The harvest of wild terrestrial and aquatic animals each year injects more than $400 billion dollars into the world economy. That harvest provides 15% of the planet’s human population with a livelihood. It’s also the primary source of animal protein for more than a billion of our species. It’s also led to piracy, slavery, and terrorism.

The over-harvest of wild animals, both from land and sea, has created a market defined by low supply and high demand. And that, according to UC Berkeley environmental scientist Justin S. Brashares and colleagues, has led to the proliferation of organized crime in some of the poorest parts of the world. Over-hunting and over-fishing have, at least in part, created conditions where human trafficking and terrorism can thrive.

The reason this is the case comes down to simple economics. “Wildlife declines often necessitate increased labor to maintain yields,” argues Brashares in this week’s issue of Science Magazine. To acquire increasingly scarce resources without the a simultaneous increase in costs, “harvesters of wildlife resort to acquiring trafficked adults and children…A vicious cycle ensues, as resource depletion drives harvesters to increase their use of forced labor to stay competitive.”

When it comes to fishing, for example, fishermen have to travel farther out to sea, stay longer, and fish deeper just to get the kind of piscine bounty that their grandfathers could get far more easily. Rather than paying workers for the extra days and hours required, many have turned to slavery. Thai fishing operators are increasingly purchasing Burmese, Cambodian, and Thai men. They are forced to remain at sea for years without pay, often working for 18 or 20 hours at a time. “Starvation, physical abuse, and murder are common on these vessels,” write the researchers.

Similar trends apply to terrestrial wildlife. Some communities have, for generations, found their food from within nearby forests, but are now increasingly having to travel farther and longer to get the same amount of food. Other communities that once relied on fish are now turning to increasingly scarce terrestrial fauna in the face of collapsing fisheries. And hunters too are turning to exploitative labor practices to do it.

The trade in luxury goods, like elephant ivory and rhino horn, also suffering from high demand and reduced supply, puts poachers into a market much like the in the drug trade. Ivory sells for $3,000 per kilogram, and rhino horn can sell for $60,000 to $100,000 per kilogram. Because it is so profitable, the trade in such products has attracted the attentions of terrorist groups like the Janjaweed, Lord’s Resistance Army, al-Shabab, and Boko Haram. The slaughter of elephants and rhinos is being used to fund organized terrorism.

Finally, violence erupts when governments are incapable or disinterested in enforcing laws against wildlife crime. As a result, locals who do value their wildlife wind up resorting to violence themselves. In a sense, that is in part how piracy began off the coast of Somalia. Brashares explains, the Somalian government became incapable of defending their exclusive economic zone for fishing. That meant that foreign fishing vessels began to fish their waters. Somali fishers, in retaliation, began to seize the invaders and demand cash ransoms. Before long, organized cartels began to take advantage of the situation. “Dozens of boats are now ransomed annually by well-armed pirates (many supported by foreign cartels), who long ago traded nets for heavy weaponry. Pirates have justified their actions as necessary to protect their sovereignty over offshore fishing grounds.”

Taken together, the researchers argue that efforts to combat wildlife crime – such as President Obama’s recent appointment of an interagency task force on wildlife trafficking – can only be effective if they take into account the deeper, more pervasive economic and social factors that give rise to wildlife trafficking. Ecology and conservation biology must be combined with economics, international relations, and public health concerns.

Real change, they say, will only be possible when organizations and governments working on social conflict recognize wildlife decline as an underlying factor, and when conservation initiatives move past “superficial reactions to elephant and rhino poaching and consider the complicated fate of the billions of people who rely on our planet’s rapidly disappearing wildlife for food and income.” – Jason G. Goldman | 25 July 2014

Source: J.S. Brashares, B. Abrahms, K.J. Fiorella, C.E. Hojnowski, R.M. Marsh, T.A. Nuñez, K. Seto, L. Withey, (2014). Wildlife decline and social conflict. Science.


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