Posts Tagged conservation

The dangerous economic ideas acquired by conservationists Brendan Moyle Mar 13

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One thing you quickly find is that many people bring their own ideas of how economics works to the debates on conservation policy. Some of these ideas are quite dangerous and yet, remain part of the folk-economics of conservation.  They are often employed by NGOs and the like.

The first is that legal trade fuels demand for illegal.  Now we do know that legal trade can generate pathways that lead to more poaching, but fundamentally, legal sellers and illegal are in competition. They’re in competition because the products are substitutes. Hermes isn’t going to demand more poached alligator or crocodile leather because they’re buying lots of legal leather. Legal trade doesn’t fuel demand for illegal. It crowds the illegal out (all else being equal).  That’s a big part of why the sustainable, regulated trade in crocodilian skins has crushed the illegal trade.

The caveat is there are pathways where legal trade does sustain illegal. One important is laundering where illegal wildlife products are merged into the market as sold as legal.  But this is a different mechanism to fueling demand. That’s the important point. Legal trade isn’t a panacea or instant solution. But the problems it creates aren’t demand-driven.

The second dangerous idea is that concentrating market power in incumbent sellers is bad for their business. This is nuts. Some of how most enduring conservation problems are a result of concentrating market power in large, criminal organisations. For ivory, we’ve choked back the export of legal ivory to an erratic trickle since 1990.  We have large, organised crime networks involved now. And the latest move to destroy ivory stocked by governments is further concentrating market power with the bad guys.  This is literally the only setting I’ve been in, when people argue and believe that competition will make the incumbents (the bad guys) better off.  By analogy, this would predict that Blackberry and Nokia would be much more profitable after Apple entered the market with the iPhone than before.

We’ve done the same thing for rhino horn. The quasi-legal export of rhino horns (as trophies) out of South Africa to key Asian states was tightened up- so poaching increased. Then as a response, it was banned. And poaching exploded. Concentrating market power in the bad guys is a pretty dangerous step to take if you’ve got nothing to counter their responses with.

The third dangerous idea is that everything must be explained in terms of demand. There is an astonishing neglect of the supply influences on poaching.  A good example is the explanations for the rapidly rising poaching levels of African elephants since 2008-9. A number of NGOs are certain that roughly in this period, middle-class Chinese all took evil pills, and became insatiable, avaricious consumers of ivory products.

Figure 1: Ivory Seizures increase rapidly from 2008-9

Raw Ivory Seizures

If we explore the supply-side then there’s actually two very important changes.  The first is the several Central African states have became pretty unstable and they’re a major source of ivory. Not a lot is being spent on parks management and rangers there, and various groups are cashing in ivory to pay for their warring.

The second is that shipping costs have collapsed. Globally, shipping costs were in the rise in the mid 2000s, reaching a peak in early 2008 before the Global Financial Crisis.  They then collapsed. They haven’t just fallen a little bit. They’ve dropped to about a third of pre-GFC levels.  This matters because the ivory has a unique aspect. It is the only wildlife product that is transported by the ton, in shipping containers. It’s a major part of the supply cost.  It’s just dropped. Indeed, the change is so dramatic, there’s evidence ivory in the early 200os is only been exported in this period.

And this supports a crucial observation. We’re not seeing the volumes of carvings for sale that match this influx.  This is a point the CITES Secretariat has made in its summaries of the evidence. If demand had really exploded to match the influx we seen in Figure 1, then we’d detect that with a big increase in number of retailers, stocking rates and turnover.  And nobody has seen that occur. Yes, demand for ivory is going up, but in line with the growing affluence in China. That’s a steady increase. It’s an important increase.  But it doesn’t come close to matching that surge in supply.

The Ivory Crush: When wishful thinking meets bad economics Brendan Moyle Mar 04

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Elephant poaching exploded in the late 2000s.  This has led to a range of measures to stop this traffic. Some are quite sensible- increased international cooperation and coordination on enforcement has had successes.  Both Operation Cobra (2013) and Operation Cobra II (2014) shattered some conspiracies in Africa and Asia.  Some measure, well, seem to be applied in haste and with little reason. The wave of ivory crushes initiated by the USA is one of these.

