Editorial: What’s wrong with “sustainable use”?
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 1994:
U.S. World Wildlife Fund president Kathryn Fuller didn’t just rattle the Clinton
administration with her May 12 declaration of opposition to any “first step toward the
resumption of commercial whaling.” More significant was her statement that, “Even if
commercial whaling could be sustainable, it cannot be justified,” a welcome marked depar-
ture from 35 years of WWF policy, which essentially has endorsed any use of wildlife that
even promised to be sustainable.
The most influential of all animal and habitat protection groups internationally,
WWF has been problematic since 1961, when founder Sir Peter Scott, a trophy hunter,
recruited the leadership elite from among fellow hunters who feared that African indepen-
dence would lead to the rapid loss of target species. The elite included longtime WWF
International president Prince Bernhard of The Netherlands, who escaped punishment for
allegedly overshooting bird quotas in Italy in the early 1970s to resign, finally, in 1987,
after being implicated in a Dutch bribery scandal. Bernhard was succeeded by another of
the founding elite, Prince Philip, long the honorary head of the British chapter. One of the
world’s most prolific tiger-killers when tigers were abundant, Philip showed his allegiance
to conservation ethics that Christmas by leading his sons Charles, Andrew, and Edward in
killing 10,000 pigeons, 7,000 pheasants, 300 partridges, and several hundred ducks,
geese, and rabbits––all captive-raised––in a six-week vacation bloodbath. This slightly
exceeded Philip’s previous record of 15,500 captive birds killed during a five-week spree.
Early WWF U.S. chapter presidents included C.R. “Pink” Gutermuth, who dou-
bled as president of the National Rifle Association, and Francis L. Kellogg, a notorious tro-
phy hunter. The attitude of WWF in those days was characterized by support for seal-club-
bing off the east coast of Canada, benefit fur auctions (only halted in 1988), and
Bernhardt’s formation of the 1001 Club, a group of billionaire patrons. A 1988 probe of
the 1001 Club by the magazine Private Eye found that the members “by and large owe their
fortunes to activities completely at odds with preserving wildlife habitat.” The most notori-
ous member was Mobuto Sese Soto, who ruled Zaire from 1965 until mid-1993. Under
Mobuto, Zaire protected about 84,000 elephants on spacious reserves. Then, as two
decades of reckless spending and blatant corruption brought on the national crisis that final-
ly toppled Mobuto, poachers slew about 60% of the elephants in just five years––while
Mobuto and supporters reputedly stashed the take in Swiss banks.
Despite or perhaps because of such fancy patronage, WWF meanwhile spent so
much of its income on direct mail fundraising that in 1990 it failed to meet the National
Charities Information Bureau requirement that it spend at least 60% on program service.
Simultaneously WWF was severely embarrassed by a leaked internal study that documented
20 years of massive waste. Nearly every major WWF project had failed. Even pandas, the
WWF symbol species, were near extinction. WWF had bribed Chinese officials to preserve
panda habitat by allowing them to use donated funds for such projects as building a hydro-
electric dam––which only brought demands for still bigger bribes.
WWF turned down the heat by officially turning from a so-called “preservationist”
philosophy, which in WWF practice meant only the privileged were allowed to kill endan-
gered wildlife, to endorsement of “sustainable use”––interpreted to mean killing animals for
the most profitable use possible at the fastest rate each species can withstand.
The WWF doctrine has huge influence. Just a month ago Tufts Center for
Animals and Public Policy director Andrew Rowan found a single difference in the respons-
es of zoo and humane representatives to 12 hypothetical ethical problems he posed at the
White Oak conference on zoos and animal protection. Most agreed that hunting is both eth-
ically and pragmatically dubious as an alleged tool of wildlife management. Yet, endorsing
the WWF view, the zoo people were virtually all willing to tolerate trophy hunting as a way
to make wildlife lucrative for poor nations, and presumably therefore worth protecting.
The case for “sustainable use” holds accurately enough that poor nations usually
can’t or won’t protect wildlife without both economic means and an economic incentive;
notes that trophy hunters pay much more for a head than tourists do for a snapshot; and
asserts that trophy hunters, armed with guns and bribes, will go places and take risks that
most tourists won’t. One might counter that since potential tourists are much more plentiful
than trophy hunters, and since tourism creates more jobs than trophy hunting, even though
tourists spend less per capita, a wise conservation strategy would help poor nations to cre-
ate the political stability and economic infrastructure that would attract more tourists, and
would oppose activity, including both poaching and trophy hunting, that contributes to
instability by heightening the concentration of wealth and privilege with the well-positioned
few instead of the desperately needy many.
Instead, the sustainable use doctrine asserts that since hunting is going on, and
will go on anyway, legally or not, better to regulate it and make a buck than to merely
spend bucks trying to control poaching, as the wildlife traffickers continually jack up the
price for bootlegged animal parts and corrupt officials accept ever larger bribes to ignore
poachers who often are better equipped than their national armies––or in many cases are
themselves renegade army units, with strong clandestine ties to government leaders.
