Q&A: A Conservationist Exposes the Danger to Wildlife from Hunting

Wildlife biologist John Robinson originally believed that local people could make money harvesting wild animals -- without making a serious dent in wildlife populations. But as a scientist at the University of Florida, he began to study the issue of hunting, and he discovered that his initial assumptions were all wrong: In most parts of the tropics, hunting and trapping are the most significant threat to wildlife. Now at the Wildlife Conservation Society, Robinson is in the vanguard of a new conservation effort aimed at limiting the slaughter of wild game. He recently spoke with John Carey, Business Week's Washington-based science correspondent, about wildlife preservation.

Q: Is the decimation of wildlife from hunting a new problem? And where is it occurring?
A: I think that people in tropical forests have hunted game forever. For the most part, that hunting has been more or less sustainable. But now, there are a number of things which are causing that system to begin to break down.

What we basically have, in good bits of Asia -- Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, the whole of the southeast Asian mainland with the possible exception of Burma, and a good bit of Indonesia -- is animal populations that have been hunted out -- extirpated -- within the last 30 years.

The situation is rapidly deteriorating in the rest of Asia and Borneo and the other islands in Indonesia. And what we are seeing in Africa is that the bushmeat trade has just exploded. In Latin America, the situation is the least advanced. There is a significant commercial trade in wild game, but the forest itself is still somewhat inaccessible.

Q: How did you and others come to recognize that the hunting of wild game is a conservation problem?
A: There were a number of us at the University of Florida in the early 1980s. Kent Redford [now also at WCS] and I began a collaboration where we pulled together everything that was known about hunting issues.

I was operating on the assumption that wildlife populations were productive and if managed well, could be conserved, despite hunting. Kent and I began to develop the groundwork to see what was known about wildlife densities and production rates. That's when we realized that all our assumptions were totally erroneous. Wildlife systems are low in productivity, so that what we were seeing around the world was an absence of sustainability.

I moved to the Wildlife Conservation Society, and WCS as a whole began looking at hunting issues as a major, perhaps the major, contributor to conservation problems in tropical forests.

Q: What can be done about the problem?
There are two approaches coming out. One is strong regulation. In the Asian context, government regulation and control is the way to deal with the issue.

Q: Is the best example of this in Sarawak, Malaysia's largest state?
A: What has happened there is a wonderful effort. We were able to pull together all we knew and develop a very specific plan. This master plan was presented to the government and got a lot of support at the highest levels. They looked around and said, ''We are losing our wildlife -- and that is bad for our country and bad for rural people.''

Q: The plan calls for a ban on commercial trade and a limit on the sale of shotgun cartridges?
A: Yes, the government saw that the biggest problem was the commercial trade in wildlife. They said, ''We don't really need it, and maybe we are modern enough to do away with it. And by the way, it would be a good idea to control the sale of cartridges.''

The plan had support at the highest levels and was adopted in its entirety. Then I went and spoke with the State Secretary -- equivalent to a Prime Minister -- and said that WCS is prepared to send Liz Bennett [Robinson's colleague, who had been working in Sarawak] to implement the program. It is an incredibly difficult task -- and the fact that it has been implemented so fast is encouraging.

Q: So the commercial trade is declining?
A: Yes, the trade is banned and people are being arrested for it. The penalties are not great at this time, but people are carted off and their products taken. You no longer see wild meat for sale in the cities.

Sarawak is a model which is generally applicable to Asian societies. If you look at India, you see that they followed the same model, which is why wildlife still exists there.

Q: But it won't work elsewhere in the world? Why not, and what needs to be done there?
A: Clearly command and control will not work in Latin America. Local people, like the Xavante of central Brazil, have their own reserves and are very proud of them. They are not going to be told what to do by anyone.

In a lot of these areas in Latin America, human populations densities are low enough and the forests productive enough and the communities strong enough that wildlife protection has a chance. So strong government regulation, as in Sarawak, or community-based management are the two extremes in our approaches.

Q: But you believe not enough of this is happening?
A: In many parts of the world, there is very little management, and we are losing the wildlife. In certain areas it is a crisis. If wildlife is already right up against the wall, it is very hard. A lot of Africa fits into that category.

Q: And yet world development organizations still persist in thinking that exploitation of wild animals is possible?
A: I just reviewed a World Bank project which would pump $40 million into developing a wildlife-management program in Ghana. But Ghana has already lost most of its wildlife. The World Bank was hoping the whole thing would pay for itself [with sales of wild meat and other products]. It's crazy. There is a lot of simplistic thinking out there.

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