The Big Earthwatch Debate 2013: Bone of Contention

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    Thursday, October 17, 2013


    The Big Earthwatch Debate 2013: Bone of Contention

    Is it time to reconsider a legal global trade in tiger, elephant, and rhino products?

    The rhinoceros is a formidable creature, characterized by its large size, thick skin, and one or two prominent keratin horns.  Yet its populations are under threat worldwide: in fact, three of the five remaining species of rhino are critically endangered.

    So would you feel comfortable if governments approved the international trade in rhino horn - or even tiger bone and skin or elephant ivory - for use in traditional medicines and other products?

    What if it could actually give these species a fighting chance at survival?

    This is just part of the complex and timely subject that this year’s Earthwatch Big Debate will explore, as two teams of speakers with opposing views will attempt to convince you - the public - to see their side of the argument. BBC broadcaster and journalist Martha Kearney will chair what promises to be an informative and thought-provoking evening.

    Too close to the bone?

    Current listing by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) ensures that trade in products such as rhino horn, elephant ivory, and tiger bone and skin is banned. There are few exceptions, such as two CITES-approved one-off sales of stockpiled elephant ivory from “legal” sources to Japan and China which took place in 1999 and 2008.

    But in the recent months since the meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES in March this year, a flurry of publications and media interest have centered on the issue of legalizing these products to better conserve these threatened species.

    However, scientists, conservationists, and governments disagree over the best way to conserve species. Many argue that countries bound to CITES have failed to prevent illegal trade and stem the demand for ivory, horn, and bone and skin, which are largely sold to markets in China, Vietnam, and Thailand for use in traditional medicine and as ornaments.

    Join Earthwatch at the Royal Geographical Society, London, for this important and timely debate on a subject of international conservation concern. Hear experts set out arguments on whether international trade bans are effective in stabilizing populations, or whether we need to create a legal or regulated market for rhino, elephant, and tiger products to ensure their conservation.

    Understanding the arguments both for and against a legal international trade has never been more urgent, as international pressure for trade in ivory, horn, and bone and skin gains pace. As recently as July, the South African government announced that it wants a regulated trade in rhino horn.

    We need to develop the most effective solutions today for the long-term conservation of these globally threatened and iconic species. What do you think?


    Dr. Duan Biggs is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions at the University of Queensland. He is lead author of a recent publication in the journal Science on the legalization of trade in the horn of the African white rhino, which has received much international attention. Duan grew up in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, the epicenter of the current rhino poaching crisis. Duan’s research and applied interests focus on finding innovative solutions to the biodiversity crisis that will lead to beneficial conservation and socioeconomic outcomes. Duan has authored 15 scientific papers and book chapters and is an avid birdwatcher and naturalist.

    Kirsten Conrad is a Singapore-based conservation policy analyst who has been working on the conservation of wild cats in Asia since 1999. She is a member of the IUCN CEESP/SSC Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group (SULi) and has published on the subject of trade bans in the journal Tropical Conservation Science and the Routledge Handbook on East Asia and the Environment. She has conducted numerous research projects and policy analyses on tigers, including captive breeding, and on the ivory trade in China and has attended numerous international conservation events. Kirsten has lived in Asia since 1995.

    Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes is an independent conservation economist with a particular interest in the role of markets for biodiversity conservation. With practical conservation experience in Africa and an academic training in business and environmental resource economics, Michael has researched and advised on wildlife policy issues for more than two decades. He has a specific focus on illegal trade in rhino, big cat, elephant, and bear products destined for Asian markets and has written extensively on these topics for both academic and popular publications.


    Dr. Glyn Davies spent the early part of his career during the 1970s and 1980s as a scientist in Malaysia, India, and Sierra Leone researching forest ecology and developing national conservation strategies. After this he joined the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID) and worked in Kenya and Cameroon and was seconded to work in the European Commission. He influenced national forest, wildlife, and conservation policies and produced the EU policy on biodiversity in international development. From 2001, Glyn was director of conservation programs at the Zoological Society of London. In 2007 he joined the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)-U.K. as executive director of global programs. He currently manages a department of more than 100 staff with an annual budget in excess of £35m. WWF seeks to bring the best available science to inform discussions on conservation and development and works with stakeholders to update policy frameworks and legislation.

