Sustainable, legal and equitable wildlife trade can be a powerful nature-based solution for meeting the twin challenges of enhancing rural livelihoods and conserving biological diversity. At best, wildlife trade can link consumers in the more developed parts of the planet with rural indigenous and local communities for which natural resources constitute their main wealth. It can support the survival of traditional knowledge and culture, return equitable benefits from nature conservation to local communities, and help finance basic needs, such as healthcare and education. For communities empowered by effective and equitable governance systems, the benefits derived from trading wildlife products can catalyse community investments in nature conservation, law enforcement and stewardship of wildlife. Wildlife trade can enhance the way societies and communities value nature, tipping the balance in favour of protecting it and against converting it for ‘economically productive’ uses.
On the other hand, trading wild species and their products internationally can pose serious threats. The ever-escalating prices of wildlife products in international markets can drive a vicious vortex of illicit harvesting and trafficking, species decline, and the impoverishment both of ecosystems and of local livelihoods. Poor governance and weak stewardship rights of indigenous peoples and communities can undermine local support for conservation and render ineffective attempts to counter increasingly organized and well-armed poaching. Efforts to tighten enforcement can, in turn, drive prices up and heighten demand. Currently, elephants, rhinos, tigers, pangolins, several valuable timber species and a host of lower-profile species of plants and animals face serious threats due to uncontrolled trafficking.
Given this complex backdrop, the global community must seek solutions that protect and conserve nature while respecting human needs. We must understand where and how to support legal and sustainable wildlife trade, and where trade should be simply closed down. Wildlife trade interventions cannot be based on conservation biology, on the analysis of markets, or on meeting human needs alone. As for so many of today’s global problems of sustainability, it is necessary to draw together diverse sources of expertise both to understand the problem and to craft solutions.