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There is a clear divide in the conservation world. Despite most organisations agreeing wildlife trade caused the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no consensus on the path forward.

An open letter released by the Lion Coalition called on the World Health Organisation (WHO) to “release a formal position statement containing clear advice to governments to institute comprehensive and rigorously enforced bans on live wildlife markets and to close down the commercial wildlife trade which poses a risk to public health.”

However, a rebuttal in the form of another open letter addressed to the WHO and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) cautioned against banning wildlife trade. This letter, published by Resource Africa, stated “It is vital that any actions taken are appropriate and lead to socially just outcomes which contribute to – not detract from – the development of economically resilient livelihoods for those hundreds of millions of the world’s most vulnerable who depend on wild resources for their survival.”

On the surface, it sounds like the position taken by Resource Africa’s letter is an appropriate middle ground. They warn not to imperil those impacted most by the current pandemic with a solution that makes their lives even worse. However, the stance taken by the Resource Africa letter fails to grasp a problem inherent in today’s world, economic growth.

Economic growth is not compatible with the conservation of biodiversity. Additionally, people living in rural communities are most at risk of adverse impacts from biodiversity loss and it is clear economic growth is not the answer for improving rural livelihoods.

Promoting wildlife trade as an economic benefit does a disservice to those hundreds of millions of vulnerable people the Resource Africa letter claims to want to help. The Lion Coalition letter has the correct position, we must ban wildlife trade to protect biodiversity and those living in rural communities all around the globe.

Interestingly enough, the Resource Africa letter acknowledges the negative effects the current pandemic, likely created by wildlife trade, is having on rural communities. Yet, the letter concluded wildlife trade is needed to prevent future negative impacts on impoverished people.

The Resource Africa letter attempted to skirt this contradiction by blaming the current pandemic on illegal trade. Illegal being the key word. But China has a long history of promoting legal consumption and trade of wildlife to benefit rural communities. The COVID-19 pandemic was not the result illegal activity, it was the direct result of government policies promoting wildlife exploitation. Saying illegal trade is the cause of the problem is disingenuous. To date, there are seven known coronaviruses and continuing legal wildlife trade will ensure there are more to come.

Promoting legal wildlife trade has more to do with protecting the economic interests of the hunting and trade industries than it does the world’s impoverished. A look at the list of signatories shows organisations dedicated to promoting trophy hunting and game breeding. A global ban on wildlife trade makes it difficult for wealthy foreigners to import dead animal trophies from their lavish hunting safaris and prevents game breeders from selling their animal products as status symbols to the globe’s wealthy elites. Essentially, a global ban on wildlife trade hurts wealthy business owners currently profiting from exploiting wildlife.

Many of the organisations listed explicitly state their focus is to protect hunters, game breeders, and their respective industries.

For instance, CIC – International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation describe themselves as a group “which aims to preserve wild game and hunting.” Dallas Safari Club boasts it has been “very successful in defeating legislation that would have severely curtailed hunting rights.” Safari Club International claims to be “the leader in protecting the freedom to hunt.” South African Hunters and Game Conservation Association states its main objective is to “is to serve the interests of hunters, sportshooters and game farmers in South Africa.” Wildlife Ranching South Africa lists their purpose is “to promote, serve and protect the interests of wildlife farmers and to enhance the economic viability and growth of the industry.”

It should also come as no surprise that Amy Dickman was listed as a supporter of the letter and publicly opposed a global wildlife trade ban. After all, she was the lead author of a Science Magazine letter describing the potential devastating effects trophy hunting import bans could have on conservation and the livelihoods of rural communities. The letter was heavily criticized for failing to disclose conflicts of interest and led to the magazine changing its policies and publishing rebuttals from other members of the scientific community.

Many outspoken proponents of wildlife exploitation joined Dickman in signing both trophy hunting import and wildlife trade ban letters including Adam Hart, Keith Sommerville, and Michael ’t Sas-Rolfes. Their voices can typically be heard proselytizing the economic benefits of sustainable use at the detriment of conservation. Although Emmanuel Koro was an intriguing addition to the list of signatures in the Resource Africa letter. Koro, a journalist, won an award for International Promotion of the South African Hunting Industry, courtesy of the Professional Hunters’ Association of South Africa.

Additionally, many of the signatures on the letter are redundant and provide no value to their argument. For example, Amy Dickman was listed as a supporter and so was the organisation she established, Ruaha Carnivore Project. Resource Africa was listed twice for its South Africa and UK divisions raising questions of what exactly is Resource Africa and why are they publishing an open letter on the behalf of other organisations?

Information regarding Resource Africa is scant. Their website describes their philosophy of promoting sustainable use and touches on their partnerships with other groups. But much of the information, including their contact details and charity status, is outdated. Surely, someone somewhere can help clear up the ambiguity surrounding Resource Africa but the decision to publish the letter via that organisation is peculiar. And while the letter’s 300 signatories originally looked like a large united front, scrutiny showed those signatures amount to little more than a grand façade aimed at protecting industry leaders.

The list of signatories demonstrated the close relationship between hunting and trade industries and made it painfully obvious the Resource Africa letter is just another propaganda piece aimed at continuing wildlife exploitation in the name of profit.  This is not to say that organisations lobbying for their own interests is inherently bad. However, it is unacceptable for ogranisations to lobby for selfish interests under the guise of benefitting the world’s vulnerable rural communities. Protecting vulnerable communities means protecting biodiversity. Promoting economic growth contradicts this goal.

As stated in the Lion Coalition letter, the WHO must come forward and advise governments to enforce bans on their live wildlife markets and shut down commercial wildlife trade benefit biodiversity and rural communities.

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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