Consuming Wildlife on World Wildlife Day

Last Thursday, March 3, was World Wildlife Day. I spent some of the day thinking about how we humans consume wildlife and what role I play in that consumption. I hope other people thought about it too, because it's time to rethink our relationship with wildlife if we want to maintain vibrant wildlife and wild places in our world.

Let's be clear, globally we consume a lot of wildlife every day: wild-caught fish for fish sticks; forest timber for hardwood; pangolins--a scaly anteater--for their meat and scales; snake skins for fashion items; etc. The list goes on and on and the volumes are staggering (for example, more than 45% of all seafood consumed in the United States is wild caught). It's not inherently bad to consume wildlife--we need to eat (animals or vegetables) and we need to build and make things and not all of that consumption is satisfied by farmed, ranched, or cultivated products. So, as we always have, we turn to the wild and our oceans, rivers, forests, and prairies have traditionally delivered. But they can't keep delivering like they have been and we can no longer ignore the larger implications of our consumption. If we keep up this pace and trends, there won't be much wildlife left.

Of course, the details aren't new. Fisheries have been collapsing from overfishing for decades. Species have disappeared (we said goodbye to the Great Auk in the 19th Century and the Hopea shingkeng--a small tree endemic to India--in the late 20th Century) and continue to be threatened by our consumption (elephants, rhinos, tigers, lions, orchids etc.). But what is new is the growing global middle class and the relative ease of acquiring, on both the supply and demand side, wildlife (for example, people are using Facebook to traffic wildlife).

It's a disaster that's picking up speed and if we want to maintain wildlife in any semblance of how we now see it, we're going to have to change our relationship with wildlife and how we consume it. In many cases that means we have to simply stop consuming certain species. Species, like polar bears, with an extinction risk on the horizon--regardless of the source--need to be taken off the table (literally and figuratively). Given other threats like habitat degradation/loss, climate change, ocean acidification, industrial development, and pollutants, species at risk of extinction need all the help they can get to withstand stressors. Removing profit-motivated trade for consumption is a great place to start. And in cases where potential demand outstrips any potential supply, like what we're seeing with pangolins, consumption must cease.

We also need more information about consumers and their motivations to help us craft responses. For example, earlier this week, NRDC issued results from a groundbreaking survey looking at China's latent market for rhino horn, Rhino Rage: What is Driving Illegal Consumer Demand for Rhino Horn. The report indicates that demand for rhino horn is differentiated between two markets: "medicine" and luxury goods. It's important information to have if we're going to put in place adequate measures to curb demand. Smart strategies informed by smart data.

Hundreds of millions of people probably consumed wildlife on World Wildlife Day. That's not necessarily wrong, but if we keep it up as we have been, that choice will disappear.