Lost at sea: Impressions of Leonardo’s Sailors

By Brendan Moyle 13/10/2014

One day someone might write a useful review of the economics of wildlife trade.  Nadal and Aguayo’s “Leonardo’s Sailors” is simply not it.  The tragedy is that an opportunity has been squandered.  Economic models of wildlife trade and poaching have lagged behind policy issues.  They are simplistic. As yet they offer only limited guidance on the policy issues we grapple with. A good, critical review could have moved things forward.

Neither authors has any prior publications in this field.  Their methods are suspect.  They take a fraction of the literature on this issue.  The sample is from a subset of economists, many labelled as ‘pro-trade’ sic.  They select a narrow set of this research to critique.   You will not find my publications on butterflies, parrots, cockatoos [1], tigers, elephants or wildlife trade[2] in general in their list; just one paper on alligator farming.

Similarly you will not find any references to the work of Swanson, to Missios, to Ferrier, to Moran and many others.  You will not find case studies on the markhor, the vicuna, the caiman and other crocodilians or butterflies.

What you will find, is the same tactic creationists use to discredit evolutionary biologists.  This is the quote-mine.

Quote mining is the deceitful tactic of taking quotes out of context in order to make them seemingly agree with the quote miner’s viewpoint or to make the comments of an opponent seem more extreme or hold positions they don’t in order to make their positions easier to refute or demonize.[1] It’s a way of lying. This tactic is widely used among Young Earth Creationists in an attempt to discredit evolution.

(from Rational Wiki)

Blogs and the like are ‘mined’ to find quotes that can be used out of context, to discredit your opponent.  This has no place in science.

This is shameful. It is dishonest. It is contemptible.

Normally I would ignore this type of report.  It is not a peer-reviewed journal publication.  Nonetheless, there are three reasons I’m responding:

  1. It has had a negative impact on important debates around elephants and rhinos
  2. It misrepresents my research and position
  3. It makes false claims about my research

Because this is my blog I am going to indulge in a sampling of the points relevant to my work.  I don’t believe I am a unique target, but I am not interested in wasting my time on a full review of this report.

Let me illustrate with the report itself:

Moreover, legalising wildlife trade is being increasingly proposed as a general solution, applicable to many species (even to wildlife in general) with disregard to reproduction rates or ecological traits, or the specifics of different economic contexts.

No. Just no.

A regulated trade in wildlife is mooted as a potential solution to a narrow band of species threatened by poaching or by human-animal conflicts.  Rather than being a general solution, it seen as an option that could work in some cases.  For that reason it should be evaluated objectively.  See Moyle (2013).  I do not believe that any of the researchers targeted in this report have ever advocated trade as a general conservation solution.

This claim in Leonardo’s Sailors is a misrepresentation to set up a strawman opponent that is just easier to knock down.

On property rights:

This view of privatisation is shared by Moyle (2007) who affirms that “tigers need privatization too” as if this could guarantee their conservation.

This is a very good example of a quote-mine, and why you should not use them.  First, this is an outlier ‘solution’ sic and is not presented as a solution in my paper on the black-market in tiger parts in China, not presented as a solution in my paper on the black-market given at the SCB conference in 2011 [3] and not at the 2013 Kunming meeting on combating the illegal trade in tigers [4].

What makes it an outlier is that this is just the title of an IPA article- an Australian Free Market Institute. The IPA asked permission to use an article that Massey University had published on my research.   I didn’t pick the title.  Given the IPA’s stance the choice of title isn’t really surprising.  (The IPA also embellished the article with material I didn’t write.  There is a good reason why this article is an ‘outlier’).  And given the only farms discussed were Chinese tiger farms, ironically, this was not a case of privatisation.  I doubt the report’s authors read the article itself.  Especially as the article doesn’t say it would guarantee their survival.

You will not find any research of mine on the wildlife trade that advocates privatisation as the best conservation option.

Quote-mining is dishonest.

Products are treated as being homogeneous and this is why it is assumed that legal trade flows are able to fully substitute illegal ones.

Except Moyle (2013) points out that wildlife products are heterogeneous and that black markets may persist under these conditions-  cf “It cannot be assumed that these are products that are close substitutes“.  Also my paper on the tiger black market points out that not only is wildlife heterogeneous, in the case of tigers they are multi-product.

…The author concludes that the hypothesis that a legal supply can expand the market for illegal products cannot be sustained. But this study does not examine the illegal market at all. It is based on the implausible assumption that poachers behave like legal hunters (Moyle 2013:1664).

From my paper itself:

Assuming legal hunters and poachers are employing the same technology, then behaviour of poachers should mimic the actions of legal hunters. The response of legal hunters will thus resemble the responses of poachers. Deliberate mimicking occurred with alligators in the 1960s in the US (Thorbjarnarson and Wang 2010).

(My emphasis added)

It is an historic occurrence and if the report authors had familiarised themselves with the papers in my references, not unique to alligators. I do not think this assertion it is implausible holds.  Clearly the referees of my paper did not either.

