This blog considers a major problem facing wildlife conservation, how it might be solved, and how the Marjan Centre is contributing to that solution. The problem is the massive economic asymmetry in wildlife conservation: underfunded conservation organisations paying for expensive, on-going operations against well-funded poachers running low-cost operations. The solution is to develop business solutions to conservation, creating an industry akin to Fairtrade for wildlife conservation.
Conservation charities around the globe must work tirelessly to solicit donations and many national wildlife services around the world remain underfunded. At the same time the threats to wildlife continue; from oil exploration in Virunga National Park – the home of the mountain gorilla – to organised criminal groups poaching rhinos and elephants for their horns and ivory. So there is an under-funded, expensive operation on one side, and a cheap, well-resourced operation on the other. This does not bode well for wildlife.
Take rhinos as an example. Killing a rhino is, very sadly, quick and cheap – needing only a poacher with a gun – and the rewards are large, with rhino horn estimated to fetch around $60,000 per kilo. Protecting a rhino takes more man-power, time and resources: rhinos require protection 24/7, 365 days of the year. This requires teams or rangers paid daily, with the logistical support to maintain their effectiveness. And, not knowing which rhino is being targeted, all must be protected.
So conservation faces a massive uphill task; how to find the finance to pay for such expensive, long-term operations to counter poaching. And, relating to the Virunga oil example above, how to ensure conservation can compete against such potentially lucrative natural resource extraction in national parks.
Part of the solution undoubtedly lies in reducing demand for wildlife products, and there are a number of initiatives underway to do this. However, the most effective solution is to address the problem head on; to change the economic asymmetry facing conservation from negative to positive, mobilising more finance and pressure in favour of conservation than against it. Consumers around the world need to be offered a range of products that support wildlife conservation, so they can use their everyday spending – as opposed to relying solely on charitable donations – to support wildlife conservation. An industry akin to Fairtrade therefore needs to be created for conservation.
An initiative to contribute to creating this wildlife industry is underway within the Marjan Centre, with the launch of a start up company, Tunza. Tunza (meaning ‘care for’ in Swahili) is an ethical fashion brand with a mission to protect gorillas in central Africa. The company is starting small to establish the brand and prove demand, in the process donating 50% of profits to gorilla conservation. This is good, but the company aims to go a step further and address the fundamental threats facing gorillas; the poverty of communities living around the gorillas, who are forced to poach and cut down trees.
Therefore, once the company is established it will start to employ people living around the gorillas, lifting them out of poverty and in so doing protecting the gorillas. This ensures communities benefit from conservation and see the value of protecting the gorillas, and helps ensure governments see the value of conservation and continue to support it.
The key points for the company are that their products are everyday, rather than overtly ethical or ‘eco’, thereby attracting a wider set of consumers. The company has the ability to achieve scale – employing thousands of people and generating multi-million pound revenues rather than just working on a small scale with maybe twenty or thirty members of a community. Finally, it is replicable; a similar business model can be used in many parts of the world to help protect wildlife, making clothing as well as a host of other products.
Tunza is still early stage, but if it can grow it offers a new business model that could provide the financial solution to conservation in the 21st century. If more such companies come into being and succeed, the economic asymmetry currently afflicting conservation can be turned on its head.
This is not about commercialising wildlife. It is about monetising the value we place on wildlife to mobilise the funds and economic incentives required for countries and communities to protect rather than destroy wildlife and their habitats. The more valuable wildlife is the better protected it will be.
Richard Milburn, The Marjan Centre