Archive February 2010

Where the NY Times Editorial on Tigers Goes Wrong Brendan Moyle Feb 22

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The Feb 18 NY Times Editorial on conserving tigers, gets much of the issues wrong. Bear in mind, I have the almost unique pleasure of investigating the Chinese black market in a study over 2007-8 and this was published in a peer-reviewed study. In short, I do actually know what is going on in China.

One of the most intractable problems in species protection is the Chinese appetite for traditional medicines. … Despite bans – by China’s government and international agreements – on the sales of some materials and the near extinction of many of the animals used in traditional medicine, prices for animal parts continue to rise, and so do the incentives for poachers and sellers.

Good so far, note that bans are often claimed by conservationists to reduce demand. Not sure there is any evidence that tiger parts have increased in price as the data is too sparse and thinly spread to get any handle on that. But we do know the black market prices are high. So demand has not been addressed by this.

As The Times reported recently, one particularly horrifying practice is Chinese tiger farms, … In reality, their purpose is to raise tigers to be butchered and consumed.

Okay, I’m not entirely sure why tiger farms are specifically horrifying. Mostly the animals looked bored as there’s not a lot of enrichment activity. But other than that, they’re looked after (food, shelter, medicines) fairly well. Clearly the tigers are intended for commercial sale. And there is no problem in recognising that there has been ‘leakage’ from the Guilin farm. It is an entirely other thing to claim that this is a widespread activity sanctioned by authorities and something all other tiger farms do. It is fairly obvious that the Guilin farm is the only site in China that gets targeted for attention.

The tiger farms also do nothing to take pressure off the dwindling population of wild tigers. Chinese consumers believe parts from wild tigers have greater medicinal potency. In China, there are only some 20 wild tigers left. And Chinese demand – heightened by the farms and the beginning of the Year of the Tiger – has caused sharply increased poaching in India, which has only about 1,400 wild tigers left.

Ouch, there is absolutely no evidence that the tiger farms sustain demand by China for wild tigers. Most illegal traffic in tigers occurs in border regions away from the farms. There has been no illegal activity of wild tigers in the Guilin area. There has been a lot in Yunnan and Tibet where there are no farms.

Further, how many times do we have to point this out? India is the source of black-market tiger skins to the skin markets of central Asia (often Tibetans). The medicine markets in the east of China are largely supplied out of Indo-Chinese tigers. India hasn’t been losing tigers to medicine markets in China. They’re been losing them to decades-old skin markets.

Similarly, Indonesians who poach tigers for parts in the local markets, don’t care what someone in China is doing. The farms aren’t driving demand. It is centuries of culture in Asia of using tiger parts that drives demand.

The Chinese government seems to be doing little or nothing to shut down tiger farms or punish those who buy or sell tiger parts. …

This is just wrong. China has busted more conspiracies- with successful prosecutions- then the rest of Asia put together. When China does detect a conspiracy, the culprits have received severe penalties- up to and including death sentences.

It’s not China that has been lax with enforcement.

Unless China does both – shuts down the tiger trade and finds a way to alter consumers’ tastes – the wild tiger is almost surely doomed.

This completely misses the problem. Tiger farms are a minor issue. At best, they could alleviate some of the poaching pressure in Indo-China. At worst, they will have no impact on poaching. The reason is there is not a single black-market in Asia, and the black-market is not located solely in China. The black-market for tiger parts is diverse and operates in different markets and different countries.

The vast majority of the poaching episodes occurs as local peoples in range-states opt to kill them. That is probably where you need to be focusing efforts. The final markets are much harder to identify and target.

I wish people would stop getting so fixated on China’s tiger farms and actually look at realistic ways to crack these diverse black markets. Tiger farms are really a minor issue given the array of extinction forces currently facing tigers.


I can recommend the following paper on the Chinese black market:

Brendan Moyle (2009) The black market in China for tiger products Global Crime, Volume 10(1): 124—143

Wildlife Economics: Modelling Reality Brendan Moyle Feb 16

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One of the main problem ecologists and economists seem to get so frustrated with wildlife problems is where they begin.

