It’s been a sad week for African wildlife. One branch of the The Church of Modern Conservation has been very busy with burning and banning. They continue to believe in the same failed strategies informed by their doctrine and dogma. They persuaded the South African government to reverse a 2013 decision to introduce a legal, regulated trade in rhino horn. So the SA government decided this week not to challenge CITES on this issue when it meets later this year in Johannesburg. Rhino horn trade was banned in 1975 and over 40 years later rhino are being poached at a rate that will ensure they soon cease to exist as free roaming wild species. In Kenya rhino are already functionally extinct despite the presence of a small, heavily guarded population. Nevertheless, this same church persuaded Kenyans to continue with decades of conservation folly by burning over 100 tons of ivory in a media circus that duplicated a similar, failed effort in 1989. Both the banning and the burning strategies have been tried before and both have failed to conserve rhino and elephant.
I can’t recall a time in history when banning or burning something ever led to a successful outcome. Both banning and burning are always associated with oppression, narrow religious or political views and extremism. Books, universities and libraries have been burned by zealots for thousands of years and the outcome is always a loss to society. This time it is no different. To watch 100 tons of ivory being burned in front of poor people in Kenya is to witness a special kind of disgusting behaviour, all the more distasteful for the fact that it was tried before and did not result in a decline in elephant poaching in the medium to long term. It is promoted by a privileged, pampered Western elite that has no idea (and does not care) about rural Africans. These are people who live in extreme poverty alongside animals who have horns and tusks more valuable than gold. Western animal rights extremists and misty-eyed romantics insists they must leave these animals alone. A radical brand of extremist conservation has taken hold and I fear that it will signify the beginning of the end for wide ranging natural populations of elephant and rhino in Africa.
Ultimately, the question of whether to trade in these products should be a question of policy outcomes. If the outcome of policy is successful in conserving the species, then that is the policy we should adopt. But policy is a tricky animal. You can try to predict the outcome of a trading policy using economic theory, but unless that policy is implemented there is no way of being 100% certain it will work. There are always unexpected outcomes. This is why we need to open a trade in rhino horn and ivory. We need to try something different. No one can be sure that it will work without trying, but that is not a reason to avoid trying. No one can be sure any policy will work until it is implemented. Part of the implementation process is to adapt policy to take into account realities on the ground and respond to the unexpected outcomes. What we do know is that current policy is failing. So why continue to cling to failed policy? Unfortunately conservationists do not seem able to conduct a debate about policy without confusing policy with morality and ethics. We have The Church of No Trade arguing against The Church of Trade and both insist they are right and either prioritise moral and ethical aspects of consumptive wildlife use above all other considerations, or abandon these aspects completely. It’s a hopeless situation. My opinion of conservationists in both Churches declines every year.
The morality and ethics of consumptive wildlife use are important questions. However, like most moral and ethical questions they are difficult to resolve. Viewpoints on moral and ethical questions often coincide with deeply held beliefs that are not amenable to rational, logical argument. This is why they have no place in discussions around policy. I have written about some of these issues before and tried to highlight the contradictions around consumptive use of wild versus domestic animals, but this debate really belongs outside the question of trading in wildlife products. This is because the situation with populations of these animals, particularly rhino, is so dire that no moral or ethical arguments can save them. Only successful policy can save these species. Pragmatism must become the priority regardless of whether you think it is wrong to kill rhino for their horns. I understand the emotional response to wildlife. I share that response when I see a herd of elephant or watch a rhino. I understand that this evokes questions of morality and ethical behaviour when it comes to killing these animals for their products. What I do not understand is how these questions have come to dominate policy around consumptive use of wildlife when the policy is clearly not working.
The Church of No Trade is consumed by moral and ethical questions rooted in western society which have little relevance to African ideas around consumptive wildlife use. Members of this Church have the arrogance to question the morality of encouraging a trade in rhino horn to supply Chinese medical practitioners when rhino horn has no medical effects. Yet millions of people in their own society use aromatherapy, yoga, homeopathy, anti-ageing creams and acupuncture – none of which has any documented medical benefits. Don’t get me started on vitamins. They don’t work. Invoking morality on the rhino horn trade in this way exposes their beliefs about other cultures – The Church of No Trade is condescending and dismissive of other cultural beliefs, Chinese or African. Their “morality” is completely inconsistent with what happens in Western society.
The Church of Trade is almost devoid of any moral and ethical consideration when it comes to killing wildlife. Hunters in particular have only themselves to blame for the disgusting practices of canned lion hunting, cruelty and poor judgement when it comes to shooting iconic species like Cecil the Lion. They have an image problem and they have earned it handsomely. If we are ever able to establish a trade in wildlife products that feeds an industry which encourages the survival of rhino and elephant, those involved in the Church of Trade are ill equipped to deal with the implementation of policy in a manner which is acceptable to normal people. This is a pity because hunting has always been an important part of conservation. Morality and ethics have been central to hunting practice and the people involved with this industry need to get their act together.
It’s not a pretty picture. I’ve argued before that we should pay African politicians to conserve wildlife and not conservationists. After the developments this week I cannot think of a reason to change that argument.