Countries have been acquiring ivory for years.  Some ivory is gathered from natural mortality and culls (in Africa).  Some ivory comes from seizures made by enforcement agencies.  A lot of this ivory is held in consumer-states.  Ivory is after all, a durable product.  It can be easily stored.

So, what’s the rationale behind destroying this ivory?  Advocates claim that it sends a signal that this time, the international community is serious. That by destroying legal stockpiles of ivory, consumers will realise that buying ivory products is bad. This is part of a long line of similar gambits. Kenya’s graphic burn of 12 tons of ivory in 1989 was supposed to do just this. The CITES Appendix Listing (1989) leading to the ban in international trade in ivory (1990) also was supposed to do this.

I suppose this could work if Asian consumers of ivory products wanted the approval of conservationists- especially Western conservationists- more than anything else. If on the other hand, centuries of cultural use is the more important driver then we’d see persistent demand over decades.  Yeah. I think that question has been answered.

The problem with the ivory-crush is perception.  With little forethought, it is just being presumed that buyers of ivory will perceive ivory to be less desirable.  The risk is that it bolsters the rarity-value of ivory.  That those in the market will think it becomes even more valuable. The important thing is not to change the perceptions of people who aren’t in the ivory market.  That’s a lot of China or Japan.  The important thing is the perceptions of the people actually in the market.

This is what we warned in our South China Morning Post op-ed.  If the buyers and sellers in this market come to regard ivory as more valuable, then it’s not going to slow down poaching. Prices will go up as a result of this perception. It will actually encourage more poaching.  We are creating a perception that there is a crisis with elephants, that ivory will become scarcer. Surprisingly, there are already early signs that this is occurring.

One seller at an ivory stall in Beijing’s Tianya Antique Market commented that “the government’s destruction of its ivory stocks has actually done us some good.” He explained that while smaller merchants were finding it harder to source quality goods, the larger ones still had suppliers and were benefiting from higher prices [link]

Initially, Hofford says, the move to destroy so much ivory appears to have driven up prices by about 10 percent in Hong Kong. [link]

Let me conclude with out SCMP Op-Ed

Conserving elephants is a laudable international goal. Destroying ivory stockpiles has no record of success and it has grave risks that are being overlooked in the rush to destroy. Effective policies must be based on compelling evidence and not on popular, wishful thinking.

I can understand the motivation to be seen to be ‘doing something‘ to reduce the illegal trade in ivory.  But this does not mean we should ditch the principles of good policy-making. It does not mean that we should be taking risky gambles.  The premise that making something scarcer will reduce its market value is extraordinary, and needs compelling evidence. None has been provided.

Time on the beach Brendan Moyle Jan 22

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One of the consequences of our fondness for beaches is pressure on native birds that live there.  Whilst sea gulls may seem very robust, other birds are less so.  One is the endangered NZ dotterel or tūturiwhatu.  There’s only about 1700 birds left of this species, and the North Island populations are only found in the upper north.  The nesting strategy for this bird is a simple scrape in the ground.  This means the nests are easily damaged or disturbed by well, almost anything.  This includes people, dogs, SUVs etc. 

Close to where I live is the Okura reserve and there is an isolated sweep of beach (near the old Dancre cottage) that has a small population.  Some days I’ve hiked out there with one of my sons and we’ve just sat, watching them through binoculars.  I have for sometime, been trying to get some good pictures of them as well.  Open beach is not easy to get close to birds with, and avoid startling or scaring them.

Last week I succeeded with a bit of planning and a bit of luck.  One the planning side, I dressed carefully in stone or khaki clothing to blend into the beach.  A stone-coloured brimmed hat finished the look, and I eschewed sunglasses.  There would be no dark areas on my body or outline.  There was also a large log washed up on the beach I could conceal myself behind by laying beside it.  I had about an hour there, able to watch and take pictures.  For the first time I ended up with a series that didn’t require cropping.  In fact, the birds seemed curious about the shutter sound and came closer than I expected.  Here’s a sample:



A rational look at rhinos, Namibia and sport-hunting Brendan Moyle Jan 17

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One of the points about conservation that seems to elude many, is that conservation isn’t about imposing your values on others.  It is about increasing the populations of endangered species.  This conflict came to head with the forthcoming auction of a hunting-permit for one black rhino in Namibia.