In ecology, you tend to generate some pretty neat ecological models and everything that people do, ends up in a little box. This box is called disturbances. You generate some policy advice to the government, who for the most part, won’t implement these policies.

In economics, you start with goods that occupy well-defined markets, with secure property rights, with people already knowing why something is valuable. Now, in the course of modeling environmental problems you loosen these assumptions a bit. But there’s often no getting around the fact that a well-defined market is a convenient starting point.

What this all tends to miss, is the whole social, political and economic structures decisions about wildlife get made in. There is a very simple idea that there’s really only two players. There’s the government, a kind of virtuous generator of optimal policies to fix problems, and a bunch of private agents, all after a quick buck.

Once you actually start dealing with actual policy generation, then you realise that’s lot of different players. First, a lot of people who work for governments are pretty indifferent to wildlife management and not all averse to getting a quick buck (or not putting in any effort). Scientists can often agree that a policy is needed, but getting agreement on what that policy is, can be tough. The Federal Government in Australia was getting two contested policy options from scientists on crocodiles. And the options were mutually exclusive. You can’t reopen international trade and maintain a trade ban at the same time.

Governmental conservation organisations are still largely dominated by mammal and bird people. And that means a lot more funding ends up being channeled to charismatic species rather than those most in need. Tigers get money, but gharials don’t.

Then there’s the environmental NGOs. These are big players in conservation. They put a lot of money into conservation reserves and programmes in developing countries. They even acquire and manage reserves. These have become big, multinational, fund-raising organisations. With that size comes influence. NGO’s are able to influence the direction of conservation policies in many parts of the world.

What is so fascinating about this, is that there is so little research on the role of these NGOs. I think it is an important issue. We do need to know why big NGO’s are mad keen to save minke whales from whaling, but opt not to try to save the Chinese baiji. We need to know why a top predator like the tiger gets money thrown at it frantically, while another top predator- the gharial- languishes.

Then you also have local communities and other wildlife users. They’re another interested party to conservation policy. And we do know that regulations that end up shifting the cost of conservation measures on to them, tend not to be very successful. One of the problems with tigers is it doesn’t matter how many laws we pass to protect tigers. If local people get all the costs and risks of living next to 1/4 ton carnivores, then this is a setup that will only lead to less carnivores.

So my perspective is that this wildlife economics differs from say conservation or economics in terms of the direction. Rather than taking a small number of elegant, deductively correct and simplified models as the base, we look at the messy interaction that is actually happening. We end up by looking at the evidence, rather than trying to get the evidence to fit a narrow range of theories.

Herpetologist & Conservationist John Thorbjarnarson has died Brendan Moyle Feb 15

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Aah, learned some very sad news.

Noted WCS conservationist John Thorbjarnarson died suddenly in New Delhi (yesterday). John was a tireless advocate for the scaly creatures- crocodilians, turtles etc- and played a very important role in the recovery of the Chinese alligator. This was one of the most remarkable turn-arounds in conservation in the last decade.

From John Robinson -

It is with real sadness that I must tell you that John Thorbjarnarson

tragically passed away early this morning. John was in New Delhi, India

after giving a course at the Wildlife Institute of India. He collapsed

yesterday and was taken to hospital. We got him into the best hospital and

he was given the best possible care, but by then it was too late. The

initial diagnosis is that he was suffering from advanced falciparum malaria.

We are in touch with the family and all relevant authorities. John was a

very special person and a great friend, who put his life and soul into

conservation. He will be widely missed and remembered.

Spur Winged Plover Photo Brendan Moyle Feb 10


In NZ, we have a relative of the lapwing. It’s merely a different (more southern) subspecies Vanellus miles novaehollandiae.

This is a rather noisy and somewhat aggressive bird. I’ve seen them chase off harrier hawks around the campus. It’s also self-introduced from Australia (trade winds tend to bring over potential colonists from Australia ever so often).