Moreover, the author’s conclusions completely ignore the fact that neither hunters nor farmers actually make autonomous decisions on quantities, since “the number of alligators that can be taken is controlled by hunting tags issued by the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries” and farmed output comes “from eggs that are collected under quantity permits” (Ibidem: 1665 and 1666).

Only if you’re determined to ignore two key points in the paper.

First, these quantity restrictions are ‘slack conditions’ and not binding because both sectors operate below this ‘safety ceiling’. And of course, the LWF tag-numbers can be manipulated upwards by investments in the habitat and nesting sites of alligators.

Second, the farms that have their own breeding stock are not bound by the LWF restrictions.  These are mentioned in the paper.  How odd the authors of Leonardo’s Sailors decided to omit this point.

The supply-side argument for trade in wildlife is based on the idea that legal supplies can, and necessarily will, out-compete illegal sources. In pro-trade models this goal is achieved through price reduction.

No. Moyle 2013 points out and cites earlier research on this exact same point- that non-price factors crowd out illegal trade.  This includes the security of supply, volume of product and quality of the product.

If, as evidence suggests, crime syndicates have access to scale and scope economies, they will actively resort to a strategy of expanding their markets.

Not something we are unaware of.

“(ivory) smugglers patiently developed alternative routes that were independent of the legal traffic. Instead of simply waiting and hoping for the ban in ivory to be lifted, new routes and new markets were developed” Moyle, 2003, p49-50.[2]

“However, as the black market becomes more established, organized and concentrated, the cost of supply drops.  At this stage, organized crime syndicates are more likely to initiate organized poaching” ‘t Sas-Rolfes, 2010, p485 [5]

Economies of scale are also identified in my latest paper on ivory smuggling.  These are issues that are being thought about. There is a fundamental problem evaluating other’s research when you restrict yourself to sampling from such a narrow range of papers.

A good example is Moyle (2011), who believes we should “ban the phrase trade fuels demand”

And the quote-mine makes another appearance. No, I don’t believe that. This is absurd.  I wrote it as a rhetorical device to provoke discussion in a blog- one of many I’ve written on the wildlife trade- to motivate discussion on what drives increases in poaching.  The context should have made it clear I was not literally advocating this.

An objective reading of Moyle (2013) and other papers shows I acknowledge that trade does have the potential to increase poaching (e.g. laundering effects, stigma effects).

The authors are competent and respected economists.  They should not be employing quote-mining to misrepresent people they disagree with.  This is not behaviour consistent with an objective economist.

The assumption that market demand functions are downward sloping is used in all of the studies on wildlife trade and trafficking (Damania and Bulte, 2007;Challender and MacMillan, 2013;Lockwood, 2011;Moyle,2013, ‘t Sas-Rolfes,2007).

And another false statement appears. Whilst it is true that papers that use Cournot or Bertrand assumptions assume a downward demand sloping function, I make no assumptions about the functional form in alligator farming.

I let the data do the talking. I don’t make any prior assumptions. Once prices were shown to be exogenous, ironically, I showed that the Cournot assumption did not hold.  Given the prices are exogenous, they could be determined randomly (say by sunspot activity) or have any feasible functional form.  It does not matter for my model- which was supply responses to these exogenous prices.  Remember- I was not modelling the demand for alligator skins but the supply from wild and farmed sources.

My results actually supported the argument in Leonardo’s Sailors!  Either my paper had not been properly read or their antipathy towards my imagined position prevents them from using my evidence.

This report appears to be a hasty, under-researched project with far too much effort devoted to discrediting ‘strawman’ opponents.  I’m not going to pretend it is of academic merit.

I should not have to be responding to claims I’m a free-market, privatising zealot.  My research on wildlife trade and black markets alone disproves that.


[1] Noske, Richard A.; Moyle, Brendan J. and Vardon, Michael J. Harvesting black cockatoos in the Northern Territory: catastrophe or conservation? [online]. Australian Biologist, Vol. 10, No. 1, Mar 1997: 84-93.

[2] Moyle, B. J. (2003). Regulation, conservation and incentives. In S. O. Ed (Ed.), The trade in wildlife: Regulation for conservation (pp. 41-51). London, UK: Earthscan Publications Ltd.

[3] Moyle, B. J. (2011, December 5). Analysing the Chinese black market in Tiger parts: A transaction cost economics approach. In 25th International Congress for Conservation Biology. Auckland, New Zealand.

[4] Moyle, B. J. (2013, July 29). Understanding and Combating Traffic in Big-Cat Parts: The Transaction Cost Economics Approach. In “International Workshop on Transboundary Conservation of Tigers and Other Endangered Species, and Strategy for Combating Illegal Wildlife Trade. Kunming, Yunnan.

[5] ‘t Sas-Rolfes, Michael (2010).  Tigers, Economics, and the Regulation of Trade. In Tilson, R. and Nyhus, P.J. Tigers of the World: The Science, Politics, and Conservation of Panthera tigris. (pp.477-490). Academic Press. London.