Attending the 2018 London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade (and the thoughts it makes me think)

Hunter Doughty

I had never been to an official government event with ‘high-profile’ people before, so in the days leading up to last week’s UK Government 2018 Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade, I was certainly getting excited.

From the Duke of Cambridge, to Ellie Goulding, multiple Heads of State representing countries all over the world, and business tycoons like Geoffrey Kent (the CEO of Abercrombie & Kent), it was shaping up to be a star-studded occasion. But my take-away from the first day, however, was not quite as enthusiastic as I had hoped for. The day’s proceedings focused on these top individuals championing anti-Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) efforts, and pledging how they are working/will work to join the effort. Which is in essence a positive thing. But by the time we got settled back in our hotel rooms that evening, I found myself thinking more about the politics at stake, than the actual event topic. I realised that by my knowing information that contradicted the claims in speeches given by some speakers, I had become leery of all the speakers. Who was being genuine or disingenuine? Who was not telling us the whole story, so-to-speak? It’s frustrating that often we just don’t know. No sector, be it government, NGO, private, or academic, is immune to ego, greed, or a ‘massaging of the truth.’ And though we want to hope for the best in an organisation or individual’s intention, in reality, unless evidence-based actions are implemented, evaluated, and made transparent, we can never know.

But politics and moral discourse aside, I found the real gem of the event lay in the breadth of subjects covered. Which was underlined both days, but particularly on the second day as we hustled from session to session, trying to fit in as much knowledge, and surprisingly good break-time cookies, as possible.

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Being in the behaviour change world my focus of late has largely been on the human consumers in IWT, so it was great to hear perspectives from other sectors, both echoing my own opinions and giving new insights into the issues we face in shifting consumer behaviour. For example, the concept of behavioural drivers that change over time and how interventions that worked in the past are in no way guaranteed to work again, even if the consumers themselves are seemingly the same[1].

 

But what was possibly more interesting for me, was learning about the innovations being made in other branches of this multi-faceted issue. Some things I found especially important or novel were:

  1. The often over-looked illegal live animal and plant trade[2] (often for pets but also for consumption, status, etc.) which highlights three aspects of IWT that need more attention: IWT in Latin and South America, consumer demand in ‘Western’ nations, and the importance of stronger and more standardised welfare considerations[3] across the board for animal (and plant) individuals confiscated in IWT seizures.
  2. The creative approaches to financing efforts against IWT (which could be used to support conservation in general), such as donations made by advertising companies every time an animal is used in marketing[4], and conservationists working with faith-based institutions[5] whose ideals align with a local population’s ideals.
  3. And lastly, the potentially most talked about, financial crime angle of prosecuting high-level IWT culprits[6]. Which was cleverly noted by the Duke of Cambridge as an “Al Capone approach,” in which you target alternate (often financial) wrongdoings of a culprit instead of focusing solely on hard-to-prove, or weakly enforced, IWT offenses.

fbdfSo overall, despite my initial none-too-surprising disenchantment with some silver-tongued speakers, the event itself appeared to me to be one big Science Fair and cross-discipline networking event – both of which are definite good things. It provided a platform for a variety of individuals to discuss what topics they are working on, and why their work is important and may be of use to others. And both days resulted in government officials mingling with PhD students, NGOs chatting with think tanks, and private sector moguls learning alongsidelong-time academics.

 

Which brings me to a slight call for those working in IWT:

To my eyes, we are one of the most diverse and interdisciplinary groups of individuals to ever work on a single subject. And if we could strive to take just a little more advantage of that, I have no doubt that we could dramatically shift the IWT balance to one of sustainability of use, and more importantly, human coexistence with other species.

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Meet the team! The Oxford Martin Programme on the Illegal Wildlife Trade

 

References

1. Dr. Vanda Felbab-Brown, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution

2. Dr. Susan Lieberman, Vice-President of International Policy, Wildlife Conservation Society

3. Evidence to Action Symposium, Panel Discussion Oct 9th, 2018 (Tanya Wyatt, Northumbria University; Jenny Maher, University of South Wales; Debbie Rook, Northumbria University; Daniel Allen, Keele University; Nicholas Bruschi and Nancy Clarke, World Animal Protection)

4. Mr. Deri Watkins, General Manager, Mars Petcare UK

5. Mr. Martin Palmer, Secretary General, Alliance of Religions and Conservation

6. Mr. Tom Keatinge, Director, Centre for Financial Crime and Security, RUSI