Given that it is self-introduced naturally (albeit the increase in suitable habitat from forest clearance was a big aid), there have been no campaigns to eradicate it. In NZ it tends to favour open grasslands- such as golf courses and the boundaries of air ports. This also means it’s becoming a more common source of bird-strikes on aircraft.

This bird here was photographed on Waiheke Island. It isn’t fully mature yet.

It’s a late afternoon photograph and consequently, I’ve had to boost the ISO on the camera to increase the shutter speed. (I should say that it isn’t my favourite Australian invader…)

Weka Photos Brendan Moyle Feb 05


As I have been thinking of wekas Galliralus australis of late, here’s a couple of photos of this threatened NZ rail:

NZ Weka Photo #1

Link to larger image

NZ Weka Photo #2

Link to larger image

This native rail to be fairly wide-spread, and growing up on the East Coast, it was pretty common. The species however has undergone some fairly major population contractions.

Wildlife Economics: The Data Problem Brendan Moyle Feb 03


After a while trying to port standard economic models into conservation, I began to give up. I know that some people still try and maybe get some useful insights. But by and large it seemed like a fairly unproductive line of research.

There seems to be a peculiar combination of factors that define wildlife management. None of these are necessarily unique to wildlife economics, but the combination makes for some major obstacles.

First up, there’s just no meaningful data. For most wildlife, we know very little about their actual populations, distributions and how they change. This makes it hard to just transfer models over from forestry or fisheries. Effectively, we get surprised an awful lot. We thought India had 4000 tigers in early 2007. Six months later, that was down to 1400. Tigers are actually a species people put a lot of effort into trying to monitor. Most species have almost no resources allocated to monitoring. I recall one study DoC did on Kapiti Island to look at the impacts of pest eradication on invertebrate populations. The study simply divided the animals into ‘big’ and ‘small’ creepy-crawlies and was abandoned long before anything could be learned.

We’re still finding new species of vertebrates in rainforests, often of conservation concern. What makes things even messier, is that wild populations swing about a lot more than farmed. There aren’t the human managers trying to smooth things out. Birth and mortality rates are going to jump about.

Effectively any management model that tries to use a few of speculative data points is likely to be very unhelpful. What is of critical importance is our sheer ignorance of useful information about wildlife and the inevitable risk we will be surprised*.

In NZ we have been badly surprised by a couple of bird species. We used to think that the little spotted kiwi was doing okay with a robust, extant population on the West Coast. When we finally realised that population was gone, that left us with only 500 little spotted kiwis in all of NZ. Similarly the loss of the weka on the East Coast came as a surprise and meant the species was suddenly a lot more endangered. Sometimes we get good surprises- like the rediscovery of the takahe and taiko (both NZ birds that were thought to be extinct).

So ideally we need management approaches to wildlife that can cope with surprises. That may mean a more permissive approach to captive breeding. It almost certainly means don’t get locked into doing the same strategy. This is what is killing the tiger. For 30 years, we’ve been hoping the same strategy is suddenly going to start working. It also happened with the California Condor. Lock-in an in situ programme and watch the species decline, spurning all efforts to try out new ideas. Captive breeding of the condor was proposed back in the 1950s, but it took 30 years for it to be attempted.

In effect many models of wildlife management are actually quite demanding of data. This evades the big problem. The data isn’t there. We’re going to get surprised. How useful a model actually is comes down to its ability to incorporate surprises.


* Some canny economists may recognise the influence of G S Shackle here

Australian Lapwing Photos Brendan Moyle Feb 02

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Another common Australian bird around the margins of wetlands is the masked lapwing or Vanellus miles. It belongs to the same family as the plovers and dotterels (Charadriidae). In NZ we have a related subspecies bird present, but we call it the spur-winged plover.

These are photos from my trip to Australia.

#1 Getting My Good Side

#2 What are you pointing at me?

#3 Chick

I spotted these chicks on the campus of Charles Darwin University. The parents weren’t at all happy about my presence, but by moving slowly and keeping very low, I managed a few decent shots.