Despite COVID-19, using wild species may still be the best way to save them

As the content of the post-2020 biodiversity framework is being developed, Dilys Roe discusses the role of sustainable use in reducing biodiversity loss and saving wild species, and some of the potential implications of COVID-19.

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1 April 2020

Dilys Roe is principal researcher and team leader (biodiversity) in IIED's Natural Resources research group, and chair of the IUCN Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group (SULi)

A saltwater crocodile

Saltwater crocodiles regularly kill people and livestock in Australia, but a scheme enabling people to earn money from farming them has helped to change local attitudes (Photo: Neerav Bhatt via FlickrCC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Before the sudden and dramatic disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, a consultative workshop on sustainable use of wild species was due to be held this week in Switzerland. The workshop outcomes were intended to inform the development of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework — seeking to stop the rapid loss of the world’s biodiversity – to be agreed later this year by parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

Although the workshop is no longer going ahead, it is timely to reflect on what sustainable use is and its role in reducing the loss of biodiversity and saving wild species, particularly in the context of COVID-19 and calls for a global ban on wildlife trade.

Isn’t sustainable use just another term for killing animals?

Sustainable use is one of the three key objectives of the CBD, alongside conservation and equitable benefit-sharing. That efforts to reduce the loss of wild species should include advocacy for their use is counter-intuitive for some people. Surely not using wild species would help save them? This is a key misperception: using wild species does not necessarily mean killing wild species.

Many critics of sustainable use equate it with lethal forms of animal use including hunting, fishing or ranching, and slaughter to produce skins and furs for luxury fashion. But sustainable use also involves plants and fungi. And it also involves many different practices – lethal and non-lethal.

It can be ’consumptive’ (where wild species or parts of wild species are removed from their natural environment – for example hunting, fishing, trapping, rubber tapping, nut collection) or ’non-consumptive’ (where wild species are used or experienced in their natural environment (such as bird-watching, wildlife photography, spiritual/cultural rituals and experiences).

Sustainable use can be carried out for commercial, recreational or subsistence purposes, and by governments, businesses or individuals. Indeed, wild species of animals, plants and fungi are used the world over. Their use underpins many local and national economies and supports the livelihoods and cultures of millions if not billions of people.

Broader benefits

Even when sustainable use does entail lethal practices, it can still contribute significantly to conservation. Key to any form of sustainable use is that it generates benefits (whether financial, cultural, nutritional or other) for people who live with, and are custodians of, wild species. These benefits encourage people to continue conserving wild species (including those that pose a danger to their livelihoods) and, crucially, the habitats in which they live.

So while some individual animals may be killed, there is a wider benefit to the overall population of the target species, to habitat, and to other species that share the same habitat.

Take the case of saltwater crocodiles in the Northern Territory of Australia (PDF), which between 1946 and 1971 were – entirely legally – nearly eradicated due to unsustainable exploitation. At the start of the 1970s only 3,000 of a natural population of 100,000 remained. In 1971 a protection programme was introduced and numbers recovered to around 30,000 by 1980.

But, as the crocodiles grew in size and in number, local people began to perceive them as dangerous pests: they wanted them killed not protected.

In response, a new scheme sought to make crocodiles valuable to local people. It encouraged them to sell eggs found on their land to newly-created crocodile farms for rearing and subsequent leather production. Today, these local people are earning over US$500,000 a year from the programme. And the crocodiles – now viewed as an asset to conserve – have increased in numbers to their original population size of 100,000.

Many other sustainable use schemes have helped conserve species and habitat and support the livelihoods of local people.

But these programmes could be undermined if blanket bans on wildlife trade are introduced rather than targeting illegal, unregulated or unsafe practices. A recent article on snake farming, for example, highlights that such bans could do more harm than good. The same applies to recent calls for bans on other forms of wildlife use, including recreational hunting and production of exotic leather and fur.

In the case of COVID19, while immediate actions must obviously be taken to protect human health and safety, a singular focus on curtailing wildlife use risks overlooking the major threat to wildlife – and the major source of emerging infectious diseases – habitat destruction. Wild lands are in competition with other forms of land use, and maximising the value that local people get from them is key to ensuring their protection.

Rather than stopping use we need systems that support sustainability

The challenge for sustainable use is not so much use in itself, but how to ensure sustainability. The growth in human populations, economic activity and global trade in the last 50 years makes this a huge challenge.

The CBD defines sustainable use as “the use of components of biological diversity in a way and at a rate that does not lead to the long-term decline of biological diversity, thereby maintaining its potential to meet the needs and aspirations of present and future generations”.

Use of wild species does not automatically meet this definition and in many cases has clearly not been sustainable. In the marine realm, for example, over-exploitation is the main direct driver of biodiversity loss. In many cases, unsustainable use is illegal and unregulated. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) reports that illegal, unreported or unregulated fishing accounts for one third of the world’s catch.

Similarly, illegal wildlife trade is a well-documented threat to many species, and now unregulated wildlife markets have demonstrated their threat to human health. The COVID-19 outbreak could act as a catalyst for enhanced action against such uses.

COVID-19 also highlights the limitations of one particular form of sustainable use – wildlife tourism. Tourism has often been heralded as a panacea for conservation and for local peoples’ livelihoods. Its almost overnight curtailment will certainly wreak havoc on the industry and highlights the need for a new financial model for conservation.

Such models are, however, in short supply, as a recent analysis we conducted for the Luc Hoffmann Institute shows (PDF). At this turbulent time, we must keep open as many options as possible, including those based on sustainable use.

One key requirement for determining which forms of wildlife use are, or could be, sustainable is to ensure there is sound knowledge of the species’ biology (some species are much more susceptible to over-exploitation than others) – and its ecological function (remembering use of one species also affects the survival of others).

Just as important, however, is ensuring appropriate and effective governance structures and systems are in place at all levels. Given that the majority of the world’s wild species exist in landscapes and seascapes also occupied by indigenous people and local communities, a fundamental characteristic of effective governance is to ensure they have clear and secure rights to sustainably manage and benefit from those species (and prevent their over-exploitation by others).

Protection and use don’t have to be trade-offs

COVID-19 is renewing global public, policy and political attention on wildlife use and conservation. While on the one hand this is resulting in calls for bans, on the other hand it provides an unprecedented opportunity to develop and implement conservation programmes and approaches that enhance good practices and promote resilient livelihoods based on regulated and sustainable use of natural resources.

As discussions continue on the structure and content of the post-2020 framework, it is important to remember that sustainable use and wildlife protection can be two sides of the same coin, not either/or choices. As the CBD itself notes: “sustainable use is one of the strongest assurances of the protection of biological resources”.

COVID-19 has highlighted the catastrophic impacts of illegal and unregulated wildlife trade and consumption. But it should not be used as a false argument to denounce wildlife use more broadly, and undermine this pillar of the CBD.

We need to ramp up efforts to reduce unsafe, illegal and unsustainable use. But we also need to ensure that people living with and alongside wildlife are empowered to use it and benefit from it in ways that incentivise the long-term conservation of species and habitat, and support their livelihoods.

About the author

Dilys Roe (dilys.roe@iied.org) is principal researcher and team leader (biodiversity) in IIED's Natural Resources research group. She is also chair of the IUCN Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group (SULi), hosted by IIED.

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