SciBlogs

Archive June 2011

Tonight’s Wildlife Photo Brendan Moyle Jun 27

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Another hungry visitor with a liking for orange- tauhou (tripod shot)


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Wildlife Trade Myths: Flooding the Market Brendan Moyle Jun 27

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Sadly, one of the big obstacles to looking at the potential of (regulated) trade to combat wildlife poaching is that so many anti-trade people simply don't look at the arguments.

The one myth that should have died years ago under the weight of evidence, is that trade extinguishes poachers by 'flooding the market' with legal products (which in turn, reduce prices and make poaching less lucrative).

The reason this myth wrong is because people who want wildlife (and wildlife products) are interested in many dimensions. Things like the quality and origin of the product matter as well.

Let's illustrate. This is a graph of the production of farmed alligator skins in Louisiana. The obvious feature is that production has exploded. Nearly 300,000 farmed skins are produced every year now, up from the roughly 200 of 1980. That by any estimation is a massive increase that by anyone's reckoning, should have flooded the market and caused prices to crash.

Alligator Farmed Skin Output


Now, look at the prices. Not that there is no trend down as production trends up. The blip in the early 1990s is generally agreed to be a product of the recession in the important Japanese and European markets of the time.

Alligator Farmed Skin Prices


This is also a period where poaching (as with the estuarine crocodile in Australia/Papua New Guinea and eventually the caimans in Latin America) collapsed.

The reduction in poaching wasn't caused by flooding the market and causing prices to collapse. The reduction was caused by providing consumers with a product with other properties they valued. Farmed products could be made to a higher quality (less scratches and other defects), it had no risk of criminal sanction, it helped the conservation of wild alligator populations.

Again, I don't know if there are any suitable candidates in NZ for using trade as an adjunct to stop poaching. I think it is bizarre that we don't debate trade however and dismiss it out of hand. The current trade setting for our geckos, orchids and keas are to effectively put a bounty on them for poachers to collect. The inevitable result of using a trade ban as a conservation tool is to make prices much higher overseas. These higher prices are an effective 'bounty', a payment to smugglers to take our wildlife & they've got a monopoly on it.

Call me silly, but I'm not sure that paying people to poach our wildlife is such a sensible policy that debate is out of the question.

Tonight’s Wildlife Photo Brendan Moyle Jun 26

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The white-eyes (or wax-eyes .. or silver-eyes), ok, the tauhou or Zosterops lateralis are keen on foraging in the middle of the winter.


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Winter is reducing the light I've got to work with, so this shot was taken with the a700 with 300/4 G + 1.4x TC, and mounted on the tripod for needed stability.

NZ wildlife being pillaged by smugglers? – really? Brendan Moyle Jun 26

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This morning’s Sunday Star Times had a piece that’s close to my heart, and it was with some dismay I read the article.


New Zealand’s flora and fauna is being pillaged for the black market. “It’s a huge problem,” Customs senior investigator and Wildlife Enforcement Group member Stuart Williamson said of the illegal but lucrative trade.



Well, it’s been an issue for some species but huge? The threats posed from predation, habitat loss and population fragmentation are huge. What’s the evidence that this black-market is huge?


In 2007, Customs made two prosecutions, but last year six were laid, and there have been two arrests this year.



Umm, well congratulations to Customs for making these arrests but this is still down there in the ‘handful’ of arrests stage and there is no obvious trend. I’m not thinking the ‘case’ for huge has been made. This week 1.2 tonnes of bear paws were intercepted in a truck in Russia, that’s over 1000 paws. The poaching levels for the African elephant are now as bad as they were in the 1980s. That’s a huge problem.


Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson said the government was “very concerned”. She had a bill before parliament that sought to double smuggling penalties, and which would ban anyone jailed for more than a year from New Zealand for a decade. Williamson said prosecution levels did not reflect the size of the problem, which was at a “critical” stage.



Again, it’s good to see concern from the Government, but please, someone explain what evidence we have that the situation is critical. And even more importantly, what is the empirical evidence that increasing smuggling penalties will address this probelm. If there is a critical problem, why aren’t we having a very serious debate over the strategies to stop poaching?


Often Customs became aware of smuggling only when researchers noticed declines in animal numbers “way above natural predation”.



Hmm, given that the introduced predators can predate a lot of our native animals to an extinction point, it’s pretty hard to pick up such trends.


The public could play a key role, reporting “suspicious behaviour” and taking down registration details.



Well, yes. Having a good local intelligence network does help law enforcement. People should be encouraged to do this.


Williamson said price was a key indicator of how well-supplied the exotic pet trade was. New Zealand geckos could fetch as much as $12,000 but prices were down in Europe, suggesting supply was high. A court case last year involving 16 geckos valued the lizards at $200,000 and Williamson said she had seen a pair of geckos offered on a website for $21,000.