The idea of sport hunting is an anathema to many.  The outrage at the Dallas Safari Club auction of the permit on social media has been intense.  Nonetheless, the reality is that Africa is not a giant theme park for tourists.  It has wildlife and people coexisting.  Local communities have to bear the costs of wildlife interactions.  This includes damage to crops and property, injuries and sometimes deaths.  To maintain wildlife requires expenditures by governments to monitor and protect the wildlife.  A brutal consequence of this is lethal conflicts between poachers and rangers.

This is where sport-hunting plays a role.  It provides revenues and often local benefits that regular tourism does not.  Tourism requires a decent amount of infrastructure.  Professional hunters don’t.  They also go to places regular tourists don’t (tourists prefer animals in high densities to maximise viewing chances).  And they pay a lot of money.  Sport hunting occurs in Namibia because hunters put a lot of money conservation there, and outraged netizens don’t.  It occurs because it supports conservation.  Local communities get benefits from the wildlife.  They cooperate with enforcement agencies against poachers.

Namibia is one of the few countries in Africa to have an increasing number of rhinos.  It has a population of 1750 black rhinos.    Since 2004 Namibia has been allowed a hunting quota of 5 black rhino males per year by CITES.  This auction is just the sixth to have occurred.  It is of a post-reproductive male.  Population dynamics says that removing post-reproductive males isn’t a risk to the population.  People may not like it.  Nobody is asking that people like it.  The point is however, it is part of a successful strategy that has seen poaching curbed and rhino numbers increased.  That’s the goal of conservation.

The following text from the IUCN Sustainable use and Livelihoods Group is informative, and was submitted on this proposal.  It provides more detail on this issue.


11th December 2013






This letter provides advice and input from IUCN’s Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group (SULi, on the forthcoming auction by Dallas Safari Club (DSC) of a permit to hunt one black rhino in Namibia, as granted to them by the Government of Namibia. SULi is a cross-Commissional initiative of IUCN’s Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy (CEESP) and its Species Survival Commission (SSC), and includes around 300 specialists and experts from across the globe on various aspects of sustainable use of wild species and its contributions to local livelihoods.


From a conservation perspective, we believe there are sound and compelling reasons to support this auction, and do not see any valid basis for opposing it. We note that:


  1. The auction is supported by the Government of Namibia, which has approved the permit to be auctioned by DSC. Namibia has an outstanding, globally recognised conservation track record. Over recent decades, wildlife numbers (including both black and white rhino) have been progressively increasing – not only in protected areas, but also on freehold and communal lands. This is near-unique in any developing country. The black rhino population now stands at around 1750[1]. Namibia has experienced very few poaching incidents despite the alarming escalation of poaching in neighbouring countries[2], and despite its large free-ranging population.


  1. The purpose of the auction of this permit in the USA (which Namibia would otherwise auction in-country) is to raise a larger amount of dedicated funding from the small number of black rhino it allows to be hunted each year as part of its rhino conservation strategy.


  1. Sustainable use, including through trophy hunting, is a fundamental pillar of Namibia’s conservation approach, and instrumental in its success. Through farsighted legislation, Namibia has empowered rural communities and private landholders to benefit directly from wildlife, thus building up an enormous support base for conservation amongst these groups. Sustainable use of wildlife contributes directly to the livelihoods of many rural communities, dramatically reducing levels of poaching and human-wildlife conflict[3], and dramatically expanding the area of land devoted to wildlife as a primary land use. As a result of its sustainable use approach, Namibia currently has 44% of its land area under some form of conservation[4], a remarkable and unrivalled achievement.


  1. Carefully managed hunting has proven to be an effective means of encouraging and enabling rural communities, private land holders, and indeed governments in a number of countries to protect and invest in wildlife. Photo-tourism is often proposed as an alternative to hunting and can be very effective in some contexts. However, unlike trophy hunting, tourism is capital intensive, requires considerable infrastructure, has higher environmental impacts, and is not viable in many landscapes (such as those distant from tourist routes, with still-low wildlife populations, lacking the required scenic qualities, or where there is political unrest). In Namibia, tourism and trophy hunting are complementary, typically taking place on the same areas of land, with trophy hunting frequently more important in the early stages of development of wildlife-based land uses.


