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What we know about legal trade in exotic and endangered species

Updated: Jan 26, 2021

It is easy to talk and discuss topics such as the sustainable use of wildlife, but in reality, to be able to address it, we must put on good glasses and look at the concrete evidence about the exploitation of wildlife. This means examining the data or processes that are in place to protect biodiversity from exploitation and not individual species.

However, with over 35,500 species listed in CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Wild Flora and Fauna), the dataset is large enough to draw general conclusions. The focus of this report is on the sustainable use of wildlife therefore animals, not plants or wider biodiversity, but similar arguments could be used. Furthermore, we consider only the use of consumption, which we define as removing animals from their habitat or breeding in captivity for commercial purposes. Unconsumed use –which includes tourism, for example– is not considered in this report.

Plenty of definitions and interpretations have been given to the concept of "sustainable use", but Addis Ababa manages to give us a guideline: The Addis Ababa Principles for the Sustainable Use of Biodiversity are based on:

  • the assumption that it is possible to use biodiversity in a way where ecological processes, species, and genetic variability remain above the thresholds necessary for long-term viability;

  • all resource managers and users are responsible for ensuring that such use does not exceed these capabilities;

  • "sustainable use" is possible from ensuring long-term profitability. It is indeed possible to maximize everything in one concept: ecological sustainability.

It is important to consider that when it comes to unsustainable use, the main causes are the loss and destruction of habitat, agricultural practices, and legal over-exploitation by companies.

"We want to inform consumers about animal-derived materials and dispel the urban myths and legends about vegan fashion that are spread by ourselves. - proclaimed animal rights groups" and adds later "We are closely monitoring regulatory trends in Ottawa, Washington, Brussels, Geneva, and other regulatory hotspots and we inform and activate consumers to fight for the continuation of choice,” said the CCC, Clean Clothes Campaign

Finally, it is worth mentioning that according to the ecological footprint metric, we are using far more renewable ecological resources than what is sustainable: we are using the equivalent of 1.75 Earths. This means that it now takes the Earth one year and eight months to regenerate what we use in one year. The fundamental conclusion does not change: sustainable use "is just a useful story to prevent us from questioning the reality of unsustainable overexploitation of wildlife.

If we talk about breeding in this context, it’s important as it involves the collection of eggs or juveniles from the natural environment (examples are turtles, pythons, crocodiles). The interesting question concerning wildlife breeding is not whether the process itself is sustainable, but whether the activity results in benefits for wild populations and better benefits for local communities, or other social justice outcomes.

Furthermore, it is correct to specify that crocodile farming has been endlessly presented by the IUCN and other promoters of sustainable use, precisely because there have been demonstrable benefits for wild populations (protected by Australian law) and also benefits for the communities, especially indigenous peoples.

There are no other examples of the conservation and social justice benefits of wildlife farming.

Ethical and animal welfare considerations

Animal welfare issues are common in all captive breeding operations, be it lion breeding in South Africa, fur farms around the world, or bear bile farming in China and Southeast Asia. But let's start talking about fur: at least since the 80s, we all know that real fur is unusual or at least criticizable. Anyone who dares to wear a real mink coat must prepare for various kinds of hostility, and rightly so! Certainly, the differences between real and fake fur are now difficult to distinguish but the textile labels should clarify the doubts. However, it seems to be a fact that although many consumers are opposed to fur, they don't necessarily behave in this hostile way.

Gruesome tales of animal cruelty have caused so much public pressure that numerous fashion companies have not only loudly banned the use of exotic furs and skins, but also mohair, angora, and silk. And that's not all: to the extent that the vegan lifestyle has become the new mainstream, the accusations of environmentalists who support animal welfare in principle, but not the use of synthetic materials, are increasing.

What is sold as vegan "leather" is often nothing more than polyester. In other words, a plastic fiber that is first of all made from crude oil and therefore is not renewable. Secondly, it is not biodegradable and therefore dirties our planet and reaches the food chain in the form of microplastics.

The common argument that vegan fashion is based on plastics and the environment is as superficial as the general allegation by vegans that animal products come from cruel animal farming practices. What is irritating, then, is that ethical and sustainable arguments are being confused and exploited. Those who decide not to use products of animal origin usually do so for ethical reasons.

Likewise, the extent of unethical practices is quite astounding in many cases. For example, animals such as mice and rats are raised en masse for medical research. In 2017, only 2.8 million of the 6.7 million animals raised in Germany were used, the remaining 3.9 million were "destroyed without use". Across the EU in 2017, 12.6 million animals raised for laboratory experiments were killed without being used.

The benefits to wild populations can only occur if the wild populations of these animals are protected in their natural habitats, which for most species exploited in this way is simply not the case. These are not animals bred to be released into the wild, they are bred to be slaughtered. There may also be benefits to wild populations if agriculture displaces hunting and gathering of wild populations, but again, with few exceptions, this is not the case.

If concerns about ecological sustainability and social justice were on par with economic considerations, we would also have done much more to address illegal trade where estimates vary greatly. The UNEP has estimated that illegal trade is growing 2-3 times faster than the global economy.

Given the huge scale of illegal trade and its staggering rate of growth, why is so little being done to eliminate it? From here we take into consideration some crucial considerations, to understand this lack of action:

  1. The United Nations system of national accounts requires illegal activities to be included in GDP calculations;

  2. The illegal trade in wild plants and animals is seen as a low-risk crime for the maintenance of social order;

  3. Illegal trade in wild flora and fauna is not recognized as a transnational crime;

  4. Efforts are being made to combat anti-poaching measures and not on financial flows or demand reduction.

So points 1 and 2 give illegal wildlife trafficking an implicit, but not openly recognized “status without disadvantage.” This contrasts with the drug and arms trade which is believed to have serious repercussions on a government's ability to maintain “social order.” This approach is not only used for the illegal wildlife trade, governments use the same reasoning to largely ignore white-collar crime.

Another relevant dimension to take into consideration of sustainable use is social justice, which is in line with the definition of sustainable use, which is "the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to satisfy their own needs". The concept was later expanded to include the notion of "community benefits" such as poverty reduction and alternative livelihoods.

But when we talk about future generations, compared with our current needs, do we know and understand what they are? The answer is uncertain, as we try to imagine it. We are mainly attached to technological progress and therefore we assume that subsequent generations have a greater capacity to deal with the degradation of biodiversity. Another truth is that our brains unconsciously drastically ignore the future...

If we were to take our inherent flawed reasoning about the future seriously, sustainable use would entail extensive protections against the "default" behavior of humans and economic agents.

We pay attention to the loss of populations and species only AFTER it is already too late to save them, lamenting its end and promising to do better next time. Private property rights, economic growth, and free trade are at the top of any consideration of the commons and the need to preserve biodiversity for the future.

So it's okay to promise, but what about if we really start taking action?

Also, read my book, From Trash To Runway, which discusses consumption habits in the fashion world, how the business of cheap clothing and fast fashion has grown in recent years, and why; as well as the negative implications related to clothes donations and other important statistics in reference to the fashion industry. Moreover, the great news is the collaboration with Forest Nation: for every book sold, a tree will be planted in Haiti, besides the 500 trees the author has just planted.

A way to contribute to the well-being of society and the environment.


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