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Why calling for the total ban of wildlife trade does not make sense to Zimbabwean communities: Its illegal Wildlife Trade that we need to deal with

Compiled by Nobuhle T Mabhikwa-Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association


Wildlife trade has been a topical issue in the past, but this time around what makes it more special is the COVID-19 pandemic. Scientists suspect that the virus has its origins in snakes, bats and pangolins, the latter of which is an endangered wildlife species[1]. Although the origins of the disease are currently unproven, there are strong indications of a wild animal source and a direct link to wildlife trade in China. Specifically, a significant proportion of early cases in China involved people who had worked at or visited a market in Wuhan where wild animals were on sale and initial research results pointed to a possible transmission pathway from bats via pangolins to people[2].  Researchers investigating the origin of the deadly coronavirus outbreak in China have said that the endangered animal may be the link that facilitated the spread of the illness, officially known as COVID-19, to humans.

At the time of writing this article, with the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects being felt worldwide, a wide range of organisations and public voices are calling for strong permanent prohibitions on wild animal trade to reduce risks to human health. Shut down wildlife trade– is a popular slogan of the moment. As a precautionary response, with some adaptation (such as clarity that trade in wild plants and maybe marine fisheries species are excluded) there is no denying that this is an understandable reaction to current circumstances but is it the right reaction.  Is it the trade of wildlife that should be banned or it is the Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) that we should be addressing?  The World Animal Protection, an animal welfare agency, and other animal activist have been pushing for a permanent ban on all wildlife trade as the only long-term solution to prevent major epidemics from happening again[3][4][5].

 However, is the total ban of wildlife trade that we should be calling for or this is a chance to address IWT. Wildlife conservation goes beyond animal population control but should also factor in the co-existence of humans with animals. We should take care of nature so that is takes care of us. Regulating markets and making informed choices on what to buy and what to sell is what we must be doing. Wildlife trade is not the problem if  right channels are followed. Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) presents particular risks in this context, because it involves movement of unregulated  individual animals  away from their natural range while many uninformed choices are being made on what to sell and buy.  IWT is of particular global concern  as it has become the most profitable and well organised criminal activity and threatens the existence of many wildlife species.  Pangolins are increasingly victims of illegal wildlife crime—mainly in Asia and Africa for their meat and scales[6]. The International Union for Conservation of Nature says they are the most illegally traded mammal in the world6. The pangolin is greatly sought after for its various body parts, largely driven by demand from China. The mammal has been driven to the edge of extinction in Asia, with two Asian species listed as Critically Endangered in the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. With declining Asian pangolin populations, a shift in trade from Asian to African pangolin species has been suggested.

In Zimbabwe the Pangolin is a specially protected species by the Parks and Wildlife Act. However poaching syndicates have been developed and are well financed and somehow the pangolin ends up on the Asian market. Zimbabwe is endowed with wildlife resources. These resources form the backbone of livelihoods for rural communities residing in agro-ecologically low potential areas. Zimbabwean rural communities derive a large part of their cash income from fishing, their share of the proceeds from Government elephant culling programmes, the lease of hunting concessions to Safari Operators, and the sale of trophies to these operators. With the call of the ban of wildlife trade how are communities in developing countries that rely on wildlife generated revenue going to cope?

In these following paragraphs we look at how communities have benefited from wildlife trade and why the total ban of wildlife trade does not make sense for Zimbabwe.

Humans are the single most influential species because of their ability to alter the natural environment. Between the excess of greenhouse gases produced through livestock production and industry, deforestation and the illegal wildlife trade, humans have accelerated the standard rate of species extinction to be about 1,000 times faster than normal. While many are familiar with the impact that deforestation and environmental pollution has on the world’s species, most people overlook the massive role that the illegal wildlife trade plays in species extinction.

Many developing countries have become dependent on wildlife as a source of livelihood through safari hunting, game cropping, tourism and live animal sales. Safari hunting generates substantial foreign exchange and provides direct employment for local populations. It also contributes to the development of secondary industries, such as skin and hide processing and ivory carving.  Several communities are known to have had infrastructural development such as construction of schools owing to the generation of income from wildlife related activities such as trade and hunting.  In Zimbabwe, communities have benefited from wildlife generated revenue in so many ways as highlighted below;  

Financially, Generation of foreign currency

Between 1989 and 2001*, RDCs earned a total of US$ 20.29 million from wildlife-based activities (Table 1). Of this total, 89 per cent came from leases with safari hunting operators, about 6 per cent from the sale of hides and ivory, with the balance from tourism (mostly photographic safaris: just over 2 per cent) and other miscellaneous activities. Of the revenue earned from safari hunting, at least 60 per cent is attributable to hunting elephant[7].

