If you have a goose that lays a golden egg, why would you destroy demand for golden eggs? A defence of the legalisation of the wildlife trade

The recent meeting at Lancaster house to discuss the illegal wildlife trade, which brought together world leaders, conservationists and two future British Monarchs, has once again focused attention on the plight of many endangered species and the methods that should be used to protect them.  Virtually all the arguments made are for continued efforts to enforce the ban on ivory and rhino horn, and to increase efforts to combat wildlife poaching at source in Africa and to lower demand for the goods in Asia.  As Simon Jenkins writes in a refreshing article, however, this approach is fundamentally flawed and merely serves to harm the wildlife and people of Africa.  This post supports the arguments made in that article and sets out the case in favour of the legalisation of the ivory and rhino trade (much of which applies to the trade of other species banned under CITES) and presents and then refutes the arguments often made in favour of maintaining the ban on the ivory and rhino horn trade.

Firstly, however, ‘legalisation’ needs to be clarified, because it often seems to be misconstrued as meaning the trade should be legalised this instant.  But what is meant by legalisation is that there should be certain minimum conditions set, for example a minimum level of rhino and elephant populations, and a framework developed to allow legal ivory to be sold and prevent the sale of illegal ivory when those minimum conditions are reached.  This would then encourage greater conservation efforts and offer significant financial incentives to increase rhino and elephant populations both for private enterprise and for communities living in and around their habitats.

The first argument in favour of this legalisation process is the most basic, and links with the title of this post.  The simple argument is: why would you not legalise the trade?  There is an incredibly valuable, renewable resource that could provide huge amounts of money to poor countries in Africa.  In effect, Africa has a ‘goose that lays a golden egg’, although in their case it is elephants and rhinos growing tusks and horns worth more than gold.  The current approach not only prevents Africans from reaping the economic reward from their wildlife, but also in its place creates violence and corruption as militias and organised criminal gangs become involved in the trade.

Why then is the trade not made legal?  Some of the most common arguments against legalisation are outlined, and then refuted, below:

1)    “Big Business will be the main beneficiary”: It may well be the case that not much of the profits would likely go to communities but, so what?  Given the militarisation of the trade currently and the violence, corruption and state weakness it creates and perpetuates, even if they only get a fairly small share, the income generated and the increased security it would bring is still a big improvement.  Also, if the trade is legalised, there is an opportunity to push for greater sharing with communities, so this is one of those cases of needing to not let the great be the enemy of the good.

2)    “There will still be poaching because it will always be cheaper to poach the animals”: This argument is simply unfounded, for one, and for two is irrelevant anyway.  There is a black market in cigarettes and alcohol, but it doesn’t mean the legal market for those products is banned.  In the same way, even if poaching still did take place it would not mean the trade was a bad idea.  Legalisation does not need to eradicate poaching in order to be worthwhile, it simply needs to ensure the poaching level would be the same or lower than it is currently.  And poaching will not always be cheaper than farming or ranching because as security improves, policing and punishments increase, it becomes harder to sell illegal materials and the cost of the horns anyway decreases, the risk-reward calculation declines and poaching becomes less appealing.  This has already occurred with crocodiles and so could work with rhinos and elephants.

3)    “It’s wrong to farm elephants and rhinos”: Firstly, given that we farm all sorts of animals, why are elephants and rhinos any different?  Secondly, they do not necessarily have to be farmed, and certainly not intensively farmed, because they can be ranched, or indeed simply kept as managed wild populations.  The assertion that it is wrong or cruel to kill these animals is also flawed, since that is simply the circle of life.  Herbivore populations need to be controlled by predators, which is why lions kill zebra.

4)    “Governments are too weak and ineffective to monitor the legal trade”: If they are too weak to monitor the legal trade, then they are too weak to enforce the illegal trade, so this is a flawed argument.  Also, the legalisation process would necessitate better governance and monitoring and bring in the money and incentives required to create this governance within weak states, helping with the process of state-building and working to overcome the corruption and weakness that is such a plague in many parts of Africa.

5)    “Eco-tourism provides the revenue necessary to support conservation”: This is a limited market, which is very susceptible to economic and political shifts and so lacks reliability, and anyway the benefits accrue only when the concentration of wildlife is sufficiently high to guarantee sightings, which creates incentives to move away from large wild areas into ever smaller wildlife parks which can be managed and where sightings can be guaranteed.  Furthermore, eco-tourism does not bring very large benefits to local communities. While it does create some employment and there are often revenue sharing schemes put in place, the amount of money and jobs that actually reach communities is small (for example the revenue sharing scheme for gorilla tourism established in Rwanda is equivalent to a mere US$0.36 per person per year).  Other sources of income are therefore required to ensure communities genuinely benefit.

Ultimately, the key to survival of these species is to moneterise them in as many diverse ways as possible, finding methods to ensure they bring in a large amount of income from a diversity of sources, thereby ensuring that income can withstand economic shifts and still continue to bring in money that makes wildlife and their habitats more valuable than alternative uses.  This process will in turn bring in more technology and expertise to manage, track and protect wildlife and prevent poaching of animals, as well as applying pressure to increase the quality of policing of the trade and make the punishments for involvement in the illegal trade more severe.  At the moment it is only the limited funds of charities being applied to this, where as with a legal trade you would have that funding as well as the revenue generated from the legal trade, greatly increasing the resources available to combat poaching.

The ivory and rhino trade is the most simple and obvious of the processes to moneterise wildlife and builds on existing practises already supported by conservation agencies such as getting ex-poachers to make carvings of animals and sell them.  More such processes are required to realise in hard cash the value of wildlife, to then increase the numbers around the world and enable that increase to help, rather than hinder, Africa by lifting people out of poverty while not only conserving but in fact increasing the number of wildlife living in the wild.  Richard Milburn, The Marjan Centre.

This entry was posted in Africa, Conservation, Illegal Wildlife Trade, Kenya, Militarisation of Nature, poaching, Rhinos, South Africa. Bookmark the permalink.

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