Jared Kukura is a wildlife conservation writer based in San Diego.
Last May, South Africa announced an end to its lion-bone industry. The country had allowed private farming of these magnificent animals to harvest their skeletons, which are used in traditional remedies promised to cure impotence and rheumatism. South Africa’s Department of Forestry, Fisheries, and the Environment likewise recommended ending the intensive farming of rhinos, which are raised for their horns.
Ending the commercial killing of threatened, vulnerable, or endangered wildlife would appear to align with the goals of all wildlife conservationists. But the South African government has drawn sharp criticism from some who subscribe to the notion of “sustainable use”: the idea that to save something, its economic value must be preserved and exploited.
What I’ve come to believe, however, is that sustainable use is being leveraged as palatable cover for unpalatable practices like trophy hunting and wildlife trade, while there’s little evidence that it benefits species or their habitat. It also turns out that some wildlife conservation groups and experts have troubling alliances with conservative, fossil fuel industry–funded think tanks that have worked to undermine climate science.
All this raises a big question: How has sustainable use impacted the biodiversity crisis?
Biodiversity is declining at an alarming rate, making it a crisis that needs to be taken as seriously as the climate crisis. But while industry influence is extensively studied in that realm, there is a dearth of information relating to its impact on the biodiversity crisis.
I’m not an investigative journalist, but I am a conservation writer, and in 2019 I started a blog called Wild Things Initiative, because I was suspicious of the main argument behind sustainable use: to allow the “utilization of biodiversity” in a way that will not lead to “long-term biodiversity declines, but will instead promote conservation and contribute to poverty alleviation,” according to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. Utilization means activities like logging, hunting, fishing, and tourism, but sustainable use is also applied to specific wildlife conservation practices. And I was noticing that the term was being used to defend trophy hunting and wildlife trade on the basis that revenue derived from commercial breeding, trading, and hunting of animals like elephants, lions, rhinos, and bears are needed to fund the conservation activities that ultimately protect them.
Evidence to support trophy hunting and trade as meeting the requirements of sustainable use is not clear-cut, though. For instance, proponents have claimed that trophy hunting is not a major threat to lions and actually helps protect the species by preventing habitat from being converted to farmland. But a study in Tanzania, the country with the greatest number of African lions, suggests trophy hunting was the main cause of its declining lion numbers. Meanwhile, a study in Zambia concluded that a three-year moratorium on trophy hunting allowed the lion population to produce more cubs.
Researchers have also found that legalizing the farming of South America’s vicuña for their wool has done little to protect the animals from poaching, and those who cite Namibia as a shining example of sustainable use have close ties to hunting organizations and other conflicts of interest.
Most troubling, sustainable use has become a vehicle for misinformation. While researching Safari Club International, a U.S.-based organization that describes itself as the “leader in advocacy to protect the freedom to hunt and to promote wildlife conservation worldwide,” I discovered a grant request submitted to SCI’s sister organization by Inclusive Conservation Group, a U.S. nonprofit advocating sustainable use. It wanted to fund a social media campaign in the U.S. and several African countries to shape “a positive global narrative around hunting and sustainable use.” Inclusive Conservation Group received nearly $2.1 million from various entities between 2016 and 2019, with more than $500,000 from the Safari Club International Foundation.
What caught my eye was that the proposal clearly described a disinformation campaign to build support for sustainable use through what it specifically called “irregular warfare” and “information operations.” Inclusive Conservation Group claimed in the document that it “developed a first of its kind, non-attributional social media platform” that took the “exact words” from SCI’s website and presented them “through an African’s voice.” The words “shape, inform, influence, manipulate, mislead, expose, diminish, promote, deceive, coerce, deter, mobilize, convince” were also plastered in capital letters below an Inclusive Conservation Group logo in the grant request.
I wrote a series of posts that became source material for the Stanford Internet Observatory, which monitors disinformation and the abuse of social media. It published a report on the campaign, which had links to a larger disinformation campaign to elect Trump. This led to Facebook shutting down pages and fake accounts associated with Inclusive Conservation Group that were making claims like trophy hunting “is a sustainable and free market approach to conservation that benefits wildlife, people and the ecosystem.”
Interestingly, climate change denial content was mixed in with messages about sustainable use. It turns out that SCI has a close relationship with the fossil fuel industry. It receives funding and staff from fossil fuel interests, has contracts with lobbyists who also serve the fossil fuel industry, and financially supports fossil fuel–friendly politicians.
