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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Op-ed: Your role in wildlife crime

I think this Op-ed raises some interesting points, but I disagree with Dr. Duffy's assertion that conservation organisations are "getting it wrong". She states:
"By focusing on front-line problems such as anti-poaching patrols and enforcing park boundaries, conservation organisations ignore important global dynamics that drive species to extinction."
That might have been true 10-20 years ago, but I think the major conservation NGOs are making huge gains with their public awareness campaigns in developed nations as well as influencing local and international governments. Maybe what we hear about are their anti-poaching campaigns because it's just more difficult to talk about the tedious processes of making change at the governmental level. I really do feel that the major conservation NGOs have been pursuing a holistic approach to wildlife crime and that THAT is what is needed. Nevertheless Dr. Duffy's call for us to investigate our own behaviours as they relate to the illegal wildlife trade are important which is why I'm posting this piece.-MA

From New Scientist

The illicit wildlife trade is intimately linked to wealth and organised crime. Conservation groups should target consumers, says Rosaleen Duffy

WHEN 23 people drowned picking cockles on Morecambe bay, UK, in February 2004, it gave us a grim insight into the murky and frightening world of people trafficking.

The cockle pickers had been smuggled into the UK from the Fujian province in China by transnational criminal networks and used as cheap labour to extract lucrative shellfish from the sands. They were working at night in dangerous conditions, paid just £5 per sack of cockles while their gangmaster Lin Liang Ren received three times as much from the seafood companies at the shoreline. The people who died had hoped that two or three years working in the UK would provide a better life for their families back home. How wrong they were. The case shocked the world.

As well as highlighting the practice of people trafficking, the tragedy also revealed some stark realities about the international wildlife trade - how it is driven by wealth not poverty, and how it is inextricably linked with organised crime.

The words "wildlife trade" conjure up images of rhino horn, tiger parts, bushmeat and ivory being poached and smuggled in distant and poverty-stricken parts of the world. We tend to blame such trading on poorer communities, either because they are greedy and don't care about wildlife or so poverty-stricken that they have no choice.

In reality, we are all participants in the wildlife trade. Wealthy consumers use wildlife for food, medicine, fashion, pets and furniture, and this is largely what drives the legal and illegal trades in shellfish, meat, leather, live animals, skins and bones.

Wildlife is big business. TRAFFIC International, a wildlife trade monitoring network based in Cambridge, UK, estimates that the legal wildlife trade is worth around $160 billion a year and the illegal side between $10 and $20 billion - the second-largest illicit market in the world after drugs. Some species, including tigers, sturgeon, elephants and rhinos, have been heavily affected.

Much of the global wildlife trade is governed by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Although CITES came into force in 1977, it has had a hard time bringing the trade under control. Understanding why is crucial. Blaming poorer people for poaching or illegal fishing fails to identify the real reasons for the problem.

The most important of these is wealth. Without demand from rich countries, poorer people would not engage in poaching, smuggling and trading. The international trade in cockles and other shellfish is a good example. It is driven by demand from wealthy consumers, which is partly met via illegal fishing or - as in the case of Morecambe bay - the use of trafficked workers.

Similarly, if elephants are poached for ivory, who is it for? If mining minerals for mobile phones threatens mountain gorillas, who is buying the minerals?

The second reason is the involvement of organised crime, attracted by the lure of high profits and a relatively low risk of being caught.

The global trade in caviar is a good example of this. In 2003, the UK's Metropolitan Police raided three shops on Kensington High Street in London, confiscating 200 tins of illegal caviar smuggled in from the Caspian Sea by the Russian mafia. The involvement of such networks, which are mobile, flexible and able to avoid detection, makes it extremely difficult to enforce international laws. CITES is supposed to provide strict controls on caviar, but in 2001 the illegal catch was 10 times the legal amount.

It was the same story for ivory in the 1980s, when poaching devastated elephant populations across sub-Saharan Africa. Elephant numbers plummeted from 1.3 million to just 600,000 in a decade. The legal and illegal trade in ivory was highly lucrative, so it attracted the attentions of organised criminal networks that moved the ivory from Africa to consumers in Asia, Europe and North America.

Wildlife trafficking is usually afforded a low priority by governments, which are keener on using police and customs to tackle drug smuggling or people trafficking. This makes it very attractive to organised crime.

The illegal wildlife trade is now inextricably linked to other forms of criminality. The networks that move ivory, tiger skins, caviar and shellfish to consumer markets are not wildlife specialists. The same techniques and routes used to traffic wildlife are also used to traffic drugs, people, weapons and stolen cars.
The same techniques and routes used to traffic wildlife are also used to traffic drugs and people

Organisations such as Interpol and the UK National Wildlife Crime Unit are well aware of these complex connections. Yet conservation organisations rarely target such networks in their campaigns, even though they are known to be a critically important part of the problem.

Instead, they continue to tell us that people poach and smuggle because they are poor, reinforcing the stereotype that local people are the problem and that poverty drives wildlife to extinction. By focusing on front-line problems such as anti-poaching patrols and enforcing park boundaries, conservation organisations ignore important global dynamics that drive species to extinction.

Consumer behaviour can be changed - the collapse in the ivory trade in Europe and North America since the late 1980s shows it can be done. By highlighting how global consumer culture connects all of us to the wildlife trade and organised crime, conservation organisations could make similar gains elsewhere. Instead of blaming poor people, they should tackle the problems in their own backyards.

Rosaleen Duffy is professor of international politics at the University of Manchester, UK, and author of Nature Crime: How we're getting conservation wrong (Yale University Press, 2010)

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