By Campaigning Against Poachers, Do Conservationists Have the Wrong Target?
We know that the global wildlife trade sustains a thriving black market around the world, from exotic pets to species that people eat, sometimes knowing they were acquired illegally and sometimes not.
A lot of times it seems innocent, but if you don't know where the fish you're eating came from, or how your pet bird arrived in the pet store, you could be contributing to the decline of species populations and their habitats around the world.
Yet the widespread perception of black market wildlife trading is that it comes from impoverished countries and is not a huge problem in the U.S.
Which is why a recent New Scientist column is so important: it's written by Rosaleen Duffy, a politics professor who argues in her new book "that the West's attitude to endangered wildlife is shallow, self-contradictory and ultimately very damaging."
In the column, she makes the case that conservation organizations put too much focus on anti-poaching initiatives and other efforts and ignore the consumer end of the equation.
We've seen countless times that as long as there's consumer demand, there will be supply. A look at the rise of the fair trade movement illustrates how when consumers demand more ethically-produced goods, the marketplace changes, and producers adapt their ways. (Some producers anyway—there's still a demand for cheap stuff, so there's still a supply of people working in poor conditions to produce it.)
Targeting supply-side only ignores the fact that demand by consumers effectively creates incentive for people, especially in poor countries, to bypass rules.
Duffy asks, "if elephants are poached for ivory, who is it for? If mining minerals for mobile phones threatens mountain gorillas, who is buying the minerals?"
Abalone, striped bass, and shellfish like clams and certain lobster are just a few examples of demand-driven poaching: if a customer is not there to buy them, a poacher certainly wouldn't take the risk to catch them.
And it's not just a legal issue—it's ecological and moral, as well. If demand didn't exist for bluefin tuna or Chilean sea bass, local fishermen certainly wouldn't have fished them to the precarious state they're in now.