One of the main arguments used by animal welfare and conservation NGOs against legal markets for wildlife products like ivory and rhino horn is the markets “stimulate” demand. For example, NGOs have argued that the one off ivory sale stimulated demand in China and explains today’s poaching crisis. However, there is no statistical evidence proving that is the case. Indeed recent research by Gao Yufang argues that ivory demand is due to five different cultural factors including appreciation of aesthetics, cultural and religious values. these values are not formed by bureaucrats in an international meeting, but rather through cultural, religious and economic development over time.
The competing argument used by advocates of trade is that the legal trade in wildlife can be used to displace the illegal trade. This is not a new competition of ideas.
The IUCN Crocodile Specialist Group in 1976 reported on how crocodile farmers were seeking to replace wild sourced hides with captive bred stock despite conservationist’s fears that farmed hided would “stimulate but fail to satisfy increased demands for crocodilian products” (IUCN SSC Crocodile Specialist Group Proceedings of the 3rd Working Meeting, Gland, Switzerland 1976).
Almost 40 years on, the crocodilian industry, according to John Hutton and Grahame Webb writing in The Trade in Wildlife, has demonstrated that ranching crocs for the legal market can be both an economic and conservation success. The “illegal trade, which flourished before CITES encouraged legal trade, has been all but eradicated”.
Writing in 2003, the authors dismiss this competition of hypotheses about whether legal trade “stimulates demand” or not as a “sterile debate” from which we must move on. The “main challenge now must be to establish under exactly what conditions legal trade displaces illegal trade so that wildlife trade systems can be better designed and managed in the future”.
Indeed the debate does seem sterile and a more intellectually interesting and honest approach is to understand further what these conditions where legal trade can displace illegal trade are. We know they revolve around strong property rights, good governance, the biological characteristics of species and so on, but more empirical work is needed.