Prices are often very varied for live animals as it depends on their colours, parentage, age and any defects to the scales.

One of the reasons prices are high for these geckos, is that NZ has also banned the export of these lizards for decades. By restricting the supply, such animals then attract a premium price. In effect, NZ has been offering a ‘bonus’ payment with this policy for people to smuggle our wildlife.

That’s the inevitable outcome of this policy. We’ve pushed prices up deliberately to make this illegal trade lucrative to smugglers.


Williamson said the blackmarket animal trade, believed to be worth $40 billion a year globally, worked a lot like the drug trade. “Not all the people we are catching are collectors, often they are the dupes who get paid a meagre amount to come and do the dirty work.” She said tougher penalties that “hit smugglers in the wallet”, coupled with longer jail terms, were the only way to stop New Zealand being targeted. – Sunday Star Times



Well, there are two important differences typically noted between the black-markets in drugs and wildlife. The first is that the intelligence and quality of information on the wildlife trade is abysmal. Throughout the world, far less is known about this trade than the drug-trade. The second is that criminal sanctions for smugglers are typically much lower. It is for these traffickers, a less risky enterprise.

Let’s remember that the illegal drug trade has persisted despite a high effort by law enforcement and much harsher penalties. What is the reason for supposing that the illegal wildlife trade will respond differently? Has the ‘Shoot to kill’ policy adopted towards elephant poachers in some African states prevented elephant poaching? (That’s rhetorical, the answer is no).

One of the reasons is that wildlife smugglers aren’t stupid. They are smart and able to organise the movement of illegal products over international distances. Williamson alludes to their favourite tactic of using low-income mules to take-on the border-crossing risk. These don’t have enough assets to pay the criminal sanctions needed to be a deterrence. Higher sanctions end up being ineffective. If you need a fine of $200k to be an effective deterrence and the mule has assets of $5k, you can’t get deterrence.

Let me suggest in fact, we should be discussing other strategies to defeat smugglers of our wildlife and not pretend that law enforcement is the only way. We have defeated poaching in other wildlife by introducing captive-bred animals to compete against smugglers. I don’t know if this will work for our targeted species, but it seems bizarre that we won’t even talk about this option when there’s no evidence the current policy is going to work either.

An apple a day Brendan Moyle Jun 15

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Female sparrow feeding on an apple-half

Crocodile Attacks Brendan Moyle Jun 14

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This time from Mozambique here 35 people have been reported killed by Nile crocodiles in the NW Tete province.
Bloomberg News Link

In NZ we rarely develop an appreciation for the human cost of conservation. Our wildlife is rather tame in comparison. But for people living in close proximity to animals like tigers, elephants and crocodiles, the risk of human-animal conflict is ever present.

Conserving crocodiles in these areas depends so often on a mix of strategies. One of the most important is to compensate the locals who bear these risks. For many crocodilians, this is achieved through egg-collection and ranching programmes. It is however, something that has not been achieved for many tiger populations. Walston et al. (2010) note that in fact, there has been a 42% drop in the occupancy rate in tiger hanitat through Asia in recent years. In many cases, the habitat is there but the tigrs are disappearing. One of the causes is human-tiger conflict.

Back in the saddle, Orinoco crocodile facing increased challenges Brendan Moyle Jun 14

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A bout of influenza B and the subsequent catchup of missed work, has sadly had an impact on blogging energy. So thought I’d kick start things with some crocodile news.

From Venezuela, the news for the endangered Orinoco crocodile (Crocodylus intermedius) is looking grim. The Orinoco crocodile is the largest in South America but the population has suffered a major contraction. Its distribution is now restricted to Venezuela and Colombia but the populations are extremely small, in the low hundreds.

There was early reliance on state-owned nature reserves to protected these crocodiles but these proved inadaquate. Breeding then shifted to a number of private reserves, and animals have been released back into the wild from these. Revenues from these reserves came in part from eco-tourism.

However, 3 of the 4 private reserves breeding the Orinoco crocodile have been expropriated by the government. This is part of the Chavez government’s wealth redistribution. The expropriated reserves no longer appear to be undertaking breeding of these endangered crocodiles.

Story from the BBC

This reflects many of the problems facing wildlife conservation. A similar story has emerged in Zimbabwe where the once thriving crocodile industry there has undergone a major collapse. Zimbabwe used to be one of the world largest suppliers of Nile crocodile skins and the loss of this supply has sent crocodile leather prices soaring for other species.

Many decisions that get made within the political sphere are relatively short run. Wildlife management programs however, require long term stability and security. In NZ the kakapo recovery programme launched in the late 80s, has survived many changes of government since then. It is an apt illustration that conservation is a long term business. We have a fundamental mismatch between the public institutions that are supposed to perpetuate conservation and the wildlife populations we are managing.

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