Neo-colonialist attitudes ignoring poachernomics will ensure more extinctions

14 01 2022

No matter most people’s best intentions, poaching of species in Sub-Saharan Africa for horn and ivory continues unabated. Despite decades of policies, restrictions, interventions, protections, and incentives, many species of elephant and rhino are still hurtling toward extinction primarily because of poaching.

Clearly, we’re doing something heinously wrong.

Collectively, we have to take a long, hard look in the conservation mirror and ask ourselves some difficult questions. Why haven’t we been able to put any real dent in the illegal trade of poached elephant ivory and rhino horn? How many millions (billions?) of dollars have we spent seemingly to little avail? Why haven’t trade bans and intensive security measures done the trick?

The reasons are many, but they boil down to two main culprits:

  1. neo-colonialist sentiments driven by the best intentions of mainly overseas NGOs have inadvertently created the ideal conditions for the poaching economy — what we term poachernomics — to thrive by ensuring the continued restriction of legal supply of wildlife products; and
  2. shutting off conservation areas to local people and directing the bulk of ecotourism profits away from source communities have maintained steady poaching incentives in the absence of other non-destructive livelihoods.

In our new paper — Dismantling the poachernomics of the illegal wildlife trade (led by Enrico Di Minin of the Universities of Helsinki and KwaZulu-Natal, and co-authored by Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes of the University of Oxford, Jeanetta Selier of the South African National Biodiversity Institute, Maxi Louis of the Namibian Association of Community-Based Natural Resources Management Support Organizations, and me) — published quietly in late 2021, we describe how poachernomics works, and why our efforts to incapacitate it have been so ineffectual.

First, what is poachernomics?

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Fancy a pangolin infected with coronavirus? Apparently, many people do

30 12 2021

The logic of money contradicts the logic of species conservation and human health. As illegal trade has driven pangolins to near extinction, their hunting and market value has kept increasing ― even when we have known that they act as coronavirus reservoirs in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) in a monsoon forest (Sumba Island, Indonesia). With adult weights up to 10 kg and body lengths around half a metre, these animals are mostly solitary and nocturnal, feed on ants and termites, and love tree climbing using bark hollows to shelter and give birth to singletons. The species occurs across mainland and islands of South East Asia, and became ‘Endangered’ in 2008 and ‘Critically Endangered’ in 2014, following a 80% decline in the last 20 years due to hunting and poaching. It has been the most heavily trafficked Asian species, and the IUCN’s assessment states: “… the incentives for harvesting and illegally trading in the species are universally high based on the high financial value of pangolin parts and derivatives”. Captive breeding is unlikely to deter wild collection because (among other reasons) farming costs are high (more so on a large scale) and, even if the species could be traded legally, wild versus farmed pangolin products and individuals are difficult to distinguish (23). Photo courtesy of Michael Pitts

Urbanites are attracted to exotic species, materials, and places. Our purchasing power seems to give us the right to buy any ‘object’ that we can pay for, no matter how exotic the object might be. In such a capitalist rationale, it is no surprise that > 150 thousand illegal cargos with wild animals and plants have been confiscated in 149 countries over the last two decades, moving some 6000 species from one place of the planet to another (1).

Social networks show people interacting with all kinds of fauna, creating the illusion that any animal can become a pet (2). And there’s a multi-$billion market of wildlife for a diverse array of uses including collecting, food, ornamentation, leisure, clothing and medicine (3-5). The paradox is that the rarer a species is, the higher its market value runs and the more lucrative selling it turns out to be, leading to more exploitation and rocketing extinction risk (6).

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How much is that iguana in the window?

25 08 2020

In our latest study, we examine the downstream effects of publicising an elevated species description for a reptile that is highly prized in the international commercial wildlife trade.

We describe how iguanas from an insular population of the common green iguana (Iguana iguana) entered commercial trade shortly after an announcement was made indicating that the population would be described as a new species.

The international commercial wildlife trade presents a known risk factor for wild populations of threatened species. One organisation in particular regulates the international trade in species — the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Although most people probably know about the illegal practices involving iconic elephants and rhinos, reptiles are also targeted and traded. For example, after its discovery and description in 2016, and even though locality data were safeguarded, China’s endemic Mountain spiny crocodile newt (Echinotriton maxiquadratus) quickly entered the trade. This put conservation pressure on this small-range species (1, 2). Therefore, CITES signatory countries placed this species on its Appendix II in 2019, which lists animals and plants in need of protection.  

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Crocodiles, spiders and leeches

11 04 2011

I just wrote a fun little piece for a new section in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment that they’re calling Trails and Tribulations. The basic idea is that the author recounts a particularly interesting field-related experience through which an ecological concept is woven.

Editor-in-Chief Sue Silver said that I could reproduce my article here as long as I acknowledged Frontiers and the Ecological Society of America. It was fun to write, and I hope you enjoy it too [the PDF of the article is available free of charge here].

“So does each team get a hand gun?”

“No, you get an oar”

“What good is an oar?”

“Listen, mate. When a 3-metre croc jumps out of the swamp at you, there is nothing more natural in the world than to thump him with a big stick. It’s an autonomous response. With a gun, IF you manage to keep it dry, and IF you manage to get it out in time before the croc bites off your head, chances are you’ll just shoot the bloke in front of you anyway. So you get an oar.”

“Fair enough”.

That is an approximate, paraphrased reproduction of the initial conversation I had with renowned Australian crocodile biologist, Grahame Webb, just prior to my first (and as it turns out, only) trip to collect crocodile eggs for his Darwin wildlife park and crocodile farm. I volunteered to take part in the collection because I had recently begun working with Grahame and his team tracking the world’s largest crocodile species – the saltwater or estuarine crocodile Crocodylus porosus – and modelling aspects of its populations (Bradshaw et al. 2006). Having already been out on several occasions to harpoon and satellite-tag animals (some measuring > 4 m) on the Mary River, and cage-trap others in Kakadu National Park, I thought a little egg collection would be a proverbial walk in the park. Little did I know that it would end up being one of my more memorable experiences.

Let me walk you through the process. First, you wait until the height of the wet season and drive out as far as you can toward the breeding swamp of interest (in this case, Melacca Swamp in the Adelaide River flood plain, about one hour’s drive from Darwin). Then you and two other loonies pile into a small helicopter equipped with landing pontoons which ferries you to one of many previously identified crocodile nests. Because there is usually too much vegetation around the nest itself, the helicopter must land about 100-300 m away. Clothed only in long pants, a long-sleeved shirt and cotton gloves to protect your skin from the slicing blade grass, you jump off the helicopter’s pontoons into impenetrably murky, chest-deep water. One of the team drags an esky (chiller box into which eggs will be placed) and another carries an oar. As the noise of the departing helicopter becomes a faint buzz, you suddenly realise via the rapid expansion of your terminal sphincter that you are in the middle of a crocodile-filled swamp – and you are holding an oar. Read the rest of this entry »

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