Efforts to curb China’s insatiable demand for luxury wildlife products are vital for driving down the incentives for illegal poaching worldwide
AFTER decades of trying to crack down on illegal poaching, governments and conservation groups are now turning their attention to the huge demand for wildlife products that drives the crime in the first place.
At a conference in Botswana last month, delegations from 32 countries called for a better understanding of the market forces that drive the illegal wildlife trade. It’s a big improvement on a similar declaration issued last year, which failed to discuss how to reduce demand for products like rhino horn.
“People have not been focusing on demand at all,” says Grace Ge Gabriel, Asia director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). “We can put all our money into anti-poaching, but if we don’t change behaviour in the marketplace, we’re not going to make an impact.”
So conservation groups have been looking east. “China is clearly the biggest player in terms of exploitation of wild animals,” says Adam Roberts of Born Free USA. “China is the biggest consumer of elephant ivory in the world.”
China also drives the illegal trade in tiger parts, rhino horn, shark fins and pangolins. But the demand for wildlife parts is increasingly coming from the luxury goods market, rather than traditional medicine.
“Fundamentally it’s about luxury items and greed,” says Roberts. For example, where bear bile and gall bladders were once used for medicine, they are now added to luxury cosmetics. “Traditional medicine practitioners are becoming less important in the consumption of wildlife parts, and it’s transferring more to the big businessmen,” he says.
It’s a trend that has been fuelled by China’s huge consumer power. But the fact that ignorance seems to underlie this demand offers hope. An IFAW survey in China found that 70 per cent of respondents didn’t know that ivory can only come from dead elephants. “We also found that 83 per cent of those people who had bought ivory said that they wouldn’t have purchased it if they had known,” says Gabriel.
It’s early days, but public awareness campaigns launched across China may already be having an effect. According to Roberts, the demand for ivory seems to be falling. Each year the Chinese government releases a portion of its stockpile of ivory for legal use, but only 80 per cent of the most recent allocation has been taken up.
It’s not just ivory sales that are being targeted. Another campaign has tackled shark fin soup. Early efforts like these may be having some effect: recent research shows that shark capture is now declining. Many students have persuaded restaurants to stop serving shark fins.
Will such efforts be enough to save critically endangered species? “If there is no demand for these products then the markets are going to dry up, and if the markets dry up, there’s no need to poach,” says Roberts.
But species like rhinos are running out of time, and it could take a generation or two to bring down the financial incentives for poaching. In the meantime, more traditional enforcement approaches, particularly in Africa, will remain vital, alongside these new campaigning approaches. “From an economic perspective, it’s a very interesting and poignant time in wildlife conservation,” says Roberts.
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