  1. The current, well-justified international concern over the escalating and appalling level of wildlife crime can lead to some confusion with legitimate, well-managed sustainable use, including trophy hunting. Well-managed trophy hunting has little to do with poaching, and indeed can be a key tool to help combat it[5]. In Namibia, the benefits for rural communities from wildlife use have dramatically reduced levels of poaching over recent decades, and made communities powerful partners in detecting and combating wildlife crime. Trophy hunting provides not just incentive but revenue for anti-poaching efforts: without it, communal conservancies and landholders would not be able to employ the upwards of 3000 field rangers employed to protect wildlife and enforce regulations on wildlife use[6], or establish the sophisticated surveillance and informer networks in place. There is also a positive anti-poaching deterrent from having professional hunters traversing remote areas. These impacts have been borne out for rhino poaching in Namibia: it has an excellent track record of apprehending the perpetrators of the small number of rhino poaching incidents over recent years[7], directly as a result of support for and cooperation with enforcement agencies by local communities.


  1. The entire income from the auction of the permit will be paid into the the Namibian Game Products Trust Fund (GPTF). Maximising revenue to this fund will directly support practical and important rhino conservation work. This hunt will be the sixth hunt of a post-reproductive male black rhino in Namiba, and the funds generated from these earlier hunts were likewise paid into the GPTF and “ring-fenced” for rhino conservation work. The GPTF has a good record in supporting rhino conservation work, including funding
  • intensive rhino monitoring programmes;
  • purchase of specialized rhino management equipment (e.g. capture equipment);
  • operational funds for rhino rescue and relocation work;
  • purchase and deployment of radio/satellite tracking devices; and
  • purchase of drones for rhino protection.

The Namibian Government is also piloting a high-tech water-point surveillance system (due to the recent elephant poisoning developments in Zimbabwe) which is likely to rely on GPTF funding for roll-out. The GPTF is the one fund that the Ministry of Environment and Tourism can rapidly access to respond to rhino threats and management needs, so it is a critically important tool in Namibia’s arsenal to protect and manage its rhino.


  1. The hunt is consistent with commitments under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). Namibia and South Africa applied for and received the support of CITES for an annual black rhino maximum hunting quota of 5 black rhino males/year each at CoP 13 in 2004, and the permit at issue here is within this quota. The CITES’ Conference of the Parties’ decision was based on widespread recognition that, while black rhino remain a Critically Endangered species, hunting a small number of males could be fully consistent with and indeed contribute positively to population growth of rhino, that numbers were increasing due to successful management in both countries, and that trophy hunting could play an important role in conservation efforts as explained above.


  1. Trophy hunting in Namibia is consistent with IUCN’s own policy, which has long recognised that the sustainable use of wildlife can be contribute to biodiversity conservation, because the social and economic benefits derived from use of species can provide incentives for people to conserve them and their habitats[8]. IUCN has also further recognised the conservation and rural livelihood benefits that can flow from well-managed recreational hunting[9] and trophy hunting in particular[10], including the part these have played in stimulating population increases for rhino[11]. We view Namibia’s program as an excellent example of these principles in action.


For these reasons, IUCN SULi is supportive of this auction by DSC, and sees it as an effective means to raise much-needed money for rhino conservation in a manner fully consistent with Namibia’s successful rhino conservation programme.


We recognise that it is not immediately intuitive that trophy hunting – even for endangered species – can be a positive conservation tool that can be used to fight poaching and acquire more habitat for wildlife. We further understand that the very idea of hunting is abhorrent to many people. However, in a world that requires pragmatic conservation solutions, trophy hunting – where well-managed – is frequently one of the most effective conservation tools available. Capitalising on the humane demise of a post reproductive animal in order to produce tangible benefits for the conservation of its species is a sound strategy worthy of strong support.


We hope and trust that DSC’s auction is successful in its purpose of raising substantial revenue to help protect and conserve rhinos in the field.


