system. For those listed on Appendix I, international trade is simply banned, with limited exceptions for the transfer of trophies acquired through regulated sport hunting.
THIS TOP-DOWN, PROHIBITIONIST APPROACH finds favor with preservationist groups such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare. IFAW consistently opposes all commercial uses of wildlife that involve either sport hunting or the consumption of animal body parts, regardless of whether such uses are sustainable or even positive for habitat and species conservation.
As an example, earlier this year IFAW protested the auction of a black rhino trophy hunt in Namibia to U.S. sport hunters, despite the fact that the bull in question was a surplus animal past its breeding stage and that the funds from the sale would add considerably to Namibia’s annual conservation budget. Although the U.S. government initially indicated that it would allow Texas hunter Corey Knowlton to proceed with the hunt and import the trophy, his permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is still pending.
Namibia’s approach to conservation, shared by other countries such as South Africa, is one of sustainable use. This is a bottom-up approach which recognizes the importance of providing tangible conservation incentives to the people who live alongside dangerous wild animals: rural communities and private landowners. Both Namibia and South Africa have built strong market-oriented institutions that allow people living near wild animals to receive direct economic benefits from the wildlife. Such institutions encourage locals to view wild species as assets worthy of their custodianship and investment.
The bottom-up approach relies on the creation of locally relevant institutions in which regulations are aligned with local customs and culture and are backed by a system of well-defined and enforced property rights over wild animals and their habitat. The exact nature of such institutions varies between South Africa and Namibia, but both countries share the sustainable-use philosophy and implement it with great success. My own research suggests that adherence to this approach provides the most plausible explanation for why these two countries now jointly harbor more than 90 percent of Africa’s surviving rhinos.
Unlike these Southern African countries, Kenya has implemented the top-down approach since the 1970s, maintaining state ownership of all wildlife, banning all trophy hunting, and supporting international bans on trading ivory and rhino horn. The result, according to Kenyan wildlife expert Mike Norton-Griffiths, is that Kenya has lost more than 70 percent of its big game animals since then. Local people, who benefit directly from cattle and crops but not from wild animals, allow the latter to quietly disappear at the hands of poachers as they convert wildlife habitat to more profitable uses.
South Africa’s experience stands in stark contrast to Kenya. Since the 1960s, South Africa progressively strengthened landowners’ property rights and opened up legal markets for live game sales and trophy hunts of rare animals such as the white rhino. The result has been a twenty-fold increase in the head-count of game animals, the emergence of more than 11,000 registered private game reserves, and an increase in white rhino numbers from 800 to more than 18,000 by 2010.
However, South Africa’s past success is now under threat. Despite failures elsewhere, the top-down approaches advocated by IFAW and adopted by Kenya and other countries are increasingly taking hold in international conservation policy. This response has been bolstered by growing concerns over the global rise of illegal trade in wildlife products.
THROUGHOUT THE LAST DECADE, rising prosperity in Asian consumer markets has resulted in a surge in demand for wildlife products used as ornaments, food, and ingredients in traditional medicines. This has driven up black market prices for elephant ivory and rhino horn, thereby stimulating dramatic increases in poaching rates in various African and Asian countries. Whereas CITES trade bans on ivory and rhino horn were thought to have been effective in the early 1990s, they no longer seem to be working so well in recent years. More....