Countering wildlife trafficking via policy analysis

extinctionmarketcoverAs a lifelong animal lover who’s been employed in the animal protection field for the past 7+ years, the issues I’m drawn toward are many and varied. Among the causes closest to my heart is the plight of endangered species because extinction is forever, and because as biodiversity declines, entire ecosystems (including those inhabited by humans) suffer. Stemming species loss has been among the most formidable challenges facing animal protection advocates, and I constantly strive to gain insight into how we might become more successful in conservation efforts (see my earlier post reviewing a book on effective community-based conservation). When I first heard about the publication of The Extinction Market: Wildlife Trafficking and How to Counter It by Vanda Felbab-Brown — a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, one of the U.S.’s most esteemed nonpartisan public policy think tanks — I knew I had to get my hands on a copy. I began digging into it shortly after its 2017 publication date. Unfortunately, the wildlife consumption origins of the COVID-19 pandemic make this book an especially timely and urgent read more than two years later. Presciently, Ms. Felbab-Brown articulated the link between wildlife consumption and pandemics (including SARS and Ebola) on the book’s very first page.

Having researched in depth a variety of illicit economies, particularly the drug trade, the author was able to expertly compare and contrast the mechanics of wildlife and narcotics trafficking worldwide and the successes and failures of the various policies enacted in response to each. Public policy is inherently thorny, complex, and an exceptionally challenging balancing act even when limited only to human affairs. Adding the interests of nonhuman animals (and plants, which she also includes among endangered wildlife) into the mix makes it exponentially more so.

This book is not for the faint of heart. In addition to being long and information-dense (but still perfectly understandable outside of academia, I’m pleased to report), the topic is a painful one, especially for animal lovers. Not only is the scope of the problem even wider than many of us might have imagined — extending to species and locations I’d never even heard of previously — but the many forms of animal suffering inherent to the wildlife trade are highlighted as well.

One of the book’s most critical takeaways, though, is that humans have also suffered in the name of animal protection as a result of poorly designed and/or implemented wildlife conservation policy…a point that eludes many animal advocates unfamiliar with the subtle interplay of historical, socioeconomic, political, cultural, and environmental factors across the dizzying number and variety of locales around the globe. The author delves into the all-too-prevalent mistreatment of desperately poor indigenous populations who tend to bear the heaviest burdens of conservation policy, frequently in combination with the scars of colonial exploitation in the past as well as hostile political regimes in the present.

Considering these factors, Ms. Felbab-Brown discusses the importance of empowering communities with partial or full control over the use of natural resources in their vicinity if and when feasible. In some cases, this may necessitate appropriation by the community of some portion of those natural resources for its own survival if doing so is sustainable. She discusses the ethically complicated tradeoff of allowing individual members of endangered species to be utilized for human purposes if the species population as a whole directly benefits. Trying to ensure the health of both a specific human population and a specific animal population whose living spaces overlap is often fraught with peril.

In fact, having pored through all that the book has to share — which is incredibly educational, eye-opening, and admittedly daunting — the toughest pill to swallow in the end is the failure of any single policy or set of policies to work well or consistently across the board, regardless of how skillfully and thoughtfully it is developed and implemented. The author goes to some pains to repeat the point that there is no silver bullet, or even a good-enough solution that can be universally applicable. Approaches must be carefully crafted and tested on a case-by-case, context-dependent basis. What works brilliantly in one situation may fail miserably in another. What may seem like a surefire protective measure in theory can severely backfire in practice, ultimately putting endangered species at even greater risk. For example, completely banning hunting in one locale may inadvertently increase it in another. Similarly, law enforcement seizures of smuggled wildlife shipments in transit may result in a higher number of animals poached upfront to compensate for expected losses. This book could, in a sense, be summarized as a deep dive into the law of unintended consequences.

It is particularly disappointing to learn that so far, two of the animal protection field’s most popular conservation strategies — ecotourism and alternative wildlife-friendly livelihoods — have rarely generated enough revenue to sustain local human populations over the long term. This shortfall has resulted from insufficient demand to offset implementation costs and/or an insufficient share of the proceeds reaching the people most in need, among other factors.

Even more disheartening is the author’s finding through her research that in certain circumstances, permitting a limited degree of trophy hunting — a practice I personally find morally reprehensible — may be the only viable pathway to ensuring the long-term survival of a particular species population in a particular area, provided the program is soundly developed and enforced. She explains the basis for this conclusion at some length, but I can’t help believing that there must surely be a better solution.

Per the author, factors standing in the way of consistent success in implementing any specific conservation policy across geographies and time typically include:

  • Resource intensiveness: Tremendous amounts of funding, training, personnel, equipment, perseverance, and adaptability are required to craft, implement, and modify sustainable wildlife management policy — most of which is sorely lacking in the locales inhabited by endangered species.
  • Low priority: Conservation usually take a back seat to other endeavors that are more profitable and/or more responsive to immediate human needs.
  • Lack of wildlife consumption alternatives: Communities that consume wildlife may do so because alternative forms of sustenance/livelihood are nonexistent or inadequate for their needs.
  • Cultural disconnects: For each trafficked animal species, long time horizons and high levels of trust are required to intimately understand the unique drivers of demand and participation within specific communities at every point along the supply chain. Moreover, that understanding needs to keep pace with changes over time that may require a shift in intervention strategy.
  • Community factions: Even when members of a community are committed to conservation efforts, that commitment is not necessarily embraced by everyone; there can sometimes be as much variation in perspective within as between communities.
  • Legacies of oppression: Communities closest to the endangered species supply chain often distrust outsiders due to painful histories of colonization and/or conflict, which is exacerbated when conservation policy is created and implemented without their buy-in.
  • Ineffective laws and/or law enforcement: Conservation policies may be insufficiently calibrated to specific community contexts; too restrictive or too permissive; enforced in a manner that is too harsh, too weak, inconsistent, or ill-fitting to the nature of the violation; unexpectedly conducive to increasing other forms of trafficking activity; and unresponsive to changes in human and animal population dynamics / environmental conditions.
  • Pervasive corruption: Unfortunately, various forms of bribery, nepotism, falsification, manipulation, and obfuscation are found along every point of the policy pathway, from the highest-ranking government officials to the most destitute villagers and all levels in between. While the degree and nature of corruption vary by community, it is ubiquitous and significantly undermines conservation policy development and implementation efforts.

