I’ve just read a new report by a group of British academics which criticises the economic arguments around trading in wildlife products. The problems with rhino poaching in South Africa form a backdrop to the report. I’m going to dig down into some of the problems with the Leverhulme report, but let me start by making it clear what this post is not about:
- If you love animals because you think they have emotions similar to humans, and if you believe they should never be killed for human use, then I have no argument with you. Don’t read this article, because it’s not aimed at you. I accept your position, and even admire it. Just don’t let me catch you eating a hamburger or wearing anything made of leather, because then I am going to point to some serious inconsistencies in your opinions.
- If you make a distinction between wild animals and domesticated animals, and say that it is acceptable to kill domesticated animals for human use (food, leather, clothes) but not wild animals, then I am guessing you have a romantic notion about wilderness and freedom, and that human interference with this is unacceptable, or even criminal. ‘Murderous’ is the word you may use to describe people who kill wild animals. You wouldn’t use this word to describe people who work in an abattoir, killing hundreds of animals every day for your consumption. I also respect this opinion, even though it doesn’t make much sense. If you have this Disneyland fantasy about humans and their role in African ecosystems – read my post here.
So what is this post about? It’s about trading in wildlife products like hides and skins, ivory, horns, venison or any other product that we eat, wear, decorate our homes with or use for medicinal purposes (real or imagined). There is an increasingly strident and aggressive body of opinion which condemns the use of wildlife products. Mostly, the reaction is because people have one or both of the above two viewpoints. That’s fine. You’re entitled to have any opinions you like, even if they harbour some inconsistencies. I’ve had arguments about the killing of wild animals for meat with people who were horrified by the idea – while they were standing around a braai (barbecue) pushing lamb chops and sausages around as if they were fruits that you pick off a tree. Humans are inconsistent, emotional creatures and my arguments are never going to change that.
The problem comes when you use these opinions to frame what you claim to be an objective statement of fact. “Trading in wildlife products doesn’t work” is often how the idea is summarised. This seems to be the main conclusion of a recent report from the Leverhulme Centre for the Study of Value. There is an astounding level of ignorance in this report. I’m not an economist, and the report is heavy on economic theory, but even cursory reading reveals some serious errors.
Lets start with the issue of peer review. This article does not meet the standards for peer review that are required by a scientific journal – the authors say it is peer reviewed, but make no mention of the procedure. If it was read by colleagues down the corridor who made a few comments, technically that is peer reviewed, but to suggest this meets the widely accepted standards of double blind peer review is laughable. Reading the report makes you realise why it has never been subjected to this level of scrutiny.
The report uses language that borders on being defamatory when criticising authors of studies on the wildlife trade in Africa. These people are some of the most experienced and committed individuals some of whom have worked in conservation for the last 40 years. They are not agents of international capitalism, or neo-conservative theorists. Many of them publish regularly in top scientific journals. It is extremely arrogant for a group of British academics and PhD students to condemn the considered opinion of people who have managed populations of elephant and rhino which were increasing until bans of the trade in their products started to come into effect. The overtones of power with respect to Western academics and environmental problems in Africa are familiar to those of us who have spent most of our lives studying these problems and working in the field in Africa. I suppose this condescending attempt to dominate the debate comes as no surprise, even if it is disappointing.
When these authors make a case for trading in wildlife products like ivory as a means of controlling the supply, they make assumptions based on economic theory and translate these into models of pricing. It’s unavoidable and it’s called building a model. Assumptions are made based on theory when you have limited data to use. You do the best you can. Since there has never been a controlled trade in ivory in the form they are suggesting, they don’t have a lot of actual data to use in their model. The Leverhulme report condemns this as simplistic and not based on fact. Unfortunately this kind of mudslinging often degenerates into further mudslinging and makes for boring reading so I’m not going to comment on the details other than to say that the language used in the Leverhulme report smells rather fishy. After reading it I’m left with a strong sense that the authors have an agenda which fits more closely with the above two opinions, rather than with any concern about producing a credible critique. It’s not written in a dispassionate and detached style which is the hallmark of good critique. The economic models which claim to show that trade in wildlife products is viable are not perfect, but this is not the way to criticise them. There is a common thread in all the reports published by this group at Manchester University, and it smells of an anti-capitalist sentiment which tries to undermine the excellent work done in valuing ecosystem services over the years. None are published in reputable journals.
