In search of the holy grail

This opinion by Salisha Chandra first appeared in animalwelfare magazine’s Apr-Jun Issue in 2013. 

“Consumptive utilization of wildlife” and “Legalisation of Trade” – these are the rather ugly phrases being thrown around in conservation circles these days as individuals with varying view points try to find the ultimate answer to saving several species from the brink of extinction – including but not limited to elephant, rhino and lion. It appears that man’s inane need to exploit everything in sight is starting to decimate populations of wildlife all over Africa. The very fact that we have to have a treaty, which regulates the “trade” in wildlife parts of endangered species, speaks volumes of what we humans are capable of. And unless the “kind” in mankind is awakened and we decide to renounce greed, desire and lust – in 20 to 30 years there will be no elephant majestically walking across the plains, there will be no lions roaring through the night and there will certainly be no rhinos grazing from dusk till dawn.

It is against this backdrop of human-wildlife conflict, record levels of poaching and skyrocketing prices for wildlife parts that we find ourselves arguing for or against consumptive use of wildlife and legal trade of rhino horn and ivory in particular. All of this speculation begs the simple question – is it truly possible to promote the idea of wildlife as a commodity that may be traded, controlled, hunted, subjected to untold cruel practices in the name of research and entertainment, yet simultaneously expect this practice to foster a respect for wildlife and the environment? Furthermore, will legalising the trade in rhino horn and ivory really trigger a fall in prices that will ultimately stop the horrific poaching of these animals – or will it just bring them closer to extinction faster?

Consumptive use of wildlife is defined as “The killing, trapping and capturing of wild animals for commerce (for ivory, the pet trade, biomedical research) or recreation (sport hunting, entertainment). South Africa is one of the leading proponents of this type of conservation and cite their success with reviving the Southern White Rhino populations as proof that it works and works effectively. But even they have not been able to stem the tide of poaching that has claimed the lives of 900 Rhinos from 2012 to date (note: since the article was written this has risen to over 1,000 rhinos a year in South Africa). There is also a lot of dispute as to whether it is the consumptive uses or the non consumptive uses of wildlife that have enabled this turnaround in the rhino populations in South Africa.

However, if we leave that aside and focus on the argument put forth by so-called “wildlife ranchers” and “sport-hunting” associations it becomes quite clear that at the end of the day it’s not about conservation, it’s about money. Their stance is quite clear that while the justification for protecting these species is based on ethical notions, somebody still has to pay the bills! In their eyes, it makes sense that the wildlife pay for their protection – even if that ironically means that they pay with their lives as is the case with canned or sport hunting. Now these same wildlife ranchers have eyed an even bigger opportunity – the trade in trophies such as ivory and rhino horn. As prices have escalated due to higher demand in Asian states, calls for legalisation of the trade have become louder and louder. The justification again boils down to the fact that the wildlife has to pay for their protection. Specifically, they believe that trade restrictions that shut down markets and reduce potential economic value may be the exact opposite of what is needed to protect these species. Their contention is that legalizing the trade will drive down prices and as a result poaching.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are those conservationists who tow the ethical line. They believe that there should only be non-consumptive use of wildlife and that wildlife should be free to roam in their habitats undisturbed. Kenya is the model country for this brand of conservation, yet even they are experiencing unprecedented levels of poaching.

Conservationists here fiercely argue that legalisation of trade will only spur an increase in poaching, as the legal trade will provide a loophole, which enables the illegal trade to thrive. These conservationists propose that anti-poaching measures such as “poisoned horns”, elephant collars, drones etc should be employed to combat the poaching along with no tolerance policies and laws. But above all, they want the world to work towards completely banning the trade in Ivory and Rhino Horn. Their contention, clearly summed up by the EIA, is that “any legal sale of ivory simply provides a means to launder illicit ivory and stimulates the market, resulting in an increase in the poaching of elephants”.

In this regard, both brand of conservationists were looking to the Conference on International Trade in Endangered Species as a guiding light. CITES is unequivocally the main mechanism through which illegal trade in ivory and rhino horn can be addressed and therefore the right forum to affect change. Those in favour of legalising the trade were hoping that CITES would sanction the trade of rhino horn and ivory, and those who are not were hoping the exact opposite. In actuality, neither party was satisfied by the final outcome as CITES basically gave those states implicated in the illegal trade 18 more months to sort themselves out.

But the real losers in all of this are our elephants and rhinos who continue to get slaughtered day after day after day. For them there is no holy grail, no one-stop solution that will let them live their lives the way they were meant to. The only way that could happen is if there was a sea-change in human attitudes overnight. And we all know that isn’t happening. Ultimately, in this world, where there really is no black and white and everything comes in shades of grey, we somehow have to find the right shade that will enable our wildlife to coexist on the same plane with human greed. Whether this means we adopt the extreme models proposed by South Africa or Kenya is still uncertain – what is clear though is that some thing has to change or we will be the unfortunate generation who wrought extinction upon lions, rhinos and elephants.

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