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Poaching outrage costs political capital

Monday, October 26, 2015

Hunting season was opened under pressure from hunter’s lobby groups without evidence that hunting is sustainable, or that the limited laws can be enforced. Animal lives are traded for votes. That political calculation may well be a miscalculation, out of step with changing attitudes in T&T towards protection of our biodiversity. 

Social media exploded with viral pictures of poached animals last week. Each dead morocoy, anteater or river otter attracted the attention of the print and broadcast media. A vast and growing number of Trinbagonians are anxious about our environment and in particular the merciless killing of iconic and cute animals. Trust me, there is little cuter than a fuzzy anteater. To the average voter it looks like a teddy bear. This is what we call charismatic wildlife. 

There is a reason why the World Wildlife Fund has a Panda bear as its icon. The average person in the street may not know much about earthworms or field mice, and probably be a bit grossed out by them. A mass worm or a mouse die-off will only get the most devoted animal lovers mobilised, so those equally worth animals make poor symbols for public opinion formation. 

The folks at WWF understand that the public reacts to charismatic animals, with their wallets and votes—no matter that a Panda is a powerful animal that is just as dangerous as any bear. Each time an anteater or a river otter is poached, a symbol dies. The public reacts with outrage. They start pointing fingers at the poachers, legitimate hunters and politicians—more or less in that order. 

Each social media like or share on one of these viral pictures costs political capital. How much political capital was lost in the first two weeks of hunting season? What will be the poll rating at the end of February 2015 when the killing goes underground again? Why be on the receiving end of a political backlash when the solutions are agreed upon by almost all? 

Enforcement, data to establish a baseline for wildlife, and a scientifically managed hunt. These are the three components that most conservationists and hunters have agreed on a long time ago. 

The best way to save this political capital from being wasted is to plug the hole from which it is haemorrhaging. The most obvious short-term solution, short of closing the season immediately, is to get adequate enforcement to quell the chaos in the forest. Bring in the regiment or the police. Make sure to educate them in wildlife matters first. 

It is a no-brainer that the 13 Game Wardens (and I’m told five Forestry Officers that have been seconded to Wildlife Division) would lose the fight against poachers. The battle was lost before it even started. 

The Minister responded to public pressure by announcing that he was discussing enforcement options with the Ministry of National Security. If we had a shadow cabinet tradition in T&T these policy measures could be thought out before governments assume office, but better late than never. 

The former government announced a hefty increase in fines. Under the proposed changes a poacher could be fined $50,000-$100,000 depending on the crime. And prison sentences of up to 24 months. For some reason it was never legislated. 

The elections brought promises to be tough on crime. This also means wildlife crime. The penalties seem harsh but what is the point of a having a $1,000 fine that poachers pay out of their back pocket? Soft doctors make festering wounds. 

If the political will can be found to decrease the gas subsidy, a fiscally responsible move supported by the environmental lobby but highly unpopular with the public, then certainly the game permits can be given a monetary that reflects the value of animals extracted from the forest. 

Right now the price for one permit, that allows you to catch an unlimited amount of animals in its category (agouti, armadillo, deer, lappe, quenk, alligator and lizards) is $20. Commercial hunters make thousands of dollars selling wild meat. An iguana sells for about $300. Some commercial hunters come out of the forest with five or ten of these at a time. Calculate the profit. All tax-free and without any food safety. 

Raise the permit to reflect the value of game. Introduce tags so that bag limits can be enforced. If an agouti can be sold for $400 then the market has decided that is the value of that animal—that is not an unreasonable starting point for calculating the price of a permit. 

Keep in mind that there are different markets values. There are tourism markets and biodiversity markets for which each animal may be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, but that value is only realised when the animals are gone and they no longer provide an income. To get a food badge you must sit an exam. There is no such requirement for a hunting permit. Make hunters sit an exam. 

Hunters and conservationists have the same concerns. Time for both to join in a wildlife lobby to protect biodiversity.


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