Threats: Species Overexploitation

Section
7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species
Page
7.4

After land clearing and direct habitat loss, the next biggest threat for native species is overexploitation. It accounts for approximately 24% of declines1 (see webpage 7.2, figures 4 and 5) and can be as simple and direct as overhunting, or more complicated and indirect, like bycatch from fishing.

(Getty Images. 2020. Monkey for sale in a ‘wet market’. The Conversation, 23/4/20)

This is a highly diverse topic, covering everything from wildlife trade to consumption of bushmeat, to ‘medicine’, to hunting cultures, to fashion, to fishing practices and technologies. We cannot cover it all here, but a good introduction has been provided by Ross Harvey of the University of Johannesburg for ‘The Conversation’2 in 2020.

What is the wildlife trade? And what are the answers to managing it? (theconversation.com)

“The legal global wildlife trade is worth roughly $300 billion. Of more than 31,500 listed terrestrial birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles, approximately 5,500 are traded. Research predicts that a further 3,196 species may be traded in the future, placing a possible 8,775 species at risk of extinction.

Serious attempts to regulate the trade in wildlife and plants began in 1973. And in 1975 the Convention on International Trade in Endangered species of Wild Fauna and Flora came into force. It now boasts a membership of 183 parties.

A great deal of controversy surrounds the purpose and efficacy of the convention. But its original text recognises that:

Wild fauna and flora in their many beautiful and varied forms are an irreplaceable part of the natural systems of the earth which must be protected for this and the generations to come.

With many species now at risk of extinction, questions are being raised about the sustainability of the global wildlife trade and whether it can be reliably regulated or not.

The convention works on a listing system. Appendix I prohibits trade in species classified as highly endangered, whereas Appendix II allows trade under very specific conditions. The system is full of loopholes though, as trading countries often ignore basic checks and balances such as verifying the authenticity of an import destination listed on an export permit. This allows the proliferation of illegal trade.

Read more: Explainer: what is CITES and why should we care?

Illegal trade is estimated to be worth between $7 billion and $23 billion annually. Given the sheer scale of this problem, the convention cannot combat it alone.

But calls to end the global wildlife trade have been growing in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The reason is that the SARS-CoV-2 virus most likely infected humans at a wet meat market in Wuhan, China, in November 2019.

These markets, where live animals are sold and slaughtered, are an integral component of the global wildlife trade.

Thirteen years ago the world was warned about the risks of zoonotic spillover – the transmission of disease from animals to humans – which may tip the scales in favour of bans. But the warnings went unheeded. And the debate about whether the wildlife trade should be banned has remained as intractable as ever.

The arguments

A group of Oxford scholars has cautioned against hasty bans:

Blanket bans are unlikely to benefit people or wildlife and are unfeasible because they overlook the complexity of the wildlife trade. The COVID-19 outbreak should not be used opportunistically to prescribe global wildlife trade policy. A more appropriate response would be to improve wildlife trade regulation with a direct focus on human health.

Economists tend to oppose bans because they can drive legal trade underground. The anti-prohibition argument typically presupposes the economics of alcohol and narcotics, though.

But, in my view there’s a big difference – alcohol and narcotics are renewable resources with physiologically addictive properties. Demand is often relatively insensitive to changes in price and supply is widely available.

Read more: Captive lion breeding in South Africa: the case for a total ban

Wildlife entails a different set of economic dynamics. Wild animals are not renewable. Nor is the consumption of their meat, horns, scales, bladders, tusks, teeth, bones, claws and paws physiologically addictive. In addition, they play an integral role in their ecosystems.

Read more: Game theory suggests China should keep its ivory trade ban in place indefinitely

The counterargument is that bans may fail to stigmatise consumption where demand is driven by social desirability. But this overlooks the fact that cultural preferences are dynamic. There’s evidence of appropriate preference shifts in response to knowledge of ecologically destructive practices.

Elephant ivory is a good example. Chinese authorities promoted its consumption as a public heritage good in 2008 when China bought stockpiled ivory from African countries. Seven years later, it announced a domestic ivory trade ban, recognising that ivory consumption was incompatible with an “ecological civilisation”. It had the desired effect: a large proportion of consumers who were indifferent to ivory consumption prior to the ban indicated that they would no longer purchase it.

There’s also an argument that bans on trading a particular animal or its parts will drive up prices in response to perceptions of scarcity. But this isn’t necessarily so. The price of raw ivory plummeted between 2014 ($2,100/kg) and 2017 (to $700/kg). This was likely in response to the Chinese ban.

Moreover, legal trade often has no ability to crowd out illegal activity. Instead, in a corrupt world, it can create laundering opportunities for illegal supply.

