How to destroy poaching and save our wildlife – a market-based approach

Two weeks ago, newspapers proclaimed that India may be winning the battle with tiger poachers. But, clichéd as it may sound, the war is far from over. Governments today have taken a ‘supply-side approach’ – making it more difficult to poach. But what if we took a demand-side approach? Could we do something to depress the market, i.e., the demand itself, for poached animal products?

Why would anyone want to kill this?

(copyright Bharat Ram)

On Jan 20, newspapers in India (and indeed in many other parts of the world) proclaimed that India’s tiger population is now over 2000. It has risen 30% over the last count – the conservation efforts seem to be working (apart from the fact that the previous count didn’t cover some tiger populations). This is undoubtedly great news for lovers of tigers and the wild, but the war has far from taken a decisive turn. We’re still on course for the Sixth Great Extinction, and the first man-made one.

  1. There are only FIVE northern white rhinos left in the world. Barring a miracle, they will be extinct soon
  2. Wildlife of all kinds – sharks (for shark fin soup), elephants, tigers, leopards, etc. – are still being poached all over the world in great numbers
  3. Of course, elephants, rhinos, and tigers are the poster-boys of anti-poaching drives. But even the unassuming and reserved pangolin is being hunted to extinction.

Now, governments have been making efforts to curb poaching. And the efforts have started bearing results. But these efforts have primarily been ‘supply-side’ – making poaching more difficult. Whether it’s better monitoring, tighter security or reducing overlap of forest land with human settlements, these measures constrain the ability of poachers to hunt. This is a battle of attrition (yes, one more war metaphor) – we cannot relax our efforts. The day the funding runs out, poachers WILL return. This is not a sustainable victory – for how long, and for how many animals, can you keep funding the effort?

Market-side approaches offer two key benefits: (a) they give you leverage over the upstream value chain – a change here would reverberate all the way up to the first step of supply; and (b) they are more sustainable – reducing the motivation of poachers means that tomorrow, even if supply-side monitoring relaxes slightly, poachers may not return. Many industries have been created with such market-side approaches – think toothpastes (the tingling sensation makes you want to brush, but it has no role in cleaning your teeth), diamond rings (making wives and fiancées demand diamonds, rather than just selling them), etc. The question is, can you use a similar approach to destroy a market?

Now, I’m no conservation expert, and poaching is a far more complex issue than it seems at first sight, but it would be interesting to try and answer this question, purely as a thought experiment. The first approach that comes to mind is to:


Change the market dynamics

With a purely supply-side approach, we gradually make poaching harder. This raises end-prices for smuggled animal products, in turn raising poachers’ motivations to grind on. Could we change the structure of the market in such a way as to reduce the attraction towards poached animal products?

  1. Flood the market with fakes:

Bringing in fake animal products could make the market a lemon market, like second-hand cars – prices will naturally depress if the buyer is unsure whether what he’s buying is the real thing. This would, over time, reduce the reward for poaching, which, in tandem with tighter supply-side monitoring, could inhibit poaching. Let the bad drive out the good from the market.

This approach would be sustainable in itself – as long as even a tiny sliver of a market exists for poached products, entrepreneurs selling such fake products would have an incentive to remain in the market.

However, one important precondition is that supply constraints – monitoring and enforcement – need to make poaching hard and expensive. As long as poaching is relatively easy, this may only increase the demand and price of true animal parts. This is already happening.

  1. Bring in farmed substitutes:

Another alternative is to try and bring in farmed substitutes. E.g., try and convince consumers who believe in the medicinal properties of tiger genitals (did you know the name Viagra comes from the Sanskrit vyaaghra for tiger?) that bulls’ private parts are just as good. I once went to a restaurant called Carnivore in Nairobi, where they served ‘ox balls’. Unsure whether I heard it right, I asked the waiter again. And he replied, in a dubious Caribbean accent – “Yes maan, they is ox balls … they increase your productivity”.

Of course, this is much easier said than done. It would need sustained marketing to cement this belief. Could we instead take a more direct approach?

  1. Grow animals in captivity for such uses:

A natural extension of introducing farmed substitutes like cattle is to farm the endangered animals themselves. Abhorrent though the idea seems at first, it is only slightly different from farming cattle for food. The only reason this is not done traditionally for, say, tigers, is that rearing carnivores is very expensive – one would need to spend at least ten times as much to feed them vis-a-vis cattle (they’ll have to be fed the cattle).

But simultaneously with a supply side crackdown making poaching more expensive, this could become a viable option, in turn reducing the demand for poaching even more.

There are tiger farms in China already, doing exactly this. However, hunting animals in the wild is still cheaper than rearing them, so this has paradoxically just increased prices for wild animal parts (the poaching equivalent of free-range chicken).

