The 2013 Earthwatch Debate
A legal global trade in threatened species: Bad to the Bone?
Intellectual rigor and passionate beliefs made for a stimulating debate, as two teams considered the question: "Is it time to reconsider a legal global trade in tiger, elephant and rhino products?"
An audience of more than 600 packed out the Ondaatje Theatre at London’s Royal Geographical Society on Thursday, October 17, while more than 700 joined the informative and thought-provoking Debate via a live Webinar and on Twitter.
All speakers are representing their own views, and not necessarily those of their organization or affiliates. Earthwatch is a non-political charity, and any views represented are not necessarily ours.
Listen to the Earthwatch Debate podcast by clicking above.
Chaired by BBC Broadcaster and Journalist Martha Kearney, the speakers were assembled from academic, policy and conservation organizations worldwide, each bringing an intellectual angle informed by their separate personal backgrounds.
Dr. Duan Biggs began the debate, introducing the case for the motion. Duan is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions at the University of Queensland.
In an impassioned speech, Duan said that he grew up in South Africa’s Kruger Park which he described as the “center of the white rhino poaching crisis.”
Currently, he said, the money from poaching goes to criminals, but “With legal trade it could go to conservation. Legal trade can be structured in a way that protects conservation of species and creates socioeconomic benefits.”
Presenting the first argument against trade was Katarzyna Nowak, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Durham University (UK) and the University of the Free State, Qwaqwa (South Africa).
Katarzyna began by challenging Duan in regards to putting forward an argument that was rooted in rhetoric and assumptions. “Humans do not behave in the way dictated by economic models,” she said.
“We need strong action and commitment,” Katarzyna added, “not a lift in the ban.”
The debate then went into the second round. Putting forward the second case for a legal trade was Kirsten Conrad, a Singapore-based conservation policy analyst, who has been working in the conservation of wild cats in Asia since 1999.
“This topic gets to the nub of our failure to protect three key species,” she said, positing “if tiger numbers have fallen over the years from 40,000 to 3,200, can we really say that the ban has been a success?”
“A trade ban will fail when it runs counter to underlying cultural beliefs,” she argued, criticizing ‘cultural imperialism’ – and the belief of one culture that it can ‘educate’ another.
Countering Kirsten, and presenting the second argument against a legal trade, was Dr. Glyn Davies, Executive Director of Global Programmes at WWF-UK.
He pointed out that it’s unwise to bank on a regulated system if there are high risk elements – such as low tiger numbers. He warned us that we wouldn’t get a second chance “to redress mistakes.”
“We are dealing with criminal syndicates and black markets who want extinction to drive price higher,” he said.
Martha Kearney then opened up the debate to the floor inviting audience members in the lecture theater and over the webinar to ask questions to the panel.
One audience member asked “why some governments don’t educate their children about conservation”.
Glyn stressed that it’s important to consider how we educate people, and Katarzyna agreed, saying that “we need to filter messages through people’s value systems.”
Another audience member asked the anti-trade team, “If you’re not going to lift the ban and investigate trade, what are the alternatives?”
Mary Rice, the Executive Director of the Environmental Investigation Agency - and third member of this team - responded to this saying that the key reasons for failing bans were because they were not agreed or implemented. “We’re not using methodologies used for other crimes, such as drugs trafficking” she said, stating that if we did this we may be able to tackle the cartels.
After the Q&A, Martha invited the final speakers from each side to conclude their team’s arguments.
Arguing for the consideration of trade, independent conservation economist Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes said “we are not saying ‘resume trade immediately. We’re saying it’s more complex.”
He said that trade bans have little time for regional wants or needs and were a “confrontational approach. We can look to failing bans of the past... like prohibition and bans on drugs.”
Mary Rice then took the floor, saying that she was not convinced that the other team had adequately articulated how they would regulate trade.
“Bans have a cost,” she said, “but they are straightforward and unequivocal. They are easier to police.”
She reminded the panel that in the past, efforts at regulating trade in elephants had failed – so a ban had been implemented.
With all the speakers having stated their cases, Martha Kearney then asked the big question, is it time to reconsider trade? Raised hands confirmed that many audience members believed that it was a viable course of action, but the majority maintained that a legal trade was not acceptable. Several remained undecided. She also asked the audience whether anyone in the lecture theater had changed their mind on the issue – around 30 individuals had.
Earthwatch Executive Vice-President for Middle East and India, Nigel Winser, concluded the evening, saying that he was “proud of this quality of debate – and this level of civility.”
“We all argue that we need to find a solution,” he stressed. “Time is not on our side, and the enormity of the challenge means that this level of intellectual discussion must continue.”
Earthwatch bring you closer to wildlife, and the complex issues that surround conservation. Join us on one of our Expeditions worldwide, many of which investigate the species discussed tonight, including Thinking Like an Elephant in Thailand , Animals of Malawi in the Majete Wildlife Reserve, and Walking with African Wildlife.
All speakers represented their own views, not necessarily those of their organization or affiliates. Earthwatch is a non-political charity, and any views represented are not necessarily ours.
The Earthwatch RGS Events program is kindly sponsored by the Mitsubishi Corporation Fund for Europe and Africa.