All of that being said, there is still reason for hope if policy approaches: a) avoid oversimplification, b) are properly resourced, and c) reflect thoroughly acquired knowledge of specific communities whose cooperation is needed. Ms. Felbab-Brown proposes several courses of action based on her research that can contribute to conservation success (each of which her book substantiates in detail), including:

  • Set up protections for particular species before their population crashes. The vulnerability of a particular species is often apparent well in advance of an extinction threat. Setting up mechanisms for its preservation early on allows for a broader range of policy options, more time to experiment with and refine various approaches, and a greater likelihood of long-term conservation success.
  • Understand and adequately address stakeholder interests. Policies that account for the needs of those they affect, as well as the constraints they face, are easier to enforce. This holds especially true if the community has a strong voice in policy creation and implementation.
  • Offer viable alternatives to livelihoods that harm or displace endangered wildlife. Alternative livelihoods can be sustained only if they align with the available skills, cultural norms, economic needs, and environmental realities of the communities adopting them. Ecotourism is more likely to succeed in open dry areas where farming isn’t profitable and wildlife is relatively easy for tourists to spot throughout long periods of the year, the physical and political climate is relatively safe, available training and financial compensation for community members is adequate, and the portion of proceeds lost to community outsiders and corruption is minimal. The author also highlights the potential for thoughtfully designing, monitoring, and refining ongoing payment incentives in combination with infrastructure improvements and/or medical and educational services for poor local inhabitants on the condition that they help facilitate conservation measures and/or refrain from poaching.
  • Address the drivers of demand. Demand is the fuel for all wildlife trafficking activity, so curbing it can have a dramatic domino effect. Successful demand reduction efforts reflect a well-informed understanding of the cultural, economic, geographical, and temporal factors at play. These efforts can range from providing less harmful and less expensive alternatives that fulfill a similar purpose to disseminating anti-consumption messages that resonate with current and prospective wildlife consumers.

    The author’s research indicates that the most effective anti-consumption messaging:

    1) conveys potential threats that the product poses to the consumer personally (e.g., to their health or sex life) within a relatively short time,

    2) decouples the product’s consumption from elevated social status,

    3) comes from an admired member of the consumer’s own community (e.g., a government official or celebrity),

    4) reaches prospective consumers as children (starting at age 5 or 6), and

    5) is adapted to reflect changing conditions over time.

  • Have punishments calibrated to the nature and frequency of the crime, and make them swift, certain, and consistent. Conservation failures often result from inappropriate or inadequate responses to violations. Punishment should differ significantly between illegal subsistence hunting versus illegal sale of a luxury product. Local contexts must inform the specifics, but mandatory community service for low-level violations and/or a graduated scale of fines that escalate with the severity and number of offenses can be effective. In all cases, human rights should be honored and draconian lethal measures (e.g., shoot-on-sight) should be avoided. In the author’s words, “[Conservation policies] should be designed not only to maximize biodiversity and species preservation, but also to minimize the cost and harm they generate, particularly to poor and marginalized populations” (p. 268).
  • In crime network dismantling efforts, prioritize the middle layer. Arresting network “kingpins,” while highly visible, rarely impedes the network’s continued functionality. Likewise, low-level poachers — most of whom experience lifelong poverty and marginalization — are easily and quickly replaced within the network. Shutting down operators in the middle layer, preferably in a large group at close to the same time, is the most effective way to disrupt a trafficking network.
  • In wildlife smuggling disruption efforts, prioritize interventions in wildlife habitats. Seizures of trafficked wildlife in transit are far less effective than the prevention of removal from the wild to begin with. Robust in situ response via special interdiction units potentially allows endangered species to maintain or increase their numbers by staying alive and reproducing. By the time animals are removed from the field, they are usually either dead or significantly compromised.
  • Lower the potential for corruption among individuals in wildlife protection roles. Park rangers, law enforcement agents, and members of special interdiction units should be thoroughly trained and well compensated to minimize temptation toward more profitable illicit activity. Their commitment and high performance should be rewarded, while violations should result in removal from their positions. Appointments and promotions should be merit-based.
  • Make wildlife trafficking a predicate offense for anti-money-laundering measures. Financial institutions’ ability to monitor and disrupt currency flows associated with suspected wildlife crime can serve as a potential deterrent. It may also contribute valuable intelligence that can help bring down wildlife trafficking operations and networks.
  • Consistently monitor and adapt policies for changing conditions. Even if a particular policy succeeds in one particular context, complicating factors that emerge over time — such as population growth or decline (either human or animal), leadership transitions, shifts in social norms, and natural disasters — may require a modified approach.

Recent statements from the World Health Organization, the United Nations, over 60 American legislators, and the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases urging the closure of wildlife markets in response to the current coronavirus crisis provide a ripe opportunity for putting the wealth of information in Ms. Felbab-Brown’s book to immediate use.