Geography + Ivory Trade = ?

I’ve recently finished a critical review on the contribution of geography as an academic discipline (and geographers) to the understanding of the ivory trade. I imagined this would be a simple task. After all, the ivory trade has many important spatial considerations, warranting study in specific places, across spaces, and across and between scales.

I was grossly mistaken. The contribution of academic geography and geographers has been minimal (read: virtually non-existent). However, it has been studied extensively by ecologists, conservation biologists, economists, sociologists and so forth. Individuals outside of the academia, environmental NGOs and the popular press had also contributed significantly, particularly organisations such as the Environmental Investigation Agency and National Geographic. Notably, many of these individuals, disciplines and organisations had applied the lenses of geography to the study of the ivory trade (often as part of wider research on the transnational wildlife trade).

During my time researching, I contacted a number of academic geographers and key informants. Many of whom offered valuable contributions, others expressed great interest. I’m limited to what I can write at present as my submission is still under review. I will, however, add a full write up at a later date as it is (a) a topic of considerable interest and (b) may be useful to others.

I can, however, share a very informative “email interview” I conducted with Dr Richard Thomas, the Global Communications Coordinator at TRAFFIC.

1# What role do you think geography has played and could play in the study of the wildlife trade?

I think there is potentially enormous scope for geographers to bring their expertise and insights to the world of wildlife trade. Wildlife trade has gone way beyond its traditional environmental conservation niche – with only one dedicated specialist non-governmental organization dealing with the issue – ourselves. Much as governments are now seeing this as an issue beyond the Ministry of Environment. We’re now seeing the Finance, Tourism & National Security governmental sectors engaged. There’s been a similar shift and an emphasis for new skills and insights within the NGO world too – we need the expertise of criminologists, sociologists, behaviour change experts, even advertisiing agencies, economists, and geographers too could bring their skills to the table. Wildlife trade, or more specifically wildlife crime, which is currently at the fore and has been driving the global debate, is a highly complex issue requiring the active engagement of many stakeholders.

2# Following on from the previous question, do you believe academic geographers have a role to play? And if so, what do you believe academic geographers can contribute to the study of the wildlife trade?

Indeed, as I believe I mentioned in a message to you yesterday, we are actively seeking collaboration with geography departments in UK universities. I think geography skills could provide useful insights into understanding how best to interpret and act on information that was compiled by one of our staff members – a data specialist criminologist – looking at the spatial distribution of Tiger part seizures: how do we make best use of and interpret this information, and how should we advise enforcement authorities accordingly?

3# Having reviewed a substantial amount of literature, the geographic perspective (understanding phenomena through the lenses of place, space and scale, and combining human-physical interactions) appears to be already in use by those from other academic disciplines and by organisations such as TRAFFIC. Would you agree this to be the case?

As noted above, we are certainly expanding the fields of specialist expertise we beleive as important to devising workable solutions to many trade issues. Our limitation, as will come as no susprise I’m sure, is one of resources – both financial and human.

4# How influential are the geographic lenses of place, space and scale to TRAFFIC’s research and understanding of the wildlife trade? And if so, can you provide any examples?

I think the Tiger part seizure map I referred to above is pertinent [link]. If you download the report, you will see the ‘hotspot’ map referred to from India; a geographer’s interpretation of this could be very interesting: how do the hotspots relate to urban developments / the situation of parks / transport hubs etc. On a macro scale, the data we have compiled since 1989 on global ivory seizures provides a fascinating insight into global transportation routes and trade hubs. You can see crude maps of the trafficking routes identified and how they change over time in the report [link].

5# As you mentioned in your previous message, there is a current dearth of people with an academic geographic background studying the wildlife trade. Can you think of any reasons why this is the case?

I think it’s much like the reasons willdlife trade has been very much a niche interest among NGOs and government agencies; geographers haven’t seen it as an area where their expertise is relevant.

6# And finally, do you believe that the debates about the wildlife trade are dominated by certain epistemic communities? Is there a Western-world/Global North bias? And following on from those questions, how well represented are the views of African individuals and communities, many of whom have an explicit relationship, whether positive or negative, with the involved animals?

Very interesting final question. I think there is growing recognition that local communities have to be part of the solution: in the past, conservation has too often meant fencing somewhere off and preventing access to it. However, that’s a response that can alienate local communities who have very much to be brought into the mix. I think you’ll find this news item and the report fascinating [link] and also this report, where me advocate decriminalizing the bushmeat trade for refugee camps in Tanzania [link].”

“And yes, I think there is far too much of a Western bias in what you read on the internet; ‘it’s them not us” that are the problem. A lot of misunderstanding and misrepresntation of the views and beliefs of other cultures.