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The Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science (ICCS) released a statement opposing a ban on wildlife trade in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. ICCS advocates for better regulation of wildlife trade in the hope of benefitting people and wildlife.

There are four main objectives in the ICCS’s statement, three of which should be supported by every organisation.

  1. Prevention of illegal, unsustainable, unhygienic and high-stress use of domestic and wild animal species.
  2. Support of well-regulated, sustainable and cruelty-free trade in wildlife, based on evidence that a particular trade is helping to protect wildlife and their habitats against threats whilst meeting livelihoods and food security needs.
  3. Limitation of destruction of natural ecosystems for agriculture, mining, infrastructure development and urbanisation, working towards halting further loss and restoring nature.
  4. Better management of industrial agriculture, to prevent disease outbreaks in humans and livestock, animal welfare issues, pollution of the land and watercourses, and antibiotic resistance.

But the second objective is a missed opportunity to protect wildlife. The ICCS states conservation efforts need to conform to livelihood and food security needs. However, at this stage in the human game, the opposite is needed. Livelihood and food security needs must be met through alternative avenues and must conform to conservation efforts if we wish to protect wildlife.

Research shows biodiversity suffers at the hands of economic growth due to increased resource consumption and pollution. Ironically, many conservations promote economic growth despite the subsequent negative impacts. Promoting regulated wildlife trade as a benefit to human livelihoods falls into the same trap. And two studies referenced in the ICCS’s statement demonstrated why regulated trade will not protect wildlife, contrary to their position, and confirmed the need for trade bans and alternatives to human prosperity.

The ICCS referenced a study from Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea, implying a ban increased bushmeat hunting. However, the implication was unwarranted. The study found economic growth and the subsequent use of shotguns were the reasons for increased bushmeat hunting.

As with most bans, Bioko Island’s bushmeat hunting ban was reactive rather than proactive. Bushmeat hunting was on the rise before the ban was implemented. While it is true the ban failed to curb hunting outside of a short-term period due to a lack of enforcement, better regulations are not the answer. Regulations require vastly more technical expertise and knowledge to be properly enforced. If resources are lacking to enforce bans, they are certainly lacking to enforce regulations.

In fact, the authors of the Bioko Island study noted properly regulated wildlife farming was an impractical solution to the bushmeat hunting crisis. The island’s wildlife would likely follow the same bleak path as South Africa’s lions, China’s bears, and Vietnam’s porcupines where regulated trade fueled poaching. However, the authors do propose heeding the warnings of past studies and implementing forest guards to enforce bans since that practice has a history of benefiting biodiversity.

But, again, the true cause of increased bushmeat hunting on Bioko Island was economic growth. The rate of bushmeat hunted with shotguns was positively correlated with oil price due to a petroleum boom in the pre-ban and post-ban periods. Bushmeat, in this study, was a luxury good associated with greater wealth and disposable income.

The Bioko study showed how wildlife was used to benefit livelihoods but the ICCS also referenced another study highlighting the importance of wildlife in the diet of rural communities. The study, conducted in rural northern Madagascar, showed how removing wildlife as a dietary component can lead to a 29% increase in children suffering from anemia.

It is true, wildlife can be a vital source of nutrition for rural communities. But there was a major issue when researchers evaluated how much wildlife was needed to eliminate anemia in their study area. The researchers found the rate of wildlife harvest needed would be eight times greater than the sustainable rate.

How can this case of exploitation be regulated to benefit people and wildlife? Regulating wildlife harvest means picking and choosing which children suffer from anemia or accepting that all children will be nutritionally deficient. Good luck with that. Continuing to allow wildlife exploitation will inevitably lead to the decline of many species and an overall loss of biodiversity while failing to solve the issue of poor nutrition for rural communities.

A ban preempting unsustainable exploitation sets in motion the policies needed to protect what little nature the world has left and forces the world to rethink our food production and distribution processes. Agricultural practices must be updated in developing countries to ensure more food is produced with less resources.

But increased production is not necessarily the key to preventing nutritional deficiencies in developing countries. Much of the developed world produces food in excess and with some countries wasting 30% of the food they produce. A restructuring of the world’s food supply chains can aid rural communities like the ones in northern Madagascar.

Organisations, like the ICCS, must seek practical solutions to help enforce wildlife trade bans and alternative sources of prosperity for rural communities. Promoting the status quo of wildlife exploitation will have dire impacts on biodiversity and ultimately harm humans in the long run.

The COVID-19 pandemic provides an opportunity to change the way the world works and build a better future where both people and wildlife benefit. 20th century economist, John Maynard Keyes, stated “The day is not far off when the economic problem will take the back seat where it belongs, and the arena of the heart and the head will be occupied or reoccupied, by our real problems — the problems of life and of human relations.” Now is the time to occupy ourselves with the real problems.

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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