    Dr. Katarzyna Nowak is a postdoctoral research fellow at Durham University, U.K., and the University of the Free State, Qwaqwa, South Africa. Her research focuses on the behavior of threatened species and their capacity for persistence in human-dominated landscapes. Kate has lived and worked in East Africa since 2000 and has recently published articles in Science and The Ecologist on the subject of elephant ivory trade.

    Mary Rice is the executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), which investigates and campaigns against a wide range of environmental crimes and abuses, including the illegal trade in wildlife. whaling, illegal logging, hazardous waste, and trade in climate- and ozone-altering chemicals. Mary has extensive knowledge of the illegal international trade in ivory, acting as a spokesperson on the subject and attending major international meetings on the issue. Findings of EIA’s investigations into the illegal trade in ivory played a key role in establishing the international ivory ban in 1989. Subsequent investigations into this and other trades in endangered wildlife have been pivotal in providing decision-makers with empirical evidence of illegal international trade in endangered species.


    Martha Kearney is a BBC broadcaster and journalist who presents the international news, politics, and current affairs program The World at One. Martha presented Woman's Hour from 1998 to early 2007, including a special edition from Afghanistan. From 2000 to 2007, she was political editor of Newsnight, and she has also presented the Today program and PM on Radio 4. In 1998, Martha was nominated for a BAFTA award for her coverage of the Northern Ireland peace process. She was a 2004 TRIC Radio Presenter of the Year and won a Sony Bronze Award for a special on child poverty. Martha chaired the judges for the 2012 Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine and this year featured in the Great Comic Relief Bake Off.

    Start the debate now. Voice your opinions on Facebook  and Twitter: #earthwatchdebate

    All speakers are representing their own views and not necessarily those of their organizations or affiliates. Earthwatch is not a political charity, and any views represented are not necessarily ours.

    Event Type Debate
    Cost Free
    Venue Royal Geographical Society, London (get directions)
    Event Date Thursday, October 17, 2013

    • Doors open at 6pm

    • Cash bar open from 6pm

    • The debate will begin promptly at 7pm

    Add To My Calendar Add to Calendar 17/10/2013 18:00 17/10/2013 22:00 36

    Is it time to reconsider a legal global trade in tiger, elephant, and rhino products?

    Royal Geographical Society, London DD/MM/YYYY
    Can't join us in London?

    News Category: Prior Events


    R Chadwick | Saturday, October 12, 2013

    The only people interested in pro trade are those that benefit financially from it !

    sharon hesford | Saturday, October 12, 2013

    Pro trade is all about profit. They already have stockpiles in the anticipation that CITES will agree to the trade! people will become very wealthy if this goes through. It will not stop poaching as demand will always outstrip supply. More always wants more. It also gives credence to the belief that horn cures all manner of ills. This is totally unfounded. It is quackery!! They all might as well consume their own fingerand toe nails for the good that it will do. It It is morally and unethical to promote a medicinal trade that is not grounded in any medicinal fact.

    Alice Suttie | Sunday, October 13, 2013

    The answer is in education, not feeding the superstition and making money out of it. Legalising rhino-horn trade will not stop the black market.

    Avinash Basker | Monday, October 14, 2013

    The problem with this debate is that it gives the impression that there are two sides to this issue with some sort of claims to legitimacy. The pro-trade position does not stand up to the even the simplest intellectual or moral scrutiny. Their arguments are not founded on data about how their so called "solutions" work but on lack of data (which is very difficult to collect) on the success of trade bans. They take the position that continued illegal trade is evidence of the ineffectiveness of trade bans when the fact of the matter is that illegal trade would be much higher if it were not for such bans. They turn a blind eye to gaps in enforcement of bans which allow illegal trade. They cannot answer how many source and consumer countries with large inadequacies of capacity, who are unable to enforce even simple trade bans will be able to regulate and police the much more complicated mechanisms they propose. They do not take corruption into account. They fail to realize that the economic goods that they are talking about are scarce, endangered, and non-renewable and should not be subject to the experiments they come up with in their imaginary ceteris paribus worlds.

    And we haven't even gotten started on the moral bankruptcy that pervades their stance.

