Opening Remarks by Dr. John G. Robinson, WCS Chief Conservation Officer and Executive Vice President of Conservation and Science

“This symposium is less about political consensus and more about prioritizing the strategies and approaches."

London, Feb. 11, 2014 –
The following remarks were delivered today by Dr. John G. Robinson, WCS Chief Conservation Officer and Executive Vice President of Conservation and Science, at the opening of the International Wildlife Trafficking Symposium at the Zoological Society of London:

“This symposium was organized by United for Wildlife, a collaboration between The Royal Foundation and 7 conservation organizations: CI, WWF, WCS, TNC, FFI, ZSL and IUCN.

“Illegal wildlife trade is a huge threat to what all of these organizations are trying to accomplish.

“Illegal wildlife trade has attracted worldwide attention. Over the last couple of years, we have seen: the Marrakech Declaration; the engagement of the Clinton Global Initiative; the IUCN African Elephant Summit in Botswana; discussions at the United Nations; and in two days, the Heads of State meeting on the illegal wildlife trade here in London.

“These meetings have aligned governmental commitments to address the issue, catalyzed governmental action, and helped generate additional funding.

“This symposium is less about political consensus and more about prioritizing the strategies and approaches. This symposium is about reaching a technical and scientific consensus on what is feasible if we want to hold onto the species under threat—indeed, not on the problem, but on the solutions.

“There is a broad consensus on the nature of the threat to conservation:
  1. The present scale of the illegal trade is huge – it is now being valued at more than $19 Billion a year.

  2. The impact of the trade on species of high commercial value has been dramatic: the loss of African elephants of between 25 and 40 thousand animals a year; African forest elephants (the cyclotis subspecies) in particular have been devastated by poaching and have declined by about 76 percent since 2002; dramatic declines in many tiger populations since the early 2000’s, with their extirpation from Vietnam and Cambodia; increases in the number of African rhinos being poached over the last 5 years, and a very significant decline in the proportion of horns being recovered by law enforcement. 

  3. Much of those in the illegal wildlife trade are primarily well-organized syndicates that operate as transnational criminal networks and often participate in other illegal activities, including trafficking in narcotics and weapons. 

  4. The corrupting influence of these criminal organizations cannot be overemphasized. Those charged with regulating and managing wildlife - government officials, police, park staff, the military at both local and national levels – often have little incentive to do their jobs, and every incentive not to do so. Wildlife officials in particular are often poorly paid, under-recognized, and sometimes not paid at all for long stretches of time. 

  5. Many of these criminal networks have links with terrorist or militia networks: locally the trade undermines the rule of law and threatens local community development and livelihoods; revenues from the trade promote further corruption and civil unrest.

“The breakdown of effective governance affects conservation and natural resource management more broadly.

“The SCALE, URGENCY and PERVASIVE BREAKDOWN in governance means that our options are limited.

“Those options can be broadly placed in three categories:
  1. Protecting and managing wildlife populations on-the-ground (“Stop the killing”). We know this can work. Effective monitoring and enforcement on the ground have been demonstrated to be successful in Central Africa, forest elephants occur at densities seven times higher in sites with ecoguards than those without ecoguards; parks and protected areas in Asia, even if not always well managed, remain the refuge for tigers – 42 “source sites”, which cover an area of only 6% of the tiger’s present range, account for 70% of the remaining tiger population; effective protection at Nagarahole National Park in the western ghats of India since the early 1970s has supported a 400% increase in the tiger population.

  2. Controlling the illegal trade flow of wildlife products (“Stop the Trafficking”) might be the greatest challenge. It is here where the criminal networks have their most direct impact. By definition, the trade is underground; is fed by corruption; and assessing the extent of the trade is difficult. Controlling the trade in one area or in one country can just shift the illegal trade elsewhere. Nevertheless, locally and within specific countries we have seen some successes, and in the course of this symposium we will learn from some of these – such as the Wildlife Crimes Units in Indonesia. 

  3. Reducing the consumer demand for wildlife products such as ivory and rhino horn is essential if on-the-ground protection and control of trafficking is to have any chance of success. Necessary steps to reduce consumer demand are efforts to increase consumer awareness about effect of the illegal trade. But ultimately efforts must shift attitudes so that consumer behavior changes. 

“The scale of the illegal wildlife trade, its impact on species, and its effect on governance provides signposts that will help us prioritize what we can do in the short term. That analysis affected the structure of this symposium and the choice of topics.

“There are other strategies that could help control the killing, the trafficking and the demand – but they tend to be longer term and often untested. These strategies might, or might not, be applicable in certain cases. For instance, arguments have been made to legalize the trade so that it could be more effectively regulated and controlled; promote legal farming and ranching to enhance the legal supply of wildlife products so that demand is satisfied without recourse to illegal supply; shift away from government control to more community-based efforts to put the management closer to the resource; and privatize management so that the corporate bottom line can provide the economic reward to manage the species.

“Generally these longer term strategies, while academically intriguing, are unlikely to be feasible in the short term.

“These strategies rely more heavily on incentives than command-and-control, and especially need robust, transparent, well governed management systems; strong but subtle systems that consistently distinguish between legality and illegality; and in addition, they need supporting enforcement to keep the criminal networks under control.

“As a result, they are less likely to be relevant for high commercial value elephants, rhinos, and tigers, in the short term, although they may have some utility for other species. But we will hear some examples of where this might be the case.

“Through the course of this symposium, we will be committed to identifying solutions to the challenge of the illegal wildlife trade. Skeptics already point out that human society is notoriously bad at stopping illegal trade – trafficking in drugs, weapons and humans continue unabated today.

“While I think we will have to concede that stopping the trade will always remain an aspiration, I would suggest that we can control it, and the failure to do so – the loss of some of our world’s most iconic species – provides an imperative to do so.”
Mary Dixon,, 347-840-1242 (at the conference)
Stephen Sautner,; 718-220-3682