Yours sincerely,



Dr Rosie Cooney

[1] IUCN (2013) CITES CoP 16 Inf. 51. Online at

[2] Ibid.

[3] See e.g. Weaver LC, Hamunyela E, Diggle R, Matongo G and Pietersen T (2011). The catalytic role and contributions of sustainable wildlife use to the Namibia CBNRM Programme. In CITES and CBNRM: Proceedings of an international symposium on “The relevance of CBNRM to the conservation and sustainable use of CITES-listed species in exporting countries”. M. Abensperg-Traun, D. Roe and C. O’Criodain (Eds). Gland, Switzerland and London, UK, IUCN and IIED: 59-70. Online at

[4] NACSO. 2013. The state of community conservation in Namibia – a review of communal conservancies, community forests and other CBNRM initiatives (2012 Annual Report). NACSO, Windhoek. Online at

[5] See examples in IUCN SSC (2012) Guiding Principles on Trophy Hunting as a Tool for Creating Conservation Incentives v1, Annex 1. Online at

[6] This figure is calculated very conservatively as follows: Namibian communal conservancies have 573 full time and 96 part time conservancy employees, plus 862 conservancy representatives who receive allowances (NACSO 2013, see n4). While all of these people contribute to promoting conservation, of the full time Conservancy employees at least 460 are community game guards. There are over 1500 registered hunting farms in Namibia (freehold land), and it can be conservatively assumed that each farm employs 2 game guards. This supports a total of at least 3460.

[7] IUCN (2013) see above, n1.

[8] IUCN (2000) Policy on Sustainable Use of Wild Living Resources, WCC Res. 2.29. Online at

[9] IUCN (2004) Application of the IUCN Sustainable Use Policy to sustainable consumptive use of wildlife and recreational hunting in southern Africa WCC Rec 3.093. Online at

[10] IUCN SSC (2000) supra n5.

[11] IUCN (2012) Conservation of rhinoceros species in Africa and Asia. WCC Rec. 138. Online at


The 25,000 elephant question Brendan Moyle Dec 08

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Poaching levels for African elephants have now accelerated to a point where about 25,000 are being killed a year.  The population in Africa is projected to decline by 20% in the next decade.  This is starting to get people very worried.

The illegal trade in elephants has several important features.  The first is that there is a separation between final consumers of carvings and poachers who procure the tusks.  There is a long supply chain with many parties along the route.  And importantly, many of these act strategically.  They’re thinking about the future, where demand is going and what effect enforcement is going to have.

The second feature is that ivory isn’t consumed in its raw form. It has to be transformed into something of value by carvings.  This process isn’t instant.  For an elaborate and large carving like a Guangzhou dragon-ball this can take months.  The number of skilled carvers is limited and the tools used to carve ivory aren’t sophisticated. There’s a limit to how much can be transformed into carvings.


The third feature is that ivory is durable.  It can be stored for long periods without deteriorating. This may require some environmental safeguards.  In the dry air of Beijing for instance, humidity levels have to be increased.  But other than that, tusks can potentially last for years.  This is why many governments have stockpiles.  Another point is the bad guys have stockpiles too.

One way to look at the illegal trade is to break the seizures down into different categories.  Seizure data has been accumulated globally as part of the ETIS since 1996.  While the weight of seizures is often aggregated, this masks some important differences.  Some guy smuggling a small piece of raw ivory in his suitcase, isn’t the same as the criminal conspiracy shipping four tons of tusks in a container.

What I’ve done here is taken the ETIS seizure data for raw ivory (by weight) and divided it into four categories.  These are the seizures up to less than 10kg (Raw1), the seizures from 10kg but less than 100 (Raw2), the seizures from 100kg but less than 1000, and the seizures that are more than 1000kg.  This isn’t the total amount of ivory being illegal trafficked.  It is a sample based on seizures. I’ve also expressed the data as a two-year moving average to iron out a little volatility.

Raw Ivory Seizures


The data graphed above is also stacked so that the top line will measure the total ivory seized while the other lines break it down into proportions.  There were no big seizures in 2007-2008.

What can we see?