    They only reason that this "side" to the debate exists is that it is engineered and financed by the people who stand to benefit from the trade in both source and consumer countries.

    C Greenwood Barlow | Monday, October 14, 2013

    I am AGAINST legalisation of trade. I'm writing as someone who's been working in field for several years on conservation of large mammals including tigers.

    The key weak assumption of the argument for legalisation is the assumption that regulation/enforcement of legal trade in tiger, rhino and elephant countries can be done successfully.

    This assumption is weak/incorrect, given that many of the countries that are home to these species have corruption issues and are poorly staffed/funded/equipped to do wildlife law enforcement.

    Legalisation will only introduce legal routes to launder illegally poacher wildlife, further adding to the burden of law enforcement agencies, who are already inadequately staffed, paid, trained or equipped to deal with existing poaching/trade levels.

    Speaking from the reality of what it's like on the ground - please do not legalise poaching and trade. We're having a tough enough time of it as it is, and legalisation will increase the pressure further and to a level which will see an even faster decline of these species.

    Solution? Demand management - behaviour change programs in countries like China to reduce demand for tiger, rhino, elephant products. Using social marketing tools as used in the development sector (e.g. Health) to achieve social change and which take learnings from the commercial marketing sector.

    It will take time, but it's the only way to reduce demand. And in parallel whilst waiting for that change to come, law enforcement efforts on the ground in the source countries need to ramp up to try to maintain populations for the future.

    Lucy Boddam-Whetham | Thursday, October 17, 2013

    It is vital that we strengthen our existing efforts in conservation, but I do not think a legalised trade is the answer.

    This is a very contentious issue with lots of assumptions and variables that we cannot control. The biggest issue is that we are currently failing at policing an illegal trade and we do not have the necessary resources, skills or commitment to control a more complicated legal trade. A legal trade WILL BE used to launder illegally sourced or poached animal parts AND we would never be able to control the market or be able to meet its demand-it may stimulate it further.

    Some may argue that the economics of such a trade would provide much needed funds for conservation, but it would only make the conservation bill larger and is not worth the risk with such a finite “product”, before even discussing the current corruption problems.

    There are other alternatives that we can explore. We need a zero tolerance on the trade in endangered wildlife.

    Annecoos Wiersema | Thursday, October 17, 2013

    Arguments in favor of legal trade are based on many assumptions and models that have not been proven empirically. The economic models of supply and demand that are relied on in these arguments do not take account of the fact that these markets are not perfectly competitive, but are run by a small group of traders. There is no evidence to suggest that these traders will withdraw from the market if a legal source of wildlife parts comes onto the market and reduces the price of those parts. Arguments that demand cannot be reduced are also contradicted by efforts in Asia that have reduced demand for shark fin soup. And arguments in favor of trade also don't account for the high cost of policing markets that have both legal and illegally sourced products. With this much uncertainty and the extremely high risk of allowing legal trade in rhino, tiger, and elephants parts, the international community should not take the risk of allowing even some legal trade. Instead, the international community should invest in the many other ways that we can address this threat to species, with clear bans on trade in these wildlife parts, enforcement, cooperation, demand reduction efforts, and more work with local communities who live with the animals.

    Keith Lindsay | Friday, October 18, 2013

    I found the discussion stimulating, but the trade proponents failed to provide a consistent and convincing case for taking the risky plunge into an opened traffic in endangered wildlife. Their central argument, that the trade ban on rhino horn has failed to stop the illegal market and may indeed be accelerating poaching, is flawed. The rapid rise in price is due to the squeeze in supply caused, not by the trade ban, but by the relentless elimination of rhino populations across the continent, led initially by the demand for dagger handles in Middle Eastern countries, and now by the acceleration in purchasing power of TCM consumers; the latter is due to rapidly rising GDP in Asian countries, a trend which is likely to continue for some time. The only significant populations of rhinos, once widespread in eastern and southern Africa, remain in pockets in Namibia and South Africa, and they are surely unable to supply all the rhino horn demanded by Asian consumers, whether now or in the future. In the meantime, all the other remnant rhino populations, in Africa and Asia, will driven out of existence. The only prospect for rhino survival is to stop the trade, through more rigourous enforcement of the ban, breakup of illegal trafficking networks and elimination of end-user demand through culturally appropriate outreach.

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