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OPINION: The “War on Poaching” Needs a Different Approach to the “War on Drugs”

The following Op/Ed is by Peter Knights, Co-Founder and Executive Director of WildAid.

President Obama's anti-wildlife trafficking initiative launched this week is welcomed at a vital time for beleaguered populations of elephants, rhinos and tigers; as well as sharks, pangolins, and a host of wildlife overexploited by illegal trade. However, if the United States sticks with more of the same, this latest directive is in danger of going down the same track as the "war on drugs." Since 1971 the United States has spent some US$1 trillion in an effort to disrupt drug supply chains with a militarized enforcement response to negligible effect. We’ll spend a tiny fraction of that on wildlife and hope for a different outcome; reinforcing a conservation movement focused on spending 99%+ of its resources on stopping supply, escalating the "war on poaching" rather than de-funding the trade by reducing demand.

Superficially combating demand can appear “soft on crime” or overwhelming, but when you look at conservation successes it is far less daunting than it at first appears. Though some cultural habits are long standing, historically they were restricted to a tiny privileged minority. Booming economies create surges of demand, but there is clear evidence that these nouveau riche fads, unlike the addiction-driven, poverty-associated drug trade, can be countered through demand side law enforcement and demand reduction campaigns aided by the explosion of media outlets before they take widespread root. As they become socially unacceptable, society moves on from wildlife consumption and it doesn't go back.

Clear, enforced laws and public awareness on the demand side largely took Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong out of the illegal wildlife consumption game in the early nineties. Rhinos in Africa prospered for 20 years after these demand side efforts in Asia in 1994, but then recently fell victim to new markets in Vietnam and China, that were not originally exposed to the education campaigns. The 1989 ivory trade ban with accompanying publicity collapsed demand in the United States and Europe and the Asian market was significantly reduced. Up to 2006, elephant populations were recovering. The growth of Chinese and other Asian "tiger" economies and their growing activity in Africa topped off with a suicidal legal sale of ivory to China and Japan in 2008, stimulated demand and provided a mechanism to launder poached ivory. Poaching increases were demand driven, not a result of reduced law enforcement in supply countries and, without demand reduction, increased enforcement may only drive up prices.

Ironically China, the central figure in the current ivory trade, is in some ways more progressive than the United States. China should be commended for recent progress in addressing the demand for shark fin soup. A campaign led by former NBA star Yao Ming, alongside a host of Chinese luminaries, combined with the new administration’s ban on shark fin in state banquets and a number of US states banning sales, cut consumption in 2012 by 50% or more according to traders, local media, and Hong Kong trade statistics. China’s leading media outlets, including the state-run CCTV, provided tens of millions of dollars of donated media space for this campaign. Meanwhile our National Marine Fishery Service is proposing to overturn state sales bans, unless public comment stops them, to snatch defeat from the “Jaws” of victory. Yao launched ivory and rhino horn campaigns in June this year with one million Chinese following his blog and 95% of surveyed Chinese saying ivory should be banned and more action taken to protect rhinos.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sounded the right note in 2012 when she stated, “…most importantly, perhaps, we need to reach individuals, to convince them to make the right choices about the goods they purchase.”After being largely ignored, demand reduction at least gets a name check, but the “most important” area remains the absolute lowest priority for funding. Enforcement definitely needs support, but surely allocating a few percent of resources for a few years to address demand would likely reap huge dividends for the survival of these species. Unfortunately, old prejudices and the institutional entrenchment of much of the conservation movement may mean that we continue to treat symptoms rather than causes and chose to fight fire with fire rather than quench the flames. It will be the very species we are trying to save that will suffer, perhaps irrevocably.