A state of emergency for endangered species
Reflections from demand reduction workshops
In late 2011, a series of workshops tackling specifically the rising demand in wildlife and wildlife products were held in succession in several Asian cities. From November 15-24, three separate workshops were convened in Beijing, Bangkok and Hong Kong.
Some wonder if this flurry of activities focusing on reducing demand means a balance shift in our work. Since I attended two of the workshops, a journalist asked me the reason behind this seemingly sudden rush to control demand.
“Is it because of rising demand in Asia?
“Did conservationists get it wrong in the past by focusing on the supply side?
“Is this a sign of desperation?”
Well, in my view, all of these factors are at play.
In Asia, the demand for wildlife and their products has certainly skyrocketed, propelled by the fast-paced economic growth and the increase in consuming power, particularly in countries like China and Vietnam.
There is a long history of wildlife use for Traditional Medicine, tonics, artifacts and food going back 5000 years in many Asian cultures. Another commonality in these countries is a lack of effective policies and laws to protect wildlife.
This is particularly evident given the onslaught of rising demand for animal parts and products; policies are often skewed towards the short-term “use it or loose it” concept rather than the long term view of “protect the heritage so it will not be lost”.
The traditional conservation approaches are partly to blame as well. Many conservationists have failed to apply the precautionary principal to controlling the trade in endangered wildlife, particularly those that have high commercial value.
Take African elephants and the ivory trade as an example. It was the view that “elephants can be sustainably traded” which enabled the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to allow repeated sales of ivory stockpiles from Africa to consuming countries in Asia, thus effectively breaking the continuity of the CITES trade ban. The ban put in place in 1989 to stop the mass slaughtering of elephants in Africa which supplied the massive ivory market in the 70s and 80’s, effectively reduced poaching by making ivory loose its commercial value.
A recent IFAW survey found that the ivory stockpile sale in 2007 to China has spurred increased production and trade of ivory. It stimulated further demand for elephant ivory from the wealthy elite consumers, a growing class in China who covet ivory products as luxury goods. The sale further challenges market control and enforcement efforts, providing cover and loopholes for criminals to freely engage in trading illegal ivory in China’s domestic market.
In the so-called “sustainable trade” scenario, the value of an endangered species is delinked from the services they provide to ecosystems. Instead, an animal’s value is calculated only through numbers.
How many live animals are left in the population?
How many dead bodies are counted?
How much does a part of their body cost?
It is irresponsible to say the least to base decisions about the survival of an endangered species simply on the numbers without understanding the dynamics of the entire trade chain; from supply to transport to demand, absent the context of the economic, environmental and social changes in the world.
The fact is, putting a price tag on an endangered species is the fastest way to push it towards extinction.
And the rarer and more endangered an animal is, the higher its price tag in Asia.
Wildlife species are disappearing faster than ever before. Poaching has completely wiped out wild tigers in some nature reserves in India. In a mere five months between April and October 2011, nearly 5000 elephant tusks were seized around the world on their way to Asian markets.
Just days before we convened for the demand reduction workshop organized by TRAFFIC in a Hong Kong hotel, Customs officers on the island made a record seizure of 33 rhino horns and hundreds of elephant ivory products.
The major hemorrhaging of wildlife from many parts of the world to meet the escalating demand in Asia seems to have served as a wake up call for many conservation groups.
The workshop convened in Bangkok by the FREELAND Foundation was aptly called “an emergency brainstorm”.
For endangered species, this is a state of emergency.