In recent years, sustainable use has become a mainstream view within wildlife conservation thanks to some prominent adherents. But its core philosophy is economic, not ecological. Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes, for example, is an economist with the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group and was a member of the South African panel of experts that recently reviewed conservation policies for the country’s iconic species. As National Geographic reported, he “was among the minority who favor phasing out captive breeding of lions but keeping the lion bone trade.” Sas-Rolfes has argued over decades that private ownership, breeding, and trade of animals like tigers and rhinos may prevent them from going extinct.
I wrote about Sas-Rolfes and his connections with pro-market, conservative think tanks like the Property and Environment Research Center, which has received funding from ExxonMobil, the Koch family foundations, and other industry-aligned foundations. Sas-Rolfes emailed that, PERC’s politics and funders aside, “I just seek genuinely workable solutions to stem the forces that are driving these treasured vestiges of wild Africa into oblivion before our eyes … and I have learned to accept that to move forward in life one sometimes has to make compromises.”
Sustainable use was not always a mainstream view. From the 1950s to 1970s, many conservationists advocated safeguarding species from human exploitation. Spurred on by a growing environmental movement, Congress passed the Clean Air and Endangered Species acts to regulate destructive industries and protect ecosystems. In the 1980s, however, free-market advocates portrayed environmental concerns as exaggerated and economic growth as the solution to the world’s problems.
Wildlife conservation philosophy followed this trend in the 1990s when a small group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature argued that the use of a resource itself could function as a conservation tool, legitimizing the modern interpretation of sustainable use. Two of the founding fathers of this movement were Steve Edwards and Grahame Webb.
I connected with Edwards earlier this year. He told me sustainable use was originally called “wise use” when efforts began in 1990 to lobby the International Union for Conservation of Nature to adopt the concept, which it eventually did in 2000. The wise-use movement was an early pioneer in astroturfing, the public relations art of lending the appearance of a grassroots movement to a campaign promoted and funded by corporate interests, and fought environmental regulations like the Clean Air and Endangered Species acts.
Edwards authored a chapter on sustainable use for The True State of the Planet, a 1995 book that sought to “shatter the myths of overpopulation, food, global warming, and pesticides, while redirecting environmentalists’ concerns.” The book was published by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank that for many years received funding from ExxonMobil and Donors Trust, a known source of dark money; a platinum sponsor at its 2019 gala was American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers. In a letter to the Tobacco Institute, CEI claimed the book would “make clear that economic and technological progress is vital to the solution of non-imaginary environmental problems.”
In 1995, Webb served as a sustainable-use expert for a conference denouncing the Endangered Species Act hosted by Alliance for America, another conservative think tank, which Greenpeace’s PolluterWatch described as “one of the largest anti-environmental groups to come out of the wise-use movement.” Webb, who was chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Crocodile Specialist Group and an owner of a crocodile farm, defended selling crocodile skins to the luxury fashion industry in a BuzzFeed News article last year. He said he never profited and that the “best way” to protect crocodiles and their habitat is to sell crocodile products.
The clear ties between industry and proponents of sustainable use help explain why some conservationists would argue for more hunting and wildlife trade. But environmentalists should also be concerned about what impacts, if any, these relationships have had on the biodiversity crisis. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find anyone who’s studying this.
The scientific community can start closing the knowledge gap with a comprehensive review of information relating to wildlife conservation policies in the UCSF Industry Documents Library. Many of the groups involved are denial organizations and should not be taken as experts on protecting wildlife.
Not only are these groups spreading disinformation, they have gone on the attack, threatening critics, myself included, with defamation and accusing us of spreading disinformation. After I published my series on Inclusive Conservation Group’s disinformation campaign, sustainable-use activists decried misinformation against trophy hunting and equated it to “anti-vaccine falsehoods and climate change denial.” Safari Club International also launched a campaign to fight anti-hunting organizations operating “quietly through subtle digital disinformation campaigns.” Yet when the Endangered Species Act or climate change’s impacts on wildlife are up for debate, these are the people who Congress calls on for expert testimony.
Imagine trying to fix the climate crisis without knowing the fossil fuel industry and its allies are actively fighting solutions. Decades of inaction prove we cannot solve a crisis if we do not understand all the forces at play. Researching how industry has influenced wildlife conservation policies is a critical piece of the puzzle for fixing the biodiversity crisis.
The views expressed here reflect those of the authors.
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