  Safari hunting Tourism Sale of hides and ivory Other Total
Income by Activity (US Million) 18.15  0.46 1.17 0.51 20.29
Percentage of income by Activity 89.5 2.3 5.7 2.5 100

Table 1Money Earned by RDC from wildlife trade-based activities from 1989-2001

Infrastructural development

Through the Communal Areas Management Program for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE). Communities have benefitted in the form of infrastructure development where funds generated from wildlife have been used to build school, boreholes and clinics. However, in some areas, the projects are spread too thinly to meet the needs of a growing population. Other communities have drilled boreholes, constructed seasonal roads, erected fences to keep themselves away from dangerous wildlife species. Children benefit from reduced walking distances through the construction of schools, procurement of learning materials, and payment of school fees from CAMPFIRE proceeds. Communities also benefit from meat in excess of the requirements of safari hunting operations, and from problem animal control[8]. In a study conducted it was shown that wildlife generated revenue gave communities better social services.  Through the (CAMPFIRE ), investment in building and maintaining schools generally meant that communities were more likely to have a primary school within 5km of their homes or be within 10km of a high school.  This, together with subsidised school fees, explains why school attendance in these areas goes up by 12 per cent, compared to those communities that are not part of the CAMPFIRE programme[9]

Other financial benefits that have been derived from wildlife trade include employment, financial security and food. Communities already bear the shocks and cost that comes with wildlife interaction through loss of lives, livestock and crops as a result of human and wildlife conflict .In the Zimbabwean context to call for a total ban of wildlife trade when the carrying capacity for elephant has been more than what  Zimbabwe can accommodate is not sustainable and detrimental to the species[10][11]. Zimbabwe currently has  85 000 elephants but the country can only cope with 55 000. The elephant population increase  has resulted in an increase in human and wildlife conflict. The defenceless communities are left at the mercy of wild animal. There is no better way of decongesting and managing the population than the transparent trading to other countries that have depleted populations of the majestic animal. In return the communities can also benefit from the fund generated from the trade. Communities tend to protect the wildlife when they get benefits from the proceeds while calling for the total the ban will only encourage the communities to kill the animals. In Zimbabwe, individual elephants were sold for prices ranging from $13,500 to $41,500, depending on their age[12]. By banning the trade of wildlife, we are robbing the communities in Zimbabwe of the revenue and the benefits that come with the trade in wildlife and wildlife products.

Combating IWT is an important step towards allowing legitimate business and communities to develop livelihoods that incentivize stewardship and connect people to conservation. Therefore, the discussion should be centred around combating IWT and not the total ban of wildlife. The blanket ban of wildlife trade is a hasty decision as it can possibly be detrimental to the animals themselves and the host communities. Overpopulation of wildlife species can lead to habitat destruction and the death of animals as seen in Zimbabwe when 100 elephants are reported to have died following starvation in 201910.

So to ban or not to ban Illegal wildlife trade is what we should be dealing with. The ignorant illegal buying and selling of wildlife is the problem and not the trade.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/28/how-did-the-coronavirus-start-where-did-it-come-from-how-did-it-spread-humans-was-it-really-bats-pangolins-wuhan-animal-market

[2] https://www.traffic.org/publications/reports/wildlife-trade-covid-19-and-zoonotic-disease-risks-shaping-the-response

[3] https://www.newvision.co.ug/new_vision/news/1517025/covid-19-activists-total-ban-wildlife-trade

[4] https://www.zbcnews.co.zw/western-animal-rights-activists-call-for-total-ban-in-wildlife-trade-condemned/.

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/jan/24/calls-for-global-ban-wild-animal-markets-amid-coronavirus-outbreak

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/28/how-did-the-coronavirus-start-where-did-it-come-from-how-did-it-spread-humans-was-it-really-bats-pangolins-wuhan-animal-market

[7] https://www.cbd.int/financial/pes/zimbabwe-pescampfire.pdf

* Data for the period 2007-8 is not available due hyper-inflation. Data for 2002-6 is distorted by exchange rate fluctuations at the time

[8] www.campfire.org

[9] https://efdinitiative.org/news/archive/pros-and-cons-community-benefits-ecotourism-around-zimbabwe-parks

[10] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/elephants-dead-in-zimbabwe-southern-africa-severe-drought-11-06-2019/

[11] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-50130740

[12] https://www.arabianbusiness.com/420063-how-much-does-an-elephant-cost-zimbabwean-minister-reveals-all

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