Sustainable Trade in Wildlife Symposium

By Brendan Moyle 29/06/2015

The reason there has not been a lot of photos of seascapes of late, is I’ve been out of the country. Again.  The Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, and the International Trade Center, organised the symposium for the 18th and 19th of June.  I was presenting as one of the keynote speakers.

brendan at dice

It was somewhat fortunate that the first keynote ran into travel delays, so I took her place instead. We ended up swapping.  It was kinder in light of the jetlag that piles up with travelling to the UK.

There is a tendency for people to think about trade only in terms of some charismatic species.  These attract a lot of attention.  So the illegal (and legal) trade flows of say, elephant ivory or tiger skins, or rhino horns, dominates discussions.  The reality is that wildlife is traded extensively.  Many people, especially in developing countries, depend on wild resources for food, fibres and medicines.  Decisions to regulate trade, or ban it, can have significant welfare effects.  Nonetheless, deterring over-harvest and striving for positive conservation gains is also important.

I departed (for the time) from my work on the ivory trade to look at two cases.  One was the American alligator and one was the birdwing butterflies of Papua New Guinea.  The overall goal was to show people- whether it is researchers or policy-makers or NGOS- need to test their presumptions about how wildlife trade works, against actual cases.  There is not a lot of that going on.

What makes both the alligators and butterflies interesting is they have a long history.  Both cases involve CITES Appendix II species.  They have both been subject to trade since the late 1970s.  And for most of this time, both conservation and development outcomes were met.  Both cases also involved management that had wild harvest, and farmed harvest, side by side.  Nonetheless, there were also important differences.  The USA is a developed country with (relatively) low levels of corruption.  Papua New Guinea is a developing country with relatively high levels of corruption.

Nonetheless, the trade in wildlife worked for decades in both cases.  In short, we need to really examine what is happening before making generalizations about what the outcomes of wildlife trade will be.  Both cases do not meet many of the presumptions we find employed in wildlife trade debates.  There was no laundering problem to speak of, and poaching wasn’t fueled by the illegal trade.  The corruption levels in Papua New Guinea didn’t prevent the butterfly trade working up to the early 2000’s.  But in both cases, harvesters were very unresponsive to price signals.  And farming while putting a lot more specimens into the market, did not actually cause prices to fall.