The statistics are startling. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that the global population of wild animals dropped by half between 1970 and 2010. An important driver of that precipitous decline has been the illegal trade in wildlife, valued at between $7 and $23 billion a year.
The Extinction Market, by author Vanda Felbab-Brown, is a rigorous, thoughtful exploration of a cross section of issues facing conservationists in combating the global illegal wildlife trade. What the book does best is to show, again and again, that there are no easy fixes.
Felbab-Brown, a foreign policy researcher at the Brookings Institution, adeptly enumerates the trade-offs and quandaries that face protectors of rare and endangered wildlife. Take the debate over regulated markets for ivory and other wildlife products. By overseeing trade, governments can generate income to help fund conservation work. But, as Felbab-Brown points out, a legal trade might increase overall consumer interest in endangered wildlife parts. And in practice it can be very difficult to differentiate between legally and illegally traded animals, so the existence of a legal market makes it easier to pass off illegal goods as legitimate. Thus, the book explains, “If licensed trading chains are extensively pervaded by illegally obtained wildlife, licensing may serve only to whitewash consumer consciousness.”
Though Felbab-Brown takes a solutions-oriented outlook when it comes to wildlife crime, she is also clear-eyed about the limitations of existing alternatives. Ecotourism, she explains, has had disappointing results in terms of generating reliable, year-round income and bringing substantial income back to local communities. For one thing, the profits from these projects often end up going to local elites. And even where ecotourism has been successful in drawing steady streams of visitors, the increased footfall might be harming the very wildlife that such projects are seeking to protect.
Among the strategies to combat illegal wildlife trading explored in The Extinction Market, one of the most compelling is demand reduction. In China, for example, consumption of wildlife is bound up in complex ideas about social prestige, health benefits, and the appropriateness of consuming (rather than preserving) wildlife. So, Felbab-Brown notes, a campaign that treats the consumption of rhino horn as sexually unappealing, perhaps starring a Chinese celebrity, is more likely to be successful than a campaign with a heavy-handed moral message, fronted by an American crusader.
To take a different example, in communities that depend on bushmeat, reducing demand requires provision of an alternative food source. It makes little sense to insist that residents of Ugandan forests stop eating bushmeat, unless there’s a substitute food source that’s both culturally appropriate and nutritionally similar.
Though Felbab-Brown zeroes in on timely, critical wildlife topics, her writing style doesn’t always do them justice. The language is often slightly stiff. For instance, take this sentence: “The devolution of decision-making power to those who have been poor, marginalized, and without rights may not only be politically and economically beneficial, it can also be psychologically rewarding and enabling.” Some vivid characters could have helped bring the issues to life while retaining the book’s scholarly rigor.
In addition, Felbab-Brown, a researcher on the drug trade and illicit economies, frequently compares illegal drugs and illegal wildlife products. The drug analogy is interesting, for instance when discussing the similar challenges involved in tracking and identifying illicit substances, whether heroin or rhino horn powder. And in both cases, practical incentives are needed to encourage communities away from illegal activities, whether the cultivation of poppies for heroin or the poaching of rhinos. But the comparison isn’t always of obvious relevance. As Felbab-Brown points out, endangered wildlife is by definition limited in numbers, unlike drugs that can be endlessly generated in labs and grown in fields.
In spite of its shortcomings, the book excels at unspooling the complexities and controversies of addressing illegal wildlife trading – and showing how targeted efforts can work to protect wildlife.
If there’s one point The Extinction Market makes clear, it’s that perfectly balancing human welfare and wildlife preservation is impossible. But the book is a useful contribution to thinking more seriously about how we might begin to work toward that goal.
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