Wildlife Conservation – Tackling a ‘Wicked’ Problem

An article by Ian Kilbride

We on Earth lose between 200-2,000 species every year. Just stop, pause and think about it. That equates to up to five species lost to us every single day. Some species are lost through natural attrition and extinction, but scientists believe we have now entered the sixth extinction crisis as the rate of extinction we are witnessing today is between 1,000 to 10,000 times faster than the historical natural rate. This is not merely a concern for conservationists, but rather for the whole of humanity given how integrated our very existence is with a global ecosystem. Just as we are using 25% more of the earth’s resources than can be sustained at current population growth levels, our rapaciousness is also stripping multiple species of their natural habitat, thus further denuding the planet. One unforeseen consequence of this is the closer and more frequent encounters between indigenous communities and wildlife frontiers that experts believe may have given rise to the spread of the Ebola virus in Africa and other coronaviruses such as Sars and Covid-19 in Asia.

The loss of biodiversity constitutes what some term a ‘wicked’ problem. This is less a value judgment, but rather denotes a problem that is so complex that it defies either simple definition and less still a simple policy solution and for which time is running out. Wicked problems also have an internal contradiction in that humans tend to exacerbate them, while simultaneously attempting to solve them. The overarching policy problem for ‘wicked’ problems is that there is no global authority with the mandate or power to solve them, rather they require a joined-up, whole of humankind effort. The best example of a super wicked problem is that of climate change, which of course, impacts profoundly on biodiversity loss.

But there is one driver of biodiversity loss that can and must be tackled if we are to avoid the catastrophe of the sixth wave of extinction and that is the illicit trade in wildlife and poaching. While complex, damaging and hugely problematic, the illicit trade in wildlife is not a wicked problem in the policy sense, it can be tackled and solved with the right policies, funding and political will. Those who benefit from it may be morally wicked, but it is a challenge that can be addressed by the design development, adoption and application of good policy and practice.

What is the nature and extent of the problem?

Current measures to tackle the illicit trade fail on a number of grounds. Firstly, the global demand for the consumption of rhino horn, ivory or threatened species such as pangolins has not been effectively addressed by Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) at the international level and less still by national governments, particularly those in Asia and the Middle East. While social behaviour is difficult to regulate, product consumption is not. If the world can agree on banning harmful or even social drugs such as cocaine, why can it not agree on banning the ‘consumption’ of rhino horn? After all, this commodity has no, zero, medicinal, pharmacological, elixir or aphrodisiac properties – none! And yet, African rhino horn can trade for as much as US$20,000 (R360,000) per kilogramme. To place this in perspective, at the time of writing, gold is currently trading at US$63,000 per kilogramme. The average weight of white rhino horn is some 4kg, yielding a value to illicit traders of US$80,000 or R1,4 million. A small ivory tusk can sell for over US2,000 on the black market. To place the illegal trade in pangolins into perspective, Nigerian customs seized US$900 million worth of the endangered species. Favoured by the Chinese in particular, Pangolins are the most trafficked mammal globally and face the real threat of extinction.

As the World Wildlife Fund laments,“Corruption, toothless laws, weak judicial systems and light sentences allow criminal networks to keep plundering wildlife with little regard to consequences. These factors make illegal wildlife trade a low-risk business with high returns. The poachers—often poor locals—are the usually the only ones caught, leaving the real masterminds and their network safe and operational with the ability to strike again”.

Given South Africa housing 40% of black rhino and 80% of the world’s white rhino, we have a unique endowment and responsibility. The picture is mixed. The latest national statistics indicate a 40% drop in the number of rhinos poached in the Kruger National Park, but still recording a loss of 124 animals. However, poaching is not only highly lucrative, but also conducted on an industrial scale, meaning it is highly mobile and agile. Under pressure from the authorities in the Kruger, the preponderance of rhino poaching has now shifted to KwaZulu-Natal, which recorded a loss of 244 animals in 2022. The loss of 368 rhino is a welcome improvement on the 2021 figure of 451, but still means one of our iconic species is being killed each day of the year. Referring back to the value of rhino horn, the loss of 368 animals translates into a windfall of over half a billion Rands to the international criminal networks who perpetrate this wicked practice.

In the absence of effective policies to curb the demand and market for illicit wildlife and the absence of effective protection and socio-economic policies to halt the supply of wildlife to feed this market, what is to be done? Given the ‘wicked’ nature of the problem South Africa cannot fix this evil on its own, particularly given the deeply embedded nature the networks of corruption are between diplomats, politicians, government officials, some rangers and local community poachers themselves. In purely economic terms, it is simply not feasible to financially incentivise local communities to tackle the problem themselves either. Rather, it requires a herculean global effort to make a meaningful difference, and this may still be many years I not a generation away.

This is why the work of organisations such as Care for Wild, recently featured in the Big Issue magazine (https://www.bigissue.org.za/magazine/issues/317-2/) is so vital to keep our iconic species from extinction until we as humankind wake up to the threat we are facing and do something about it. It is also one of the key motivations for the Spirit Wildlife Foundation (https://spiritf.org/spirit-wildlife-foundation/) to being so committed to supporting the survival of Africa’s iconic wildlife.