Well, the small seizures (less than 10kg) have been pretty stable. They haven’t moved.  The problem facing elephants isn’t the small stuff coming in as suitcases.  These make up the majority of the actual seizures by a negligible amount of the illegal ivory.  This also serves as a useful control. If the increase in recorded seizures was simply down to better reporting and better enforcement, this ought to have increased in line with the other categories.

The second point is really that the big seizures drive the trend. The increase in illegal ivory being trafficked is down to one category getting bigger.  This is the stuff that’s more than 1000kg. It’s the stuff that’s several tons in a shipping container from East or West Africa. We can see that’s taken off from around 2008.

This actually generates an important question. Why is it 25,000 elephants and not 10,000 elephants? The legal demand in China for ivory is about 4 tons per year.  The illegal demand is (we think) much higher. But 10,000 elephants gives (back of the envelope calculation) about 100 tons of raw ivory a year.  25,000 elephants gives 250 tons. It doesn’t seem plausible that this could be absorbed by the markets in China- nor that the legal and illegal factories could transform it into carvings fast enough.

This is a strong indicator that ivory is being hoarded at the moment.  This tells us the bad guys are banking on the US government and many other conservation organisations being wrong. They’re betting on ivory still being in demand in the future and at higher prices. This is kind of scary. I tend to the view that the guys involved in the illegal market have pretty good knowledge of the market. I don’t have the same confidence in the conservation organisations claiming demand is going to decline with stockpile destruction.  If the bad guys are right, destroying legal stockpiles just makes their hoards more valuable. It affirms the poaching spree was the right strategy for them.




Conservation gains from hunting: The Markhor Brendan Moyle Nov 20

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Recent days have seen an outpouring of invectives against game hunters on social media.  Much of this outrage misses some vital points about conservation.  Sometimes, sport hunting generates significant conservation benefits.  The reason is that sport hunting isn’t a wild west of killer-shooters ranged against helpless endangered wildlife.  Rather it is often a tightly regulated business that creates benefits for both the wildlife and the local communities that live amongst them.

As a qualification, I should point I am not a hunter. I’m a vegetarian guy, who likes to take photos of wildlife.  The point here is to think about the issue more deeply.  And the issue is that sport hunting has resulted in increases in populations of endangered wildlife.  It may seem perverse, but there are good reasons.

The example I’m going to employ is the Torghar markhor (Capra falconeri) – a type of wild goat- and its population in Northern Pakistan.  The picture below is of the more common flare-horned subspecies, whereas the Torghar population is the straight-horned subspecies (C. falconeri megaceros).


Basically these animals live in mountain regions that are difficult to access.  The environment has low productivity, which discourages crop growing but also keeps markhor population growth rates low.  The fragmented populations of the species means that each has important genetic diversity for the species as a whole.

Habitat loss, competition with domestic stock, low reproductive rates and illegal hunting caused ongoing declines in the 1970s.  It was listed on Appendix I of CITES in 1975 when the population estimate was under 2000 animals.  The US followed in the same year listing it with the US Endangered Species Act.  This prohibited the export of trophies from Pakistan.

Nonetheless, by the mid 1980s, the torghar population was estimated to be less than 100 individuals- 56 in fact in 1985.  This led to a new plan. Mountain hunters were hired as local game guards and paid salaries, and hunting fees were increased for the (largely) European hunters.  Hunting was permitted for 1-2 markhor from 1989 and is limited to a post-reproductive male. Hunting fees in the first 10 years generated $US460,000 from 20 urial and 14 markhor trophy hunts.

There was 20 fold increase in the number of markhor in the first 12 years. By 1999, the population was estimated to be 1680 animals.  That represented a significant increase over the 56 animals of the mid 1980s.  Almost all of this increase came about by the elimination of illegal hunting of the animals under the new incentives facing tribal authorities.

A number of important points come out of this.

  1. Banning hunting or trade doesn’t stop hunting. It can shift it from a regulated form, to an unregulated and far more deleterious form.
  2. Locals will acquiesce to illegal hunting when the wildlife creates no benefits to them or is a nuisance or competes with their own farm stock.
  3. Hunters go to places ecotourists don’t.  Northern Pakistan is not a magnet for ecotourists.  Mountainous areas in conflict zones are not particularly accessible.
  4. Trophy hunting generates a lot of conservation on the ground. Game hunters don’t get a free pass. The fact is that a lot of countries like game hunters because they have a low ecological footprint and spend a lot of money on the wildlife. Much more than the moral outrage of distant anti-hunters supplies.
  5. The selection of post-reproductive males for trophy hunting minimizes the population impact of hunting.



