The UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) seeks to save endangered species by curtailing wildlife trade. But the mood is bleak at the current 15th Conference of Parties in Doha, Qatar. CITES Secretary-General Willem Wijnstekers says attempts to halt the decline of tigers have “failed miserably,” while organized crime is playing an increasing role in illegal trade. It is, therefore, time to consider alternatives.
Since its inception some 35 years ago, CITES has progressively stepped up attempts to control or shut down the trade in parts of tigers, elephants, rhinoceroses and bears, yet demand persists, for both ornamental and “medicinal” uses. Tiger bones, rhino horns and bear gall bladders have been used for thousands of years as traditional treatments in China and many Asian countries.
In an attempt to meet this demand, people in China and some neighboring states have tried to breed captive bears, tigers and rhinoceroses. Horrified Western conservation and animal welfare groups have spared no effort in trying to shut them down. But this sentimental response may not be in the best interests of the remaining wild animals.
Bear farming is an established practice in China, which allows a domestic trade in bear bile — extracted from gall bladders while they are alive. It’s a nasty business but, although illegal trade in bear parts continues in unstable countries such as Myanmar, there does not appear to be much large-scale poaching of wild bears for gall bladders.
Tiger farming began in China in the 1980s and currently harbors more tigers than are in the wild. However, China banned domestic trade in tiger products in 1993 and the ban remains in place, despite repeated domestic calls to reopen trade. Meanwhile, wild tiger numbers have dropped from some 5,000 or more in 1996 to below 3,200 today, and there is evidence of organized, large-scale poaching in, for example, India.
Some farmed tiger parts appear to have leaked onto the black market, leading the World Bank and others to call for an end to captive breeding in China — removing what is described as a loophole, and any potential for legal trade once and for all. But is this a good idea?
The evidence suggests that demand for certain wildlife products is not very sensitive to changes in price, so when supply is restricted, price rises dramatically. This is very similar to oil, the price of which rises dramatically in response to small changes in short-term demand, as in 2008. So the ban on wildlife trade generates high rewards for those willing to risk supplying it. Disposable incomes in Asia are also rising fast so, although tastes may be changing, consumers are still willing to spend more for illegal wildlife products. And even as law enforcers clamp down on loopholes, new ones are exploited — such as using lion bones instead of tiger bones.
But even if all these supplies are cut off, demand looks set to remain high, so the suppliers of last resort will be the serious professionals: organized criminals who specialize in smuggling arms, drugs and other high-value illicit goods. This presents a serious challenge to conservation for two reasons.
First, experience shows that organized crime is usually several steps ahead of the law, especially in lower-income countries, where there is an almost endless supply of corruptible officials and willing suppliers (poachers and the rural poor).
Second, unlike the opportunists who exploit loopholes in laws and breeding programs, criminal gangs are likely to set their sights on what matters most to biodiversity conservation: the genetically viable core populations in protected areas. This has already happened to a large extent with rhinos and elephants, and more recently with tigers. Underpaid enforcement officers in protected areas are usually no match for gangs of heavily armed and seriously determined professional poachers.
Attempts to wish away Asian demand for wildlife products through moral suasion, punitive regulation and bans have failed. Instead, the criminalization of wildlife trade is inexorably driving it into the control of organized crime.
Shutting down China’s captive breeding would reinforce the criminal monopoly on trade in tigers by eliminating potential alternative sources. Given the persistent demand for tiger products and rhino horn and the dwindling numbers of wild tigers and rhinos — in spite of decades of trade restrictions — it is time to explore options that would legally satisfy demand, save wild animals and undermine organized crime too.
Michael ‘t Sas Rolfes is an environmental economist based in Cape Town, South Africa, and a fellow of the independent development think tank International Policy Network, London.
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