The economics are simple: illegal product is always cheaper to procure.

Another concern about a trade ban is articulated by proponents of “sustainable use” who worry about the impact it would have on “wildlife economies”. Wildlife breeding in China alone is estimated to be worth $74 billion and involve 14 million people.

But wildlife economies are behind the current global economic collapse – one that’s projected to cost anywhere between $2 trillion and $4.1 trillion.

Bans beat reform in some cases

Is the answer better regulation?

Probably not. Every type of improvement in regulation requires more law enforcement capacity, technology and manpower. These don’t exist in many contexts.

Yes, bans have to be congruent with local norms to be effective, but it appears easier to shift local norms than to improve regulation. The transaction costs of policing bans are likely lower than the transaction costs of policing improved regulations. Differentiating between legal and illegal products at ports, for instance, requires extensive training and resources.

Past efforts at improving regulations have failed. Bans may be a knee-jerk reaction, but they likely beat the call for improved regulation. Fine-tuning ineffective regulation will not prevent the destruction of wild habitats and their inhabitants.

What’s clear is that we can’t continue to use nature as if it’s free capital. Ecological systems are at breaking point and economic collapse is currently under way.”

 

What I particularly liked about Ross’ article was that it was written as if the environment really mattered. So often pieces that address this issue are brim-full of excuses and deflections and mealy-mouthed justifications that are really saying that the environment must continue to give way, to be sacrificed to human wants, no matter how vain or cruel or unnecessary these desires may be, nor what terrible threats they pose. (Blocking arguments usually revolve around the myth that exploitation is merely a continuation of ancient hunter-gathering and vital for many people. This is nonsense: past hunter-gathering occurred when there were very few people, abundant and expansive Nature, and limited technology; the exact opposite applies today and very, very few people indeed now rely on or need wildlife for food, clothing, or similar). This is the rampant humano-centrism I have talked of previously in T10 (e.g. see Section 6.4, ‘Media’), but Ross is having none of it by placing Nature, critically threatened Nature, at the centre, and neatly disposing of each interested objection in turn.

Changing tack to hunting, in this case, ‘recreational’ hunting, I unreservedly recommend Brian Payton’s excellent book ‘In Bear Country’3. Here he tracks the state of eight of the world’s bear species, visiting their habitats and exploring the cultures of exploitation and protection that surround them. (All species have declined in number and range due to human activities and six of the eight are on the IUCN Red List as threatened).

A passage that I found particularly affecting was in Chapter 8 on the American Black Bear. Brian joins Utah’s Department of Natural Resources inspecting a hunt in the La Sal Mountains. The story commences with a Black Bear being discovered by a pack of hounds and subsequently treed in a Ponderosa Pine.

“On a branch 30 feet above is a single, terrified bear. It desperately hugs the tree, its chest rising and falling in rapid succession. It still cannot catch its breath. After five months in hibernation – and a sudden, incredible run – it is now gasping so fast I wonder if it might just collapse and save them the trouble. Now and then it allows itself a glance at its tormentors below. I meet its eyes and instantly recognise both the expression and the body language of a fellow creature cornered, frightened for its life. After half an hour of letting the dogs have their day, the men round them up and pull them from the tree.

A woman in her thirties steps out of an idling truck, holding a child in one arm and a gun in the other. She sets the toddler down and walks toward the crowd with the rifle pointed up for safety. She stops in front of me, turns, and faces the tree.

Above the gathering crowd, beyond the upraised barrel, the bear still can’t catch its breath. It now divides its attention between the barking hounds and maintaining it tired grip. As I gaze up at the dark, cowering form, I can’t help but think of Chhattisgarh and the terrified woman up the mahua tree (note: from another chapter).

The woman standing in front of me now holds her rifle aloft for what seems an inordinate length of time. She is posing for photos. Her husband and friends are crouched around, searching for the most dramatic angles of the tree, bear, and bear hunter. Then all at once, she’s had enough. She stiffens her back, cradles the stock in close to her cheek, and squeezes the trigger. The clap echoes across the ravine as the bear instantly falls from the tree. It lands on its back with a dull thud – then jumps up and runs away.

Once again, the hounds are released and we all follow as they crash through the underbrush. It’s a short race. The bear collapses below a bush a hundred yards away. The pack descends, barking and nipping at the body.

When the houndsmen arrive, they pull off the mature, experienced dogs to allow the younger, greener ones to get a taste for the enemy. One small hound is so voracious, that when it is picked up off the ground it refuses to unlock its jaws. It ends up tearing out a chunk of fur and skin. Through it all, the bear’s eyes are open wide. Eventually the men call off their hounds and begin the process of hauling the 300-pound body out of the ravine. It requires the strength of six men, but the job is accomplished rather swiftly as this was a conveniently located harvest.

