Illegal Wildlife Trade Threatens Many Species

As a young lad, I had an effervescent fascination and love for wildlife, no matter how significant or insignificant, beautiful or ugly.   Catching frogs and snakes, raising hellbenders, nursing injured squirrels and birds back to health, or hatching a bobwhite quail from an egg and raising it in our home as a pet was just a typical day in the Fewell household.  It was this passion that eventually lead me into the field of wildlife management.   But it was the enjoyment of raising parrots in my outdoor aviary in East Texas that really caught my fancy.  And it was this enthusiasm where I began to learn of the illegal wildlife trade that threatened so many of these beautiful birds.

My interest as an avian enthusiast began in earnest with the friendship of a fella we’ll call “Bob”, who was a patron of the Petland where I worked as a teen.  Bob was a fascinating person.  And one could tell by the gold-bling hanging around his neck and his expensive taste in cars, Bob was not lacking for money.   Bob, a frequent visitor to the pet store – often with a bird on his shoulder – would regale me with stories, sharing his experiences and intimate knowledge about these beautiful animals, their likes and dislikes, and even the threats to their native habitats from deforestation and other encroachments.   Bob and I quickly forged a  friendship, centered around our common love, and he introduced me to the lucrative business of captive breeding.   Bob had several very large aviaries with hundreds of breeding pair of  macaws, cockatoos, amazons, and eclectus, to name a few,  and got me very excited about captive breeding efforts.

Folks who may be unfamiliar with the topic, captive breeding remains critically important for supplying the demand of the pet industry and, consequently, for conservation and reducing the demand for live-caught birds from the wild.   Although raising parrots was a highly profitable venture for me as a lad, I did it not because of the money, but because of my passion and knowing that I was doing something important for the conservation of those in the wild.  Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to me, Bob was also a smuggler, flying his Cessna down to Mexico periodically, loading up the belly of his plane with wild birds and running them across the border where he would either keep them as breeders or sell them for the pet industry.   One fateful illegal run, Bob got caught when one of the wild birds he smuggled, a carrier of psittacosis (parrot fever), infected his birds.  And, after a lengthy criminal investigation, authorities seized and destroyed all of his birds to keep the disease from spreading.   Bob was vigorously prosecuted, as he should have been.

That same allure that forced Bob to the dark side – big money – continues to propel a lucrative illegal syndicate, second only to the illegal drug trade.   As I’ve blogged previously, wildlife trafficking continues to threaten many species around the globe.  And it resulted in the recent extinction of the Black Rhino (posted here).   So I was particularly pleased to see that, in July of this year, President Obama signed an executive order (here), committing more U.S. resources to help the international community combat wildlife trafficking.  This week, the President’s commitment will result in the highly visible destruction of a 6-ton ivory stockpile here in the U.S., valued in the billions of dollars in illegal trade, as reported in The Guardian.

The Obama administration is stepping up aid and training for park rangers in Africa to try to stop the traffickers on the ground. The Clinton Global Initiative has also aligned with the US government efforts, with Hillary Clinton in September announcing an $80m initiative to train park rangers and sniffer dogs at 50 poaching hot spots across Africa.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is promising to strengthen penalties against those caught smuggling ivory, a White House adviser said. “The laws need to be changed.  They need to be stiffened,” said David Hayes, a former deputy secretary of interior who was appointed last September to a new White House council on wildlife trafficking.  “I think that’s going to be a primary focus for the advisory council – enforcement penalties, and what we allow and what we don’t.”

The push to end trafficking comes at a desperate time for African wildlife, with rhinos and elephants under threat from mass poaching gangs. The explosion in poaching threatens to reverse a conservation successory story, with African elephants showing signs of a comeback after a 1990 ban on ivory sales.

But conservation groups say that positive outcome was undermined by a misguided decision by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), the entity set up to protect at-risk wildlife, to allow limited sales of ivory.  In 1997, Zimbabwe was granted permission to conduct a limited sale of 50 tonnes of ivory. In 2008, China was also allowed to import 60 tonnes of ivory.  The idea was to slake the demand for ivory among the newly wealthy elites of China. But the result was a catastrophe for African wildlife, said Paula Kahumbu, chief executive of Wildlife Direct.  “We have seen in Kenya an eight-fold increase in poaching since 2009,” she said.  “The volume of ivory being taken across the country is just staggering.”

