Digby Livingston and Stephen Franks: Taking the profit from poachers

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Digby Livingston and Stephen Franks suggest the way to protect indigenous species is to farm them.
DNA techniques could cheaply and easily ascertain which Tuatara were from farmed populations. Photo / Christine Cornege
DNA techniques could cheaply and easily ascertain which Tuatara were from farmed populations. Photo / Christine Cornege

Cheaper DNA identification could end a lucrative illegal trade in protected New Zealand wildlife. All it needs are some careful law changes.

Current law prohibits buying and selling threatened species. That is to minimise the profits from poaching that could strip breeding populations. But the prohibitions perversely increase the scarcity value that makes poaching lucrative.

Now DNA technology can cheaply and quickly identify the family of individuals in a population. It could tell which are descended from an authorised commercially bred line and which are from the wild population.

This means a licensed commercial supply could satisfy the demand that otherwise creates black market poacher profits.

The technology can also strengthen protection of the wild population with more simple prosecutions for illegal possession while licensed breeding for sale could enable endangered species to grow into comfortably secure numbers.

Unlike cats and possums, human predators of our wildlife rarely get headlines.

Last year was an exception. Caught in the spotlight were some illegal kereru harvesters, and the unfortunate pukeko cullers who shot the takahe they were supposed to be protecting. But we've had no Cecil the lion.

Our rare species are hunted nevertheless. Our valuable wildlife are the likes of skinks and geckos.

Our ruthless armed poachers are harmless looking operators lurking among the backpackers. Black markets offer rich rewards with low risks of detection.

A Radio NZ story last year mentioned jewelled geckos selling for up to $30,000. The Otago Daily Times reported in 2011 that up to 200 were taken in one year. Harlequin geckos fetch a similar price. Tuatara have been estimated to be worth $30,000 to $50,000 each in Europe.

Small rare species are no less at risk than Cecil the lion. Photo / Facebook
Small rare species are no less at risk than Cecil the lion. Photo / Facebook

But sentences for poaching are not long. Normal, though disgraceful, delays to trial mean foreign poachers are likely to be released as soon as their trial finishes.

Our outdated laws against trading wildlife have had a simple worthy purpose - to make it unprofitable to steal animals from the wild. The prohibition guarantees scarcity and therefore profits in the market, without being effective to stop the predation on wild populations.

Investment in farmed populations would produce research on breeding and feeding and a sustainable source of income for DoC, the guardians of our wild populations.

Wild populations may eventually be supplemented from a sustainable farming surplus.

New Zealand's world-leading tradeable quota scheme has transformed our fisheries. After fishers became quota owners it became worthwhile for them to protect and enhance fish stocks. They became champions of enforcement.

It is not novel or contradictory to allow trading in a farmed population while treating wild populations differently.

Feral and farmed deer are governed differently, even without benefit of DNA technology.

One of our most rightly persecuted animals, the ferret, is not protected under the Wildlife Act 1953. An isolated population of ferrets is farmed and exported whilst we continue to try to exterminate all wild ferrets.

DoC should take the premium earnable from our native animals, not the smugglers who are getting it now.

27 trout illegally netted when a DOC ranger discovered a poaching operation at a Taupo fishery spawning stream. Photo / Supplied
27 trout illegally netted when a DOC ranger discovered a poaching operation at a Taupo fishery spawning stream. Photo / Supplied

The premium might be taken as a tender price for breeding stock, it could be a conservation levy on sales.

There are levies on holders of fish quotas. The levy is used among other purposes for research on ways to reduce the by-catch of animals like seals and dolphins.

There may be knee-jerk resistance to "commercialisation". There was initially strong resistance to the quota regime that transformed our fisheries. But people who hate business are a minority. Public opinion is in favour of farming our natives. A weka-farming proposal was supported by 85 per cent of 8000 viewers in a Close Up TV One survey.

Australia offers an encouraging example.

Certain Aborigines regard an extremely rare "oenpelli python" as sacred. It is connected to the rainbow serpent, the oldest continuing religious belief in the world. It's now for sale.

A scientist asked permission to take a pair, breed the eggs, return the adults and farm and sell the offspring. The pair was bought for a "significant price".

Now 10 per cent of the sales go to the Aboriginal group which approved the proposal.

How would the DNA enforcement mechanism work? New Zealand's ESR can DNA profile an animal, store its genetic fingerprint and from that fingerprint identify related individuals or exclude those unrelated.

The law can provide that only offspring of identified breeding stock can be sold or owned. They would have certified

DNA.

Our valuable wildlife are the likes of skinks and geckos. Our ruthless armed poachers are harmless looking operators lurking
among the backpackers.

A poacher trying to sell a wild animal, and the buyer, face the risk of a genetic fingerprint test for around $50. Instead of having to prove all the circumstances of illegal taking, the law can make simple possession of an uncertified animal extremely expensive and risky.

That should be the case under current law, but the law creates artificial scarcity that also hikes the returns from possession. The new approach deals with the incentives.

There is other recent science to back up the DNA info. We can double check from an animal's tissue whether its diet shows it grew up in captivity or in the wild.

This approach need not be confined to rare breeds. Maori could once again routinely feast on farmed kereru, without risk to wild populations.

Digby Livingston is a lawyer with Franks Ogilvie, a Wellington based public law firm. Previously he was employed in South East Asia to report on python farms under a United Nations programme to monitor compliance with regulations with the aim of exporting farming models to other developing countries.

Stephen Franks is a principal of Franks Ogilvie, a former Act MP and a member of Forest and Bird.

Contributions are welcome and should be 500-700 words. Send your submission to dialogue@nzherald.co.nz. Text may be edited and used in digital formats as well as on paper.

- NZ Herald

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