Keeping the 5 Alive… and the rest of the world as well.

By September 15, 2021Editorial

Indian Rhino bathing in Assam’s Jaldapara National Park, northeast India © Mazur Travel/Shutterstock.

I do not believe in trophy hunting as an acceptable element of conservation policy. Nor do I think that a legal trade in ivory, rhino horn, or pangolin scales, for that matter, will solve the issues around the poaching and smuggling of these “commodities” to be sold secretly and unlawfully in end-market consumer countries.

There, I’ve said it. Again. And I know exactly what the reaction will be amongst those who follow my musings. Some will nod in agreement, while some will express disappointment, anger, maybe even vitriol, at my intransigence in these matters. Others will tell me that while they would never hunt personally (I find it abhorrent actually), the pursuit is a legitimate source of revenue for communities with little or no access at all to alternative money-making opportunities.

So, the end justifies the means, and it’s okay for the odd individual lion, elephant or rhino, to “take one for the team.” I’ve never really understood this sort of locker-room camaraderie that suggests the hapless quarry is somehow consciously doing something noble on behalf of their fellows. Maybe we should invent the equivalent of a wildlife Victoria Cross and bestow it on these selfless creatures that sacrifice themselves so willingly to serve the greater good? What is really meant, of course, is that it is acceptable for a few magnificent specimens of a few desirable species to die because of the perceived benefit to a few human communities. And I take issue with this.

As a result, I am told that I’m misguidedly idealistic and must wake up to the fact that we live in an imperfect world. Well, at least we can agree on that. Very little good is going on around the world. Indeed, nothing is even near perfect as we continue to destroy the fabric of nature and society at unsustainable rates. This is irrefutable. By every measure communicated in UN and NGO sponsored reports over the past half-century, we are living dangerously beyond our planet’s ability to replenish what we take, with catastrophic consequences lurking on the very near horizon in terms of biodiversity loss and climate change.

I am also told that my stance against trophy hunting and trade in wild animals and their body parts means that I don’t care about the fate of people and that I’m more concerned about the wellbeing of individual animals. This, of course, self-righteously puts me in my place. Really? Am I really being told that when a rich white Westerner comes to Africa with a sack full of dollars, he (or she) is motivated by human poverty relief? Bulls**t. The only motivation is the warped satisfaction of killing a living creature because you can and the bragging rights this gives in the eyes of fellow hunters. The fact that some money may trickle down to communities where the hunting takes place is nothing but a veneer, a coat of varnish to give some respectability to the “sport.” But again, I guess I’m supposed to accept that the end justifies the means.

Therefore, if our positions are so entrenched, why bother even trying to convince those with contrary views to hop over the fence and join me? It’s a good question; part of me is reluctant to enter the fray once more because of the sheer futility of the exercise. But we’re coming up for one of those days again, the ones that are meant to celebrate the wonder of charismatic, key species. And next Wednesday (September 22), it’s the turn of rhinos. World Rhino Day 2021 marks the 10th anniversary of its inauguration in 2011. This year the theme is “Keeping the 5 Alive,” a reference, of course, to the five extant species—two here in Africa and three in Asia. I don’t think there will be much argument about the desirability of keeping them alive, but I’m sure that the perennially thorny issues around how best to do this will reignite the controversies around rhino horn trade and, probably to a lesser extent, the issues around trophy hunting.

I think I would be correct in saying that opinions around a legal trade in rhino horn are even more entrenched than they are around trophy hunting. You’re either for it or against it, with, perhaps, a few souls wobbling around on the “yes but, no but” top wire of the dividing fence. All the arguments are well set out in our Rhino Review, so I’m not going to summarize them again here.

Trade-in wild animals and plants, as living entities and as parts thereof, is massive. The global legal trade, which centers around an estimated 5,500 birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles, is currently worth some $300 billion a year. Possibly more than 3,000 other species face trade exploitation in the future. So, in total, therefore, this could together place nearly 9,000 species at risk of extinction. The illegal trade is also massive—some $3 billion to $23 billion, according to UN estimates. And while the illicit trade is undeniably wrong, harmful, and unsustainable, understandably, questions are also now being asked about the sustainability of the wildlife trade as a whole.

The bigger picture is even more ominous. “Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history—and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely,” warns the 2019 report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). As Sir Robert Watson, the IPBES chair, warns: “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health, and quality of life worldwide.”

In light of this, the wisdom of any trade in wildlife, legal or otherwise, seems to be a legitimate question. Of course, it’s not as simple as that; nothing ever is. TRAFFIC, a collaborative effort by WWF, the IUCN, other NGOs, the CITES treaty, and the World Customs Union, works on five continents towards “the shared goal of reducing the pressure of unsustainable trade on natural biodiversity.”

