The conservation-commerce conundrum

The US Fish and Wildlife Service has recently withdrawn the greater sage-grouse from the candidate species list for protection under US’ Endangered Species Act.  The rationale behind the delisting seems to be that over the last two years populations of the bird have recovered remarkably thanks to various conservation efforts, and the sage-grouse is not in any immediate danger of dying out.  Moreover, legal protection for the bird would have meant curtailing oil and gas drilling and several other commercial activities on sage-grouse land.  Some conservationists claim that commerce and politics have, ‘as usual’, doomed the grouse to extinction.  With about 80% of the bird’s habitat lost over the last century, populations of the sage-grouse could go below minimum viable levels in 30 years.  But the government claims that the decline in sage-grouse population has slowed down, thanks to the combined efforts of the government, industries, private landowners and many other people; a system of cooperation that would crumble if sage-grouse habitat is closed to commerce*.  Can commerce aid conservation?

The question is even more difficult to answer in cases such as the rhino, where commerce and conservation are directly at odds.  There’s a legal battle in South Africa, where rhino farmers are demanding that the ban on domestic trade of rhino horn in the country be lifted.  South Africa has about 19,700 rhinos, an article says; one of the two litigants owns 1000 rhinos – a quarter of the country’s rhinos that are privately property.  Legal trade will dilute the demand for illegal rhino horn, will create revenue and aid conservation, the rhino farmers argue.  Moreover, rhino horn is a ‘renewable resource’ which can be obtained without hurting the animals, they say.  Rhino farmers have been dehorning rhinos for years, like other farmers shear sheep for wool.  But legal trade will make it even more difficult to track down poached horn, and will reverse all that has been achieved by years of efforts to reduce the demand for rhino horn.  Coexisting streams of legal and illegal trade will eliminate rhinos even faster, the conservationists argue.  Can commerce and conservation ever coexist?

The question brought to my mind a story that I have heard many times during the Ravi Sankaran Memorial Lecture, a yearly feature of the Bangalore edition of the Student Conference on Conservation Science.  Indian conservationists fondly remember Ravi Sankaran’s efforts towards a sustainable solution to conserving the Andaman and Nicobar Islands’ edible-nest swiftlet**.  These cave dwelling birds make nests entirely from saliva. The nests are considered a delicacy, and over exploitation of the nests, a lack of concern for whether nests had eggs and fledglings or not and irresponsible harvesting had put the bird population in dire straits.  Ravi Sankaran developed a model for conserving the species, a key component of which was that local people would guard nests through the breeding season and harvest them when the birds left the nests; the nests are a ‘renewable resource’ after all.   Conservationists fought for reducing the legal protection for the species, since that limited the sale of the nests, and won.

But how does one replicate this model, and create more such win-win situations where conservation and commerce coexist? Are there lessons from the swiftlet for the rhino?  Are rhino horns comparable to swiftlet nests***? Can one compare the people of the Andamans to the game farmers of South Africa, or indeed the oil and gas companies in the US?

* From an article in the New York Times, and literature on the US Fish and Wildlife Service website.

** More about Ravi Sankaran’s work here, and here is an article by Manchi Shirish and Ravi Sankaran about their swiftlet work.

*** A kilogram of rhino horn fetches $65,000 in the black market, a National Geographic article says.  In comparison, about 6 years to a decade ago, a kilogram of edible nest cost about $300 in the Andamans.  Today, edible nests of the Thai swiftlet (if that is any comparison) can be bought online for anywhere between $600 and $5000.

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