Ivory Bust in HK & a question for the economists Brendan Moyle Nov 13

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It’s interesting holding an elephant tusk for the first time.  You’re not quite sure what to expect. But the first thing you notice is that they’re heavy, heavier than I expected. This aspect distinguishes elephant ivory from other wildlife products.  It’s heavy, and it’s going to take up space.  This has to affect the smuggling techniques.


Last month there was another bust of smuggled ivory in Hong Kong.  There were 189 tusks with an average weight of 4kg each.  The origin of the shipment was (ironically) the Cote d’Ivoire.  West Africa continues to play a dominant role as an export centre of poached ivory.  This was the third major bust by Hong Kong customs this year.  The common denominator is that they’re all shipped, concealed, in containers.

The novel aspect of this shipment is the conspirators were trying to spread their risks this time. Rather than the tusks being on one ship, they came in containers on three different ships.  This suggests the effect of several big busts in late 2012 and continuing to 2013 is increased wariness.

Of the illegal wildlife products I’m familiar with, containers are a technique that I think, specialised for ivory. I can’t think of any other wildlife product that relies so heavily on containers.  So, aside from I think firearms, here’s a question for the economists (or anyone else who knows).  Is there any other illegal product that depends as much on shipping containers for distribution as ivory?



New illegal shark-finning tactic Brendan Moyle Nov 10

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Historically NZ has banned the finning of live sharks, and looks to be set to eliminate the practice entirely. This is in line with other countries.  The United Nations recommends a ‘fins naturally attached policy’ which would require vessels to keep the whole shark. Interestingly, anti-shark-fin campaigns are also springing up in Chinese social media (like Weibo). The custom is under pressure within as well. It has been banned at official banquets in Hong Kong and some mainland provinces.

Nonetheless, demand remains high enough to keep shark populations under threat.  The point is that it is this specific fishing practice- finning- that is illegal.  Many shark species are still fished legally in New Zealand and elsewhere.  The regulations against finning thus distinguish between catching sharks for human consumption, and finning specifically.  Fins for instance, must be ‘naturally attached’ to the body, as per the United Nations recommendation.

The challenge with any environmental regulation is keeping up with the ingenuity of the criminals.  Costa Rica has identified a method illegal shark-finners are using to comply with the regulations. This leaves a band of skin connecting the fin to the spine, and the rest of the animal is discarded.

Shark Fins via Interpol Press Release

Shark Fins via Interpol Press Release

This has led INTERPOL to issue a Purple Notice to members to alert them to the new practice.  Purple notices are used by INTERPOL  to seek or provide information on modi operandi, objects, devices and concealment methods used by criminals.  This is the second Purple Notice in fisheries to have been issued to member countries.


A Tale of Two Rhinos Brendan Moyle Nov 04

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One of the challenges in modern conservation is agreeing on what conservation is.  There is a widely held belief that conservation is about reserves, it’s about protecting wildlife and it’s about banning their use. But most wildlife doesn’t live in reserves.  Many endangered species are in developing countries. They don’t have a lot of resources to put into conservation. Corruption and weak institutions make it harder.


What this means is porting over a Western conservation management strategy to other countries hasn’t worked out so well. One might even argue that it doesn’t even work so well in NZ. We can’t conjure up enough resources to control the invasive pests that ravage our native ecosystems. Developing countries struggle to treat conservation as a money sink.

In practice, conservation means working with people with diverse values.  They won’t agree on what conservation means. For Inuit in Canada, conservation means being able to co-manage polar bears and hunt some. It works. Polar bear numbers have trended upwards. In Papua New Guinea, the estuarine crocodile is sustainably harvested. It works. Numbers have risen under this regime. This is a place where reserves and enforcement are to put diplomatically, challenging to implement. The industry and the local villagers agree on the need to conserve crocodiles, basically because they’re worth money. That works to curtail poaching and enhance habitat.

