Curbing the illegal wildlife trade through “wildlife farming”

Jacob Phelps and Amy Collis, Lancaster University

Overexploitation is the second greatest threat to global biodiversity, after habitat loss. One of the drivers of overexploitation is the illegal wildlife trade, including for meat, as exotic pets, leather, curios and for use in traditional medicines.

Wild baby Sunbear Helarctos malayanus illegally caught in Lao PDR. Photo: J. Phelps

An international convention called CITES—the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna—seeks to minimize the impact of the international trade on species survival, by encouraging countries to co-operate in the monitoring and regulation of imports and exports of species that are particularly vulnerable and threatened by trade.

However, an illegal market for wildlife products operates outside of the CITES convention. Valued at between $7-$30 billion per year, wildlife trafficking is receiving increased scientific and media attention, and it is now considered a “global crisis”.

Our research explores the wide range of responses that policy makers might take to protect biodiversity from illegal trade, and to promote the more sustainable use of natural resources. For example, we are currently exploring the concept of “wildlife farming”. This approach seeks to create a sustainable supply of wildlife products, by raising animals under captive conditions. Humans already practice wildlife farming, such as with salmon for food and crocodiles for the leather trade.   However, the use of wildlife farming for species such as rhinoceros and tigers has proved much more contentious.

Orchid, Eria ornate, illegal harvested from the wild for the ornamental plant trade.

In theory, wildlife farming helps meet consumer demand for wildlife products, provides a source of revenue to the farmers, and simultaneously reduces the pressure on wild populations. Proponents argue this may also discourage poaching and illegal trade (i.e. because there is a sufficient amount available legally). However, there has been little research into whether or not “wildlife farming” actually provides these conservation benefits, and if so, under what conditions. This is what our research is currently exploring.

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