What is most revealing is what the Leverhulme report leaves out. The success of Namibia’s conservancies which rely on revenue from hunting is not mentioned, and yet they are models of natural resource utilisation. The success of community based conservation programmes in Zimbabwe which depend on hunting for income, and which goes towards building schools and clinics is ignored. The success of consumptive use of wildlife in driving the game ranching industry in South Africa is ignored. The fact that people in Africa use a wide variety of animal products for traditional medicine, and that banning the trade in these items effectively bans a long standing cultural practice, is not even mentioned. Most revealingly of all, is the failure to include two of southern Africa’s biggest success stories when it comes to trade in wildlife products: ostriches and crocodiles.
It’s difficult to imagine the scale of demand for ostrich feathers in the late 19th and early 20th century. Today, wearing ostrich feathers makes you look like you’re going to a fancy dress party – it’s ridiculous. Nevertheless there was time when it was fashionable, and fortunes were made in South Africa from selling ostrich feathers. This led to the birth of an industry which is now based on the sale of meat and hides rather than feathers. The fact that trade in the feathers of this wild bird did not result in its extinction must have some relevance for economic theory around trade in wildlife products. In the same vein, crocodiles are valued for their leather, and there is a small but growing market for crocodile meat. Trade in crocodile skins (and the international demand that it supplies and encourages) does not result in wild crocodiles being poached. Wild crocodiles in Africa are abundant. I’ve never heard of anyone poaching a crocodile. Clearly trade in wildlife products does not lead to extinction in every case. However, trading in wildlife products is not necessarily a panacea to stop poaching and the decline of every species. Some species will simply not be amenable to breeding and harvesting in the way that crocodiles and ostriches are. Rhinos may breed too slowly to support a viable crop of horns to supply the huge demand in Asia. Elephants could probably sustain a controlled harvest, as they did for many years in Zimbabwe. Lions breed like rabbits and could easily support a trade in their products so that wild populations are left alone. However, the Leverhulme report does not say this. It is a thinly disguised attempt to discredit all economic theory which supports a trade in wildlife species. It’s a pathetic document.
The eagerness which those opposed to trade in wildlife products seize on these reports is quite revealing. It seems their desire to support positions like those I mentioned at the beginning of this post is the main motivation for seizing on this report as ‘proof’ that trading in wildlife products does not work. The Leverhulme report is no such thing. If you think that animals are like humans and should never be killed, or if you think that wildlife deserves to roam free in a Disneyland ecosystem, untouched and never hunted, traded or otherwise despoiled by evil human beings then why not just say this? Why bother waving a report around, which is a load of drivel and ignores the complexity of the issue, to support your views? Why not simply voice your opinion?
The truth is that black rhinos are extinct in the wild and it happened in my lifetime and under the care of people with these same views. Conservationists who hold these views have not had a great record of success. Their record is overwhelmingly one of failure. Their permanent campaign mentality is not a recipe for accommodating different solutions. It’s time to change the way things are done. If you work for Save the Rhino and you don’t save the rhino – you’ve failed. I don’t have all the answers – but we need to start talking about all the possible solutions and let go of ideology that precludes a solution just because it doesn’t fit with our ideological positions. I’ve seen one species of rhino go extinct in the wild in my lifetime – I’m not going to keep quiet while we use the same failed methods to try and stop another species of rhino going extinct in the wild in my lifetime. Repeating the failures of the past is never a good guide to future success.