Western conservation groups are seeking stricter law enforcement to tackle a trade in endangered wildlife, but an Oxford University researcher warns that this is not a 'silver bullet' solution. In an article published in the journal Oryx, Dr Paul Jepson highlights the case of the Bali starling, where bringing in tougher laws back-fired -- only serving to make the bird more popular among the elite. He highlights how sometimes local people who know the realities on the ground get better results.
Dr Jepson examines three different conservation efforts made over 30 years to protect the Bali starling (Leucopsar rothschildi), which went extinct in the wild in Bali, Indonesia, in 2006. He argues that the tightening of wildlife laws in the 1980s and 1990s led to the bird becoming a popular gift within Indonesian high society. The relevant Indonesian government agencies felt they could not enforce a crackdown because of the status of the bird-keepers. By owning such birds, members of high society appeared to be above the law, and the birds became a status symbol. The paper suggests through triggering a demand for the bird, tighter laws actually contributed to the species' demise and extinction in the wild before its reintroduction in 2008.
Dr Jepson's view contrasts with that held by the leading conservation groups who pressed governments worldwide to make illegal wildlife trade a more serious crime at the 2014 London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade. He highlights two initiatives that emerged independently from the Balinese and Javanese communities that relied on a relaxation of the enforcement of the laws on wildlife trading. First, in 2003, a zoo (Taman Safari) and a bird-breeder association (Indonesian Ornithological Society) set up a network of breeders among the owners of Bali starlings on the island of Java. Their 'crowd-breeding' model transformed the Bali starling into species whose price and source of supply were publicly known, thereby undermining the status attached to owners of these birds, as well as the profitability of black market suppliers. Licensed breeders were required to donate some of the Bali starlings for release into Bali Barat National Park. The first such release marked Indonesia's hosting of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Bali in 2008.
Another initiative highlighted is when a local Balinese conservation organisation released captive-bred starlings on the neighbouring island of Nusa Penida in 2006. An international conservation organisation and the government's relevant agency tried to block the plan (because the island is outside the species' known native range), saying any such release would contravene a strict interpretation of the law and international guidelines concerning the introduction of endangered species. The Governor of Bali intervened and the starlings were given as a ceremonial offering to a local temple before they were released. This gave the bird status as a sacred bird and thereby offered them protection under customary laws. The released starlings established a breeding population and by 2009 third-generation offspring of these release birds were flying free on the island.
Dr Jepson commented: 'I do not want to denounce the international approach seeking tighter law enforcement, but this case study shows we should not oversimplify how we respond to the problem of the wildlife trade. This study adds to a growing body of evidence that shows sometimes more nuanced approaches are needed to fit with the local social and political realities and we should tailor solutions on more of a case-by-case basis.
'Calls for stricter enforcement and trade bans represent a straight-forward solution that appeals to politicians and citizens alike. However, the complexity of the wildlife trade issue can be lost in the emotion of conservation campaigns.'