Thus, each of these methods can have some unintended consequences unless all efforts work perfectly and in tandem with the supply-side. And as anyone who’s worked on a project of the smallest duration knows, nothing works perfectly, especially if heavy coordination is involved. And in any case, in a world where a single rhino horn can sell at tens of thousands of dollars, poaching will always seem worth the risk. In other words, one would need to:


Strike directly at demand for animal products

Strong social campaigns to reduce the demand for animal products and make it socially unacceptable would be harder but would have more lasting impact. Appealing to people’s altruistic tendencies is evidently working for sharks – total import of shark fins to China reduced by 70% in 2012.

However, this appeal to people’s better senses would not work in every instance. It would be far more effective to directly attack the reasons why buy animal products:

  1. Prestige: Make showcasing / displaying animal trophies a signal of bad taste. This worked for minks in the US – sustained social activism reduced domestic demand for mink coats. Of course, the market is now skyrocketing, due to huge demand from China. Some things don’t change, I guess.
  2. Medical benefits: Debunk myths regarding the curative properties of endangered animal parts. This will not be easy, especially in countries where people use rhino horns to even treat hangovers! But it would strike at the heart of the reason why poaching is such a profitable enterprise.

While this approach definitely seems to have potential, one can also attack the most upstream motivation – that of the poachers themselves.


Offer alternatives to poachers

Poachers today in many places have few alternative occupations. And even when they do, poaching remains far more lucrative. When supply side constraints are making poaching harder and more risky (shoot at sight?), poachers may be more amenable to steady jobs with decent pay. Creating jobs that locals aspire to or offering vocational training and incentives for migration may be a sustainable approach to reduce poachers’ motivations.

Another approach would be to educate communities on biodiversity being a form of wealth, and helping them take pride in their natural heritage. Educating communities thus and involving them in protection can be quite fruitful – this, among other interventions, helped Nepal achieve zero rhino deaths in 2011.


Will these work? Hard to say – obviously this is just a thought experiment in market-based approaches, without much understanding of the dynamics at play. But what is clear is that we need an alternative approach that attacks demand in some form, localized to the geography and the specific animal; in addition to the current policing model.

Coopting Anna Kournikova’s immortal wisdom, may only eggs be poached!

Would love your feedback on the ramifications of the above actions – comment here / email me at / tweet at @jithamithra. Please also subscribe for updates from me roughly once a week, on consumers and markets, startups, books, etc.

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6 Responses

  1. Rukesh February 9, 2015 / 4:34 am

    Good attempt to think up market based solutions Jitha, but as you mentioned, they all have their drawbacks. Growing animals in captivity, apart from the cost issue, also has a (in my opinion) a much bigger problem: origin tampering. The very existence of tiger farms means that poachers try to palm off most illegal poached parts as farmed parts. You smuggle some certificates etc, and boom, veneer of legality. It’s impossible to effectively halt such tampering to zero, so we have a blood diamond kind of issue. On the other hand, if there is not even ONE tiger farm, then by definition all tiger parts are illegal, hence the villains don’t have an escape route. This is the reason why most animal organizations frown on such farms (apart from the moral problems of course).

    • jithamithra February 10, 2015 / 3:23 pm

      Origin tampering is a valid issue, just like the phenomenon of ‘free-range animals’ that I mention in the post, in a world where poaching is cheaper than farming. But if this is in tandem with strong supply side restrictions which raise the ‘price’ of poached parts beyond the price of farmed parts, it could work. Think of the expected impact of US marijuana legalization on smuggling across the US-Mexico border.
      But I agree that in practice this would be hard to achieve. Hence my insistence that attacking the problem from first principles – reduce demand from consumers and alleviate economic dependence of poachers – would be better.

    • Aashish Jindal February 12, 2015 / 7:59 am

      Origin tampering is something which can be controlled with more coordinated efforts by the farms, the manufacturing firms using those farmed parts and some sort of NGOs – just like the way Kailash Satyarthi’s NGO did for carpet industry where they certify the carpet-maker with ‘Rugmark’ certifying that they have not used child labor in carpet-making.
      The major development in this area can happen when thrust comes from the society and associations of mfg industry. We need to identify how people choose those products which comes from manufacturers who are certified with ‘Pugmark’ – new term I just coined 😉

      • jithamithra February 12, 2015 / 12:04 pm

        Well done, Gogo. ‘Pugmark’ has a nice ring to it :). What Rukesh meant though, I imagine, is that in a world where poaching is still much cheaper than rearing these animals, there would be enough incentive to continue to poach. Manufacturers themselves could poach a few tigers and mix them into their ‘farm produce’ to reduce costs, just like there’s a threat of adulteration with dairy farms. And current supply-side approaches don’t look like they can increase the costs of poaching significantly.

  2. Mathangi Sridhar February 14, 2015 / 2:05 pm

    I have read your previous posts too but this is a very interesting article.I guess, reducing demand for poaching through alternative jobs and awareness would be hard to achieve, given the high monetary benefits that poachers normally get by selling their parts(both the primary market and the black market).

    • jithamithra February 15, 2015 / 12:23 pm

      Thanks, Mathangi. Yes, I agree that the most sustainable approach would be to reduce demand itself, which would reduce the monetary benefits available from poaching. The other interventions would also help, but this would be critical.

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