Currently, “sustainable users” point out, hunting is restricted, at least on paper,
across much of Africa and Asia. Yet poachers are annihilating elephants, rhinos, and tigers
wherever they can, to supply the Asiatic demand for aphrodisiacs and traditional medicines
derived from their ivory, horns, bones, and genitals. The demand increases as growth of
the leading Asian economies comes faster than the absorption of modern medical knowl-
edge, while ruthless mercantilism shoves aside Buddhist and Hindu teachings which stress
human kinship to other species. Because the only current source of the most coveted animal
parts is the international black market, and because prices climb as supplies become
scarcer, cartels such as the notorious Poon or Pong family of Hong Kong not only promote
poaching, but allegedly seek the extinction of the target species, at least in the wild, to
guarantee the lasting value of their animal part stockpiles.
Species conservation programs should cash in, the “sustainable users” contend,
by helping poor nations to manage wildlife reserves like huge game farms, combining
canned hunts for culled animals with the legal sale of their remains. This would supposedly
undercut poaching in the marketplace.
Principles and practice
“Sustainable use” is attractive to free marketers who don’t know their wildlife his-
tory––but there is no evidence that legal traffic in wildlife parts can preserve species. On
the contrary, legal ivory traffic provided the cover that nearly wiped out elephants in much
of Africa before 1989, when the ivory trading ban adopted by the Convention on
International Trade in Endangered Species curtailed poaching by giving customs officials
worldwide the ability to interdict ivory shipments, regardless of purported origin.
The elephant episode duplicated the disastrous attempted international regulation
of commercial whaling, begun with the formation of the International Whaling
Commission in 1946: by 1986, when the current whaling moratorium began, every species
of whale was severely depleted and some were near extinction because of ruthless poaching
that used the legal quotas for cover. Russian whaling authorities disclosed recently that
some Soviet vessels killed from 10 to 30 times as many whales as they admitted
killing––and killed hundreds of some species which were completely off limits.
Even in the closely regulated climate of the U.S. and Canada, the “sustainable
use” theory doesn’t work, as flagrant poaching continues to masquerade behind legal hunt-
ing and game farming. The high rate of poaching in North America also belies the claim,
made in support of “sustainable use” in Africa, that the presence of hunters deters poachers.
“Sustainable users” contend the mandatory employment of guides will discourage hunters
from becoming poachers––but that hasn’t worked in Maine, Alaska, or Alberta, where vet-
eran guides have lately been caught running poaching rings after many years of simultane-
ously catering to both wealthy trophy hunters and the Asian wildlife parts market. Hunters
and parts traffickers in effect subsidize each other, with corrupt guides as brokers.
Truth is, those who commit crimes against wildlife will exploit any opportunity.
“Sustainable use” is a one-way ticket to extinction because bloodlust and greed, once
accepted as legitimate conduct, cannot be appeased or restrained by mere regulation.
The political argument against “sustainable use” is equally rooted. “Sustainable
users” hope to convince poor Africans and Asians that they should not kill wildlife to collect
the equivalent of several years’ wages, while rich Europeans and Americans kill the same
animals for fun––a new and dangerous idea to people whose own killing is mostly from
need, especially when coupled with the idea that thrill-killing has a higher rationale.
“Sustainable users” argue that giving poor Africans and Asians a collective eco-
nomic stock in wildlife will lead to the development of a collective ethic, whereby poachers
will become pariahs. This ignores the history of collectivism wherever it has been attempt-
ed, from the failed USSR to Africa’s own overgrazed grasslands. It also overlooks the
poachers’ own collective ethic (perhaps a higher ethic in that it excludes mere thrill-killing).
They already use the animals they kill for what they perceive as the common good, the
good of their families. Having no faith in corrupt governments that purport to protect
wildlife, but in fact sell animals to the highest bidder, they see no reason why they should
not poach animals now, before others do and take the profits.
Finally, Africa in particular already suffers too much from the idea that whoever
has the most money and firepower is above morality. The example of the Great White
Hunter who receives special privileges because he has money reinforces the notion of the
Big Man who is above the law because he commands a well-armed tribe.
The “sustainable use” doctrine could be applied to other Third World problems.
For instance, the same newly rich and ethically alienated Asian men who buy aphrodisiacs
made from wildlife parts are also the chief patrons of the increasingly notorious brothels of
the poorest regions of Southeast Asia, where up to 400,000 children a year are bought from
illiterate parents in remote villages and held for enforced prostitution until, diseased and
often cruelly injured, they are cast out and replaced at the advanced age of perhaps 15. One
hopes “sustainable users” would not also endorse financing schools and orphanages by let-
ting well-heeled pedophiles rape selected children––even though child prostitution is report-
edly a $3.77-billion-a-year business in Taiwan alone, twice the size of the U.S. retail fur
trade at its peak.
Some may respond that the ethics of human welfare should not be the same as
those of species conservation. Yet the leaders of the Rwandan massacres in April and May
rationalized their deeds with “sustainable use” rhetoric. Hutus didn’t massacre Tutsis,
reporters were told; they merely culled them. Then, Juliana Mukankwaya explained to
Mark Fritz of the Associated Press, she and other women of their village bludgeoned the
orphaned children as a purported act of mercy.
WWF is not responsible for the deaths of half a million civilians in Rwanda, nor
for the ongoing tribal strife elsewhere in Africa. Nor is WWF to blame for perversions of
conservation rhetoric, any more than humane societies are to blame for Mukankwaya’s
warped notion of euthanasia.
Yet WWF is culpable for advancing the view that thrill-killing can be
excused––for a price. We hope Fuller’s apparent turn away from “sustainable use” means
WWF is ready to take a different direction.