Up on the road, I get a better look at the body of the bear being dragged up the slope. In particular, I follow the left eye that reflects emerald green off the retina like it’s caught in a flashlight beam. But this ‘reflection’ stays, no matter where I or the bear moves. It is almost as if this dim, persistent light shines from within.

The mood of the crowd is jubilant. This was a large, healthy male of about seven years. Once the body is sprawled on the asphalt, yet more photos are taken of children sitting astride its back. One little girl is asked if she wants to “ride” the bear. Although she vehemently declines, she is scooped up and placed on the body just the same. She jumps off and runs away at the first opportunity.

Finally, the dead bear is heaved up onto the tailgate of the truck and lashed to the back of the dog box. Bright blood drips down onto the pavement. The woman who shot the bear says she waited nine years for her bear permit and is pleased with the result. When I ask how much meat a bear like this will provide, she wrinkles her nose and shakes her head. Bear meat is no good, she declares. She doesn’t eat the flesh of carnivores. Once skinned, the body will be dumped in the woods.

Because an animal was slaughtered for reasons other than procuring food, I can’t help but think of sacrifice – the ritual act of offering up some innocent to appease the gods. I have no faith in the ego or divinity appeased by the slaying of this bear.

The hunter glances down at the pooling blood below the tailgate. “They should make a chalk outline of a bicyclist” she observes. “Maybe that’ll scare the hippies into slowing down”.

This party’s over. There are lost dogs to round up and dirty work to be done. Soon the barking fades as the trucks roll away and silence rushes in.”

 

What can one say? Killing as identity. Cruelty as initiation. Cowardice as heroism. Sickness at the heart.

 

See also Section 1.5.6, ‘Kangaroos’.

 

1 WWF. 2020. Living Planet Report 2020 – bending the curve of biodiversity loss. WWF, Gland, Switzerland.

2 Harvey, R. 2020. What is the Wildlife Trade? And What are the Answers to Managing it? The Conversation, April 23rd.

3 Payton, B. 2007. In Bear Country: A Global Journey in Vanishing Wilderness. Old Street Publishing, London, UK.

Explore Other Natural Habitat and Species

7.1 Introduction

New York is an exciting, mesmerising place. Human culture is extraordinary and often wonderful. Our powers of transformation of the natural world seem limitless. The trouble is, we don’t seem to be able to stop, let alone want to stop. How far ...

7.2 State of Habitat

The Worldwide Fund for Nature’s exceptional ‘Living Planet Report 2020’1, Fig. 19 – reproduced below, attempts to show the global distribution of highly modified, largely natural, and in-between habitats. The dark green areas approximat...

7.3 Threats: Land Clearing and Direct Habitat Loss

This is the big one. As pointed out in 7.1 and 7.2 it accounts for over half of all population declines (see Figure 5, webpage 7.2) of native species and is as obvious as it is crude. We burn, chop, bulldoze, log, graze, and drain remaining habita...

7.4 Threats: Species Overexploitation

After land clearing and direct habitat loss, the next biggest threat for native species is overexploitation. It accounts for approximately 24% of declines1 (see webpage 7.2, figures 4 and 5) and can be as simple and direct as overhuntin...

7.5 Threats: Invasive Species and Diseases

Again, strangely, an unfashionable topic for modern environmentalism, but nonetheless, third on the list of threats to the natural world, with an average score across regions of 13%  (to recap: #1 is habitat loss at 50% and #2 is exploitation of s...

7.6 Threats: Fire

Running across and through almost all threats to habitat is fire. Whether indirectly, through clearing, draining and ‘opening up’ of the bush, and as a result of climate change, or directly, through the deliberate lighting of fires, we are seeing ...

7.7 Threats: Erasing Nature from the Mind

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7.8 Habitat and Species Protection Goals

The most relevant international goals for habitat and species protection for the latest decade, 2010-20, were the so-called ‘Aichi goals’. (‘Aichi’, because the location where the UN Convention on Biological Diversity was signed by 193 signatory n...

7.9 Acting for Habitat and Species

Everything in T10 is designed either to increase the protection of habitat and species, or reduce the pressures on same. As such, actions outlined in each of the 10 sections will – directly or indirectly – make a significant contribution. This sai...

7.10 The Future

Jorgen Randers was one of the authors of the seminal ‘Limits to Growth’ in 19721, as well as the 30-year update published in 20042. In 2012 he published ‘2052 – A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years’3. It woul...

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