This worthy organization confirms that the illegal wildlife trade is devastating wildlife as poachers, traffickers and highly organized criminal syndicates ruthlessly pursue profit at any cost to meet consumer demand. But it also tells us that the legal wildlife trade provides a source of income for millions of producers, raw materials for businesses and local collectors, and a staggering array of goods for hundreds of millions of consumers. In other words, it plays “an undeniably fundamental role in regional, national, and international economies.”

So, arguing that wildlife trade in its entirety should be halted is again running the gauntlet of being accused of putting wildlife before the needs of people. Yet, can it be allowed to continue if it poses such a major threat to biodiversity and the proper functioning of ecosystems? And if you might still be tempted to ask why that matters, hear what doyen biologist E. O Wilson tells us. “Healthy ecosystems clean our water, purify our air, maintain our soil, regulate the climate, recycle nutrients and provide us with food. They provide raw materials and resources for medicines and other purposes. They are at the foundation of all civilisation and sustain our economies. It’s that simple: we could not live without these ‘ecosystem services.’ They are what we call our natural capital.”

The logical answer to how we might have the best of both worlds lies in one word—regulation. If we were able to near wholly eradicate the illegal wildlife trade while at the same time agreeing on truly sustainable levels of legal exploitation, surely then we would be getting somewhere? The trouble, however, is that we’ve been trying to do this since 1975 when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)—an international treaty now with 183 member parties—was signed into effect. Its purpose: to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten the survival of the species.”

Yet, in the most recent 40 years of that same several decades, we’ve witnessed, on average, a 60 percent decline in the size of populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians. Clearly, we’re not succeeding through regulatory attempts. Human activities top the list in the wildlife destruction stakes—including habitat loss and degradation and excessive wildlife exploitation through overfishing and overhunting. So while wildlife trade, both legal and illegal, is far from the only factor to blame, it is very much part of the suite of ills we are visiting upon the planet.

I am highly doubtful of achieving the conservation successes so desperately needed to restore the natural world under the current socio-economic paradigm. We need to transition to a more just and equitable system for the sake of people and the planet. What this is called and how it might be implemented is engaging an increasing number of the best economic and scientific minds in the world. Perhaps the concept of a Green Economy holds merit? This is far from the fluffy, cuddly concept it might appear to be. Rather, it is a feet-on-the-ground paradigm that the United Nations Environment Programme defines as “an economy that results in improved human wellbeing and reduced inequalities over the long term, while not exposing future generations to significant environmental risks and ecological scarcities.”

Two questions arise from this, the cost and the will to do it.

In 2012 an estimate published in Science assessed the cost as follows: “Protecting all the world’s threatened species will cost around US$4 billion a year… [and] If that number is not staggering enough, the scientists behind the work also report that effectively conserving the significant areas these species live in could rack up a bill of more than $76 billion a year.”

Staggering indeed, but probably even more. I contend that any attempt to save our global ecosystems cannot be sensibly made without also addressing the question of global poverty. The two are inseparable in my book. And the cost of this? Well, quoted in the Borden Project website, Jeffrey Sachs, as one of the world’s leading experts on economic development and the fight against poverty, stated that the cost to end poverty is $175 billion per year for 20 years.

Add the two together, and the bill comes to some $250 billion a year. This to turn the world into a much better place. A lot of money, to be sure, but cheap at the price, perhaps, when you consider that this yearly amount is probably not much more than one percent of the combined income of the richest countries in the world. (Sachs sets the $175-billion cost of poverty eradication at less than one percent of wealthy country earnings.)

I would call this the cost of waging peace. And again, I suggest it is cheap at the price compared to the cost of waging war, something we seem willing to do at the drop of a hat. Consider that the West (for the most part, the U.S.) spent trillions on 20 years of war in the Middle East and Afghanistan and then simply walked away from it, leaving misery and hollow-eyed children emptied of hope to stare back at us from our television screens.

The estimated amount of the direct cost of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars to the United States alone has been debt-financed to the tune of some $2 trillion. And, by 2050, interest on the debt bill will boost this to $6.5 trillion. Furthermore, the United States has committed to pay in health care, disability, burial, and other costs for roughly four million Afghanistan and Iraq veterans, an estimated $2 trillion, peaking after 2048.* Clearly, “the wars end, but the costs don’t.”

And so, it all boils down to a matter of choice. We can find the money to make a better world, that is clear. But, in the face of the massive vested interests of the status quo, do we have the will to do it? Moral fiber is not the strongest suit of our motley crew of politicians and business moguls.

*Much of this data, which appears in an Associated Press article is credited from Linda Bilmes of Harvard University’s Kennedy School and from the Brown University Costs of War project.