This conflict between what some people think conservation is, and what it actually is, is tragically illustrated with the two rhino species. The black rhino Diceros bicornis used to be abundant, with a range that extended up into the horn of Africa. There was still an estimated 60,000 black rhinos in 1960. Numbers have collapsed despite an international trade ban in 1976 and the use of an orthodox conservation approach.

Trends in Rhino Populations

Trends in Rhino Populations

Source: Michael ‘tSas-Rolfes

The white rhino has undergone the reverse trend (up until very recently). From very low numbers in the 1960s, numbers of white rhinos have overtaken black. The difference was a more encompassing conservation approach. There was a greater willingness to undertake translocations. Management was shared between the state, local communities and private owners.  In South Africa, 25% of the white rhinos are privately owned.  This included trophy hunting.  Again, while not everyone agrees that hunting has a place in conservation, and many find it abhorrent, the result is more rhinos.

The reason rhinos are in decline is poaching. This is now at catastrophic levels. Two to three rhinos on average, are killed each day. 2013 could see 1000 rhinos killed by poachers. Private game parks in South Africa are considering getting out of rhinos completely because of the security risks and costs.

The reason rhinos are poached are for their horns. The horns are largely keratin and grow back. This is partly why the dehorning experiments started in 1989 (with Namibia) failed. Nonetheless, as Biggs et al (2013) argue in the journal Science [1], the economics of farming rhinos stacks up well. Horn can be humanely and regularly shaved off the animal. This would get 8 times as much horn as a one off killing by a poacher. Here is a product we can supply, whose demand has remained resolutely high despite the trade-bans, without having to kill any rhinos. It’s worth debating if the current strategy is delivering what we want for rhinos, and whether trying something new is warranted.

[1] Biggs, D., Courchamp, F., Martin, R., Possingham, H. P. Legal Trade of Africa’s Rhino HornsScience 339 1038-1039 (2013).


It’s a publication! Brendan Moyle May 22


This morning started with the pleasant news my paper on American alligator conservation has been accepted for publication. This was actually a look at the interplay between alligator farming and hunting, and the conservation flow-on effects of these.

There's basically two camps on the issue of wildlife farming. One is that wildlife farming can help conservation. One proposed reason is that farming increases supply, reduces prices and deters poaching. So not surprisingly, it often mooted as a policy to employ if poaching is a major conservation problem.

The other camp argues that it is a measure that exacerbates extinction risks. Legal trade provides a potential vehicle for laundering. Some also worry that any stigma associated with consumption by bans, will end and demand rise. The last point is a little tricky, because stigma effects are a little difficult to identify and measure. And it's also often asserted it can't possibly work because shooting wildlife in the actual wild, is much cheaper than raising than on a farm or ranch.

Anyway, the whole point about alligators, is that it is a conservation success story, poaching has not resumed but has collapsed, and it is a rare empirical case where farming and hunting coexist. Instead of having to come up with various theoretical models, we can actually look at what happens.

The basic message is that we tend to be far too pessimistic about the ability of wildlife farming to contribute to conservation. None of the issues identified in the arguments above hold. Prices haven't collapsed despite massive increases in output, while poaching has for all practical purposes disappeared.

There are some good reasons why. Most of the positive conservation effects are felt through the non-price paths. Leather-manufacturers switched to legal skins because of volume and quality reasons. Consumers switched to legal products out of 'green' motives. And some of the reasons for pessimism didn't hold. Pessimistic theoretical models tend to assume the wildlife is open-access. This is an extreme case, which is known to lead to over-harvest. It lead to the almost complete extinction of bison in America, moas in NZ by early Polynesians and also, the collapse of several species of whales in the 20th century. It shouldn't come as a surprise, that if your model includes an open access condition, you'll get a decline in wildlife. That's going to hold under a variety of conservation policies. It practically makes the assumption of farming redundant. And no, it didn't actually apply in the case of alligators.

Of course, this isn't arguing that wildlife farming is a general solution to conservation problems. But there could well be more cases where it could support conservation, it we weren't quite as pessimistic about its chances.