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Is now the time to legalise the international trade in tiger, rhinos and elephant parts?


Is now the time to legalise the international trade in tiger, rhino and elephant parts? It doesn’t feel like it to me, but what are the facts? Only 3,200 tigers left in the wild, less than 25,000 rhinos in Africa, far fewer in Asia, and an estimated 500,000 African elephants – but losing maybe 2,500 per month. And how might a legal trade keep healthy populations of animals in the wild?

Deborah Meaden holding illegal tiger skin seized at Heathrow airportGrant Miller and Deborah Meaden with tiger skin seized by the UK Border Force. Products like this are just some of the many illegal items that are smuggled into this country. © WWF-UK / James Morgan

I went to see Pablo Guttman, economist at WWF, who knows about supply and demand curves, and such things as optimum depletion economics! For tigers, where the price of traded parts is “inelastic”, then using a market to manage demand is not appropriate – basically because changing the price does not change the demand very much… and people in China and elsewhere will go on and on buying – often preferring parts from wild animals for ‘stronger medicinal’ effects or ornamental use.

Markets are also unreliable as people’s behaviour is often unpredictable – consider our own housing market booms and busts! Markets consistently undervalue the social and environmental needs – think child labour for cheap clothing.

So what do we need for well regulated markets? We need to know what demands there are – and sudden surges like the recent one in Vietnam where rhino horn powder became an alleged cure for cancer and headaches, as well as a status symbol for the wealthy few  – make regulation of the trade difficult.

Indeed, the costs of regulating the trade are very high. There is always a danger that a trade in legal items might mask a trade in illegal animal parts – and laundering illegal items as legal ones. There would need to be a DNA fingerprinting of rhino horns being traded and customs and police resources to check that there had been no tampering along the supply chain. The black market in China for forged ivory ID cards – that are supposed to confirm legality – shows how difficult and expensive this can be.

And finally, don’t try to use markets to regulate use of really rare things like tigers – because if they go wrong, and sales rocket, then there is too little time to correct the market before there’s irreparable damage to wild populations.

So much for the theory…

Last Sunday – while being hosted by a very effectively run estate in KwaZulu Natal province in South Africa – I was able to ask those on the ground how they felt. As we drove and walked around a 23,000 hectare fenced bushy savannah – which holds 150 white rhinos and 25 black rhinos – the problems were easy to understand. This was a beautiful site, well managed for tourism, but 75% of the field teams’ annual costs were spent on protection and anti-poaching. The manager wanted to be able to trade white rhino horns to help defray the very high costs. Otherwise they might have to just get rid of the rhinos they have carefully bred over 10 years because it is too expensive to defend them – even if they benefit the tourism and conservation objectives of the business.

I think even he understood that such a trade would need very careful regulation and it was too soon to do such a thing with the current poaching crisis. I could not see that such a trade would stop the poaching when there are so many poor people who are tempted to kill rhinos, while the trade is managed by criminal gangs after a quick profit, and the demand far outstrips the supply. I can only see the poaching continuing for an illegal trade.

What we need to do is reduce the demand for illegal products and improve law enforcement. It requires strong government commitment, but that has happened: India effectively stopped trade in ivory, Nepal has reduced rhino and tiger poaching… so we know the solutions and have to implement those to keep these animals in the wild.

Tonight I’m teamed up in an Earthwatch debate with individuals from other organisations, so won’t be able to solely represent WWF’s views throughout.  As our followers will know – although we support sustainable use of wildlife products where there are benefits to conservation – we are very concerned by the unprecedented illegal trade in products from rhinos, tigers and elephants and have been at the forefront of discussions on how to stop this threat.

It’s important to remember that illegal wildlife trade does not follow the linear economics of demand and supply. 

We oppose legal ivory sales until any future selling and purchasing countries can prove that they have sufficient controls (anti-poaching enforcement, stockpile controls, market regulations, appropriate and effective deterrents against poaching and illegal trade) to demonstrate that such trade will not facilitate parallel trade in illegal ivory.

Poorly regulated trade in ivory,  rhino horn or tiger products will make it virtually impossible to distinguish legal from illegally sourced products and will facilitate laundering.  This could increase poaching.  Huge investment would be required to establish the necessary regulatory mechanisms – from the source country right along the trade chain to the consumer – to prevent such laundering.

We remain unconvinced that legal international trade in rhino horn is a feasible approach for rhino conservation at this time. We are not aware of any potential consumer state indicating an interest in making the required investments into managing a legal trade.  Recent research on consumer behaviour suggests that there is a latent demand for rhino horn  and it is unclear how legal trade may influence demand and whether a sustainable legal supply would be able to satisfy it.

Legalising tiger trade – even from captive-bred sources – would be disastrous for the species in the wild.

It would rekindle the demand for tiger parts and products by attracting new consumers.  Tigers do breed like cats but captive breeding is not the answer either.  There is a preference by consumers for products from wild tigers, and poaching a wild tiger is more cost-effective than raising a tiger in captivity. Legalising any tiger trade will push wild tigers faster towards extinction.  With wild tigers numbers as low as 3,200 we simply cannot afford to entertain such dangerous ideas.

We are concerned that focus on the legalisation of trade at this critical point in time could divert attention from other vital actions including anti-poaching efforts – clamping down on trafficking of illegal products – and demand reduction campaigns.

We need to see ongoing commitment right now to these actions to help stop the illegal trade.

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