Demand for parts of endangered species is immoral
Buried in a document from a recently concluded international workshop on tiger conservation and combatting wildlife crime held in Kunming, China, was the term, “illicit demand”. The “Kunming Consensus” recommends countries should “combat illegal wildlife trade and eliminate illicit demand for wildlife products”.
While the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) supports the pledge for effective enforcement and demand elimination, we are concerned, however, that eliminating all demand versus eliminating illicit demand could mean the difference between life and death for tigers, elephants and rhinos.
Killing elephants for their ivory, slaughtering tigers for their pelts and bone and hacking the horns off rhinos to supply the market demand have reached epidemic proportions in recent years.
The bloody trail of slaughter leads us to Asia, particularly China and Vietnam, where the demand for elephant ivory, rhino horn and tiger pelts have sky-rocketed, propelled by the fast-growing economy, the increase in consuming power, and the availability and accessibility of these products in the marketplace.
Technically these endangered species are protected by international and domestic laws which banned the trade of their parts and derivatives. However, loopholes and exceptions are created, sometimes purposefully, to allow the trade of certain types of products and in certain circumstances.
The existence of parallel legal and illegal markets makes it very difficult for a consumer to distinguish whether a wildlife product sold in the market is legal or illegal. Worse, it fans the desire by more consumers to want their own piece of the “forbidden fruit”.
While the government banned buying, selling and using tiger bone twenty years ago, China’s Wildlife Law, however encourages tiger farming. The government agency responsible for wildlife conservation helped develop tiger farms and tiger-bone wineries, and licenses a growing list of businesses to sell tiger-skin rugs for home décor.
It is of no surprise to find more people wanting to buy tiger products and tiger-farm investors actively lobbying the government to allow them to market tiger products.
While banning the international commercial trade in elephant ivory, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) allowed repeated sales of ivory to Japan and China.
Recently an IFAW survey of ivory markets found that the ivory stockpile sale in 2007 to China has spurred increased production and trade of ivory. The existence of legal and illegal parallel markets stimulated further demand for elephant ivory from the wealthy elite consumers, a growing class in China who covet ivory products as “white gold”. The parallel markets further challenges control and enforcement efforts, providing cover and loopholes for illegal ivory to be “laundered”.
At first glance, the term “illicit demand” sounds benign. But there is no such thing as “illicit” demand.
Demand, by definition, is not legal or illegal. Demand is simply a consumer's desire and willingness to pay a price for specific goods or services. Only the manner with which consumers act on their desire and willingness—engage in buying—can be legal or illegal.
People who advocate for reducing only “illicit” demand are trying to stimulate consumer desire for wildlife products. If laws encourage production and consumption of products from endangered species and government agencies lend their technical, financial and/or political support toward making them available, public demand for those products, regardless of origin, will increase.
Demand reduction requires the exact opposite: laws uniformly and unambiguously against production and consumption, rigorous enforcement of those laws, meaningful punishment for violations and social stigma attached to continued consumption.
If a product is not legally available and consumers know without doubt it is illegal to buy, then only those who are willing to risk criminality will continue to buy.
The laws of supply-and-demand stipulate that if demand decreases, even if supplies remain unchanged, product surpluses will result. Conversely, if demand is stimulated while supplies are limited, consumers will go to greater lengths – pay, do and risk more – to get at limited supplies.
To millions of consumers who have come into sudden wealth in the recent decades in Asia, money is no object if they are given a chance to purchase endangered species. In fact, the rarer the species, the higher their price, the more they are coveted for their significance as an object of prestige and status.
You don’t have to be an economist to see that the demand for endangered species, stimulated by the legal trade, pushed the auction volume of elephant ivory to US$94million in 2011, an increase of 170% in a single year!
This demand saw the average price for rhino horn carvings at auction skyrocketing to a historical high of US$117,000!
No matter whether the law defines a trade legal or illegal, the demand for the parts and products of species that are on the verge of extinction, is immoral.
In the thought-provoking book “What Money Can’t Buy, The moral limits of markets”, author and Harvard professor Michael J. Sandel asks the ethical question, “Are there some things that money can buy but shouldn’t buy”?
Isn’t it time to include endangered species of wildlife on this list?