It saddens me to learn that America is the top destination for illegal ivory from Africa.  We need to put an end to this nonsense.  The President is doing his fair share.  And the good people over at the World Wildlife Fund are equally committed to the cause of exterminating this scourge.   However, educating the public and killing and putting bad guys in jail isn’t enough.  We must do more to provide these impoverished countries with incentives to protect and nurture these resources, just like they are doing at the RAXA Collective (visit the informative and unique Raxa Collective Blog), an entrepreneurial enterprise bringing together community, collaboration and conservation.


[Update:  My friend, Iain Murray over at CEI, pointed to the work and scholarship of Michael `t Sas-Rolfes and Michael de Elessi, who argue the benefits of privatizing the costs/benefits of ivory, and reduce the demand side of the illegal trafficking problem.   This past week over at PERC, Sas-Rolfes wrote

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is about to destroy 6 tons of confiscated ivory being held in Denver — ostensibly to help the campaign against the illegal killing of elephants. By so doing, it is following the lead taken by Kenya in 1989 and more recently by several other African and Asian countries.

But does the destruction of stockpiles really help the cause? In 1989, Kenya’s dramatic ivory burn seemed to have the desired effect. It raised global awareness, helped bring about an international ivory trade ban, and attracted substantial donations to Kenyan conservation efforts.

During the last decade, however, Asian demand for ivory has grown and continues to do so with rising affluence. Consumer surveys show that demand is currently widespread and not always concerned about ethical issues related to the source of supply.

The trade ban approach is also not supported by several southern African countries, which typically better manage their elephant populations and are eager to sell ivory stocks accumulated from natural morality to raise funds for elephant conservation.

To appease these countries, the world’s governments agreed to relax the trade ban to allow two one-off state-to-state sales in 2000 and 2008. The impact of these sales is disputed: Some argue that the second sale re-established demand for ivory in China. Others counter that illegal markets for ivory were already growing at that time, that the legal sales are tightly controlled, and that the amounts concerned are a fraction of the illegal volumes.

Either way, the beneficiaries of the one-off sales appear to have been intermediary buying cartels, not elephants. A Chinese cartel was able to pay bottom dollar to elephant range states and subsequently mete out the acquired stocks onto the Chinese retail market at greatly marked up prices. This does not benefit conservation. Whereas African range states seek high selling prices to obtain sufficient funds to re-invest into much-needed field protection efforts, inflated end-user prices may stimulate competition from illegal suppliers.

One-off sales through cartels may not be a good idea, but that does not mean that stockpile destruction is any better. The initial success following Kenya’s 1989 ivory burn is not replicable under current conditions, as the ban is already in place and being flouted by the current market. The main effect of stockpile destruction is simply to reduce the potential supply of ivory in the global market (the amount to be destroyed by the USFWS is roughly equivalent to a year’s legal sales in China).

Fish and Wildlife officials seem to think that destroying the stockpile will send out a message to the market, garner support for elephant conservation, and deter poachers. But this assumed cause-and-effect relationship is not at all clear or even valid: The message sent to existing illegal suppliers and consumers may in fact be perverse.

Economists argue that if you are trying to protect an endangered species, then limiting the supply of its products can be counterproductive. If demand remains unchanged, supply reduction simply raises perceptions of scarcity and drives up prices. This effect may be accentuated in East Asian cultures where possession of rare and illegal items is often seen as prestigious and where some may speculatively invest for potential commercial extinction. The net result is increased rewards to poachers and intensified poaching effort.

We know that destroying stockpiles reduces supply, but not necessarily demand. The ill-conceived USFWS gesture could create the perception that ivory is an increasingly scarce commodity on illegal markets, leading to higher prices and further poaching. It may simply place a higher price on the head of dead elephants while doing nothing to raise their value alive in the eyes of people who have to live with them and who bear the costs of protection.

And De Alessi wrote an article for Reason titled An Ivory-Tower Take on The Ivory Trade (2004), which argues our one-dimensional policy response to reduce supply has been an abysmal failure.  I’m certainly in agreement that both sides of the equation, demand and supply, must be assessed to resolve such a multi-faceted problem such as this.  However, while the clear risks of reducing the supply could very well increase ivory’s value, thereby putting even greater strain on the resource, efforts to bring to criminals to justice must be well funded, organized and vigorously prosecuted.