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Wildlife poaching is a pretty serious threat to a lot of species. In theory, it’s one of those issues where the solution seems so clear, but implementing that solution is actually very, very hard.

We do though, seem to have a much better understanding of how to encourage and sustain poachers. Afterall, tigers in large parts of Asia are on the brink of extinction. Recent reports from Africa indicate that elephants are being poached at a greater rate than the horrors of the 1980s.

There are I think, two main proximate causes of these very conspicuous policy failures. First, we tend to treat poaching- because it is a wildlife problem- as a problem that biologists are trained to fix. But with all deference to my zoology colleagues, they don’t do courses in black-market economics and law enforcement. I wouldn’t trust many of my economist colleagues to undertake an ecological survey either. So there tends to be a lot of noise and talk, and policies that attack the symptoms of the trade get implemented. There’s not a lot of direct action to combat the main drivers of poaching.

The second, is that poachers and smugglers are assumed to be idiots. In other words, all you have to is bust one conspiracy or monitor one route into a country, and the smugglers will give up. They won’t figure out how to get around these enforcement measures. This leads to a lot of anti-poaching policy being more of the same. Repeat the same measures over and over in increasing intensity, and hope that this will fix the problem. Alas, ivory poachers have abandoned the legal supply routes in favour of routes using shipping containers, mislabeled as machine-parts or the like. It really doesn’t matter anymore how hard we squeeze the legal trade (irregular shipments from Southern Africa). The smuggler’s don’t care because they aren’t using that route.

So, how have we managed to inflate the levels of poaching for tigers and elephants so high again?

What we have learned in the wildlife smuggling business, is that trade bans in wildlife products only give you a short-term payoff. When you ban trade in certain wildlife products, then you get a drop in poaching because all the causal and small scale operations collapse. They don’t have the resources or expertise to get around the law enforcement measures. And if you’re really lucky, demand for the wildlife products will collapse. This collapse in demand doesn’t happen a lot.

So, poaching dips down after the ban. Demand in importing countries remains high though, so the black-market price starts to rise. This lures in new smuggling firms. These are criminal firms that have the resources, have the expertise and ability to get around the law enforcement agencies. In other words, you replace casual and small scale poachers with big, organised criminal conspiracies.

That I’m afraid, then makes the problem a lot worse. Organised criminal firms are harder to stop than small-scale firms. The lesson really is that a trade ban in wildlife products has a short-shelf life. It buys you time to implement better management systems. In Africa, the CITES ban in 1989 was accompanied by a period of 4 years of increased enforcement. This trickled away as Western donors curbed funding. As Asian stockpiles of ivory ran down, prices soared again and poaching accelerated.

Similarly with tigers, the trade bans in tiger-parts has lead to sky-rocketing black-market prices and the involvement of resourceful and clever criminal conspiracies. We’re effectively trying to save tigers by putting a bounty of US$50k on every wild tiger in Asia. So far that doesn’t seem to be working.

What we tend to get however, is the assumption because the ban did reduce poaching once, perpetuating the ban will someday, somehow, deliver the same reduction again.