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Dare to criticize the opinions of those promoting the exploitation of wildlife for economic benefit, and you will likely find yourself engulfed in frivolous drama that takes away from the real issues facing conservation. Craig Packer, and many others, know this all too well.

Packer was once Tanzania’s leading lion conservationist with decades of research experience. That is until he was banned from the country for his outspoken criticism of the trophy hunting industry. His criticism was well supported though, his studies showed that trophy hunting was the leading cause of declining lion numbers in his areas of study.

Subsequent research confirmed Packer’s studies and noted lion numbers declined most in areas with short-term hunting leases. The short-term leases were both the most unsustainable and the most profitable for the government (surprise, surprise). Additional research also suggested Tanzania’s policies failed to adequately protect habitat and reduce illegal harvest of other species, leading to continual declines in wildlife numbers.

But, conveniently for Tanzania, trophy hunting is largely portrayed in a positive light when it comes to conserving the country’s wildlife. Trophy hunting, proponents state, protects more land than any other industry and creates economic benefits for rural communities. However, the difference in perspective has less to do with the promotion of trophy hunting’s positives and more to do with the silencing of trophy hunting’s negatives.

Criticism of the trophy hunting industry and Packer’s dismissal, while dramatic, failed to spur changes in Tanzania’s conservation policies. This happens all too often in conservation but it cannot happen now with the wildlife trade considering the implications of the COVID_19 pandemic. The debate over whether we should ban the wildlife trade can be dramatic. But we must ensure the debate goes not detract us from acting and transforming conservation to benefit humans and wildlife.

We are in the midst of a global pandemic likely caused by a virus jumping from wildlife to humans. To date, COVID-19 has killed more than 240,000 people and has ramifications beyond an increasing death toll. Global poverty is expected to rise for the first time in decades because of mandated shutdowns aimed at stopping the spread of the virus.

This is not a once-in-a-lifetime event that requires cautious action. Research shows opportunities for transmission of viruses from wildlife to humans are increasing due to habitat degradation and exploitation of wildlife through hunting and trade. Unless we fundamentally change how we interact with nature, we should expect future outbreaks to occur and disproportionately impact those living in poverty. Radical changes, including banning wildlife trade, are needed.

Some will argue banning wildlife trade is too radical. After all, wildlife trade can serve as a path to prosperity for many rural communities by providing food and economic benefits. But that prosperity comes at an ecological cost.

Case studies, like in Madagascar, demonstrate how the rate of wildlife consumption needed to support rural communities far outstrips the sustainable harvest rate. 

Sub-Saharan Africa comprises 14% of the world’s population but only represents 3% of the world’s economy. Unfortunately, raising the region’s economic output is likely to have devastating ecological impacts.

As pointed out by an independent review on the economics of biodiversity, accepting that we have a “supply-demand imbalance means confronting difficult questions, including questions about what and how we consume, how we manage our waste, and the role family planning and reproductive health can play.”

The realities are uncomfortable. We cannot continue to allow wildlife trade because of the potential public health risks and because it contributes to the degradation of nature. And those who will be most negatively impacted by a degraded planet are the very same impoverished communities that wildlife trade proponents seek to benefit.

The COVID-19 pandemic provides an opportunity to radically change the way we interact with nature. We are quickly running out of resources and attempts to exploit what little remains of nature for economic benefit is increasing the likelihood of future pandemics. We must seek alternatives for human prosperity and ensure any financial burdens are placed on developed nations, not wildlife, to prevent unnecessary ecological damage in developing areas.

Instead of promoting wildlife trade, we should be promoting the idea of a global fund, supplemented by the world’s developed countries, aimed at preventing the need for wildlife exploitation in developing countries. Something akin to a Nature Tax.

Chances are that you, the reader, live in a developed country that should be doing more to help protect nature. Now is the time to ask your government officials to consider implementing something like a Nature Tax.

You also have an opportunity to benefit the world on an individual scale by simply consuming less and avoiding destructive practices in the name of convenience, like using a personal car as a main source of transportation. The resources and waste associated with convenience activities indirectly impact the destruction of nature and, in turn, help reduce the risk of future pandemics.

Jared Kukura is a freelance wildlife conservation writer based in California. He founded Wild Things Initiative to highlight the negative ramifications of the wildlife trade and hunting industries.

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