Skip to Content »

Farm scarce wildlife to take the profit from poachers

  • January 28th, 2016

Cheaper DNA identification could soon end lucrative illegal trading in protected New Zealand wildlife. All it needs are some careful law changes. Maori could once again routinely feast on (farmed) kereru, without risk to wild populations.

Current law prohibits buying and selling threatened species. That is meant to prevent profiting from poaching. Illegal supply to meet legal commercial demand could strip wild 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. Effectively a body like ESR (The Institute of Environmental Science And Research) 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.

This would allow licenced breeders to satisfy the demand that is presently fed by poachers and smugglers. Black market revenue from stealing wild specimen could instead go into growing the populations. The technology can also strengthen protection of wild populations with more simple prosecutions for illegal possession.

The ingenuity and experimentation and investment that goes into licenced breeding for sale could grow endangered species into comfortably secure numbers.

Unlike cats and possums, human predators of our wildlife rarely get headlines. This year was an exception. Caught in the international spotlight were some illegal kereru harvesters, and the unfortunate pukeko cullers who shot takahe they were supposed to be protecting.

But we’ve had no Cecil the lion.

Our rare species are hunted nevertheless. Our rhinos and elephants are skinks and geckos. Our ruthless armed poachers are harmless looking Germans lurking among the backpackers.

Black markets offer rich rewards with low risks of detection. A Radio NZ story this 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 – $50,000 each in Europe.

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.

With such obstacles to enforcement can we really defend our elusive taonga? There is despair about the fate of some of Africa’s megafauna, despite huge international attention? We do not have a dedicated anti-poaching force. Our fauna are largely silent, toothless, easily hidden and robust enough to be readily smuggled. Our habitats are accessible and generally open.

Yet there is reason for hope.

Our outdated laws against trading wildlife had a simple worthy purpose – to make it unprofitable to steal animals from the wild. The prohibition is intended to prevent scarcity in the wild. Unfortunately it guarantees scarcity in the market, and therefore assured profits for thieves from wild populations.

Using DNA tests to legalise revenue for breeding can make anti-poaching laws more practically enforceable. Farmed breeding populations can be conclusively distinguishable from wild populations. DNA identification is now fine grained and cheap enough to eliminate any need for GM tags or other alterations of the farmed population.

DNA testing does not end all complications. For example if kereru farming was licenced it might be difficult to prevent wild birds from mating with farmed birds. Such species could need periodic re-profiling and re-licencing of the breeding line. Science offers a back up though. Diet oriented stable isotope tests on a feather, for example, can support DNA fingerprinting. They can show whether a bird was reared on a wild diet or a farm diet.

It will need law changes – New Zealand is always the ‘goody good’ in these matters and we have diligently reflected in our law the international prohibitions on trading (CITES) to which many other countries pay lip service.

The benefits should make this a priority – commercial prospects will drive investment in farmed populations (humans work out how best to feed and breed all fauna they farm) – and a sustainable source of income for DoC, the guardians of our wild populations.

Wild populations may eventually be supplemented from sustainable farming surplus

Economist would say it is obvious. We get more produced with lower barriers to supply and to invest capital. Legitimised trade and ownership by honest people can make a market unprofitable for dishonest people.

Around the world there is a new approach to protecting “the commons”. New Zealand’s world leading tradable 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. In many places the lessons of alcohol prohibition are being relearnt, as governments give up on laws to crush ‘victimless’ crimes (like marijuana) and instead focus on regulating and taxing the activity they cannot stamp out.

Even in the wildlife area 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 now without using DNA technology. One of our most (rightly) persecuted animals, the ferret, is not protected under the Wildlife Act 1953. Yet 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 getting it now. DoC might offer breeding stock for tender. They could levy a conservation royalty on sales. Fishing again shows the way. Fish quota owners’ levies pay for research to reduce the by-catch of seals and dolphins.

There could 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”. 10% of the sales go to the Aboriginal group which approved the proposal.

Our law must be updated to recognise scientific advances. More importantly it should not deny our rare species the propagation that humans ensure when they can share the benefits. That investment will be stingy until people know that it will not be wasted, or worse, increase rewards for those who dishonestly loot ‘the commons’.

The Herald has today published a shortened version of the above. It contains links not in the published version, but omits the Herald’s great photos.

It was suggested, researched and largely written by one of our young lawyers – Digby Livingston. Before joining Franks Ogilvie, Digby was employed in South East Asia to report on python farms under a United Nations programme to monitor regulatory compliance with the aim of exporting farming models to other developing countries.

I’ve had a live interest in threatened species propagation for many years.

I’ve been a member of Forest and Bird for over 40 years. I’d like iwi, or DoC, to commission a pilot amendment Bill to transform the prospects of an endangered or rare New Zealand animal.



[…] Farm scarce wildlife to take profits from poachers – Stephen Franks: […]

  • Roger Strong
  • January 31st, 2016
  • 12:56 pm

I like the theory but doubt that it’s possible in most cases. I knew of a guy who farmed ferrets and when the market fell apart he just opened the cages and let them go- some 25 years later and the they are still around.
I really can’t see a way that kereru -as an example -could be farmed – how they would be fed and how you could ensure that poachers wouldn’t take advantage of the situation. I do think DOC could involve the community a whole lot more to control pests and protect the DOC estate-they make little effort to get locals interested.
We live in the country and this year have a plague of wild cats that have been dumped by holiday makers on their way to the bach. Extremely hard to control these cats – most people around us don’t care and do nothing.

  • Stephen
  • February 3rd, 2016
  • 2:13 pm

I agree that ferrets and cats are hard to control. Wild ones should be shot on sight. But if we were farming asy kereru when a market collapsed, opening the cages or letting their clipped wing feathers grow would be a population advantage, not a problem.

I’m baffled though by your other concerns – despite the compression necessary for Herald publication I thought we’d explained reasonably well how this would reduce poaching, well below current levels.
I think the greatest benefit in the longer term would be the same benefit as has been conferred by farming generally – from the constant striving and experimentation of many people comes breakthroughs in methods, understanding and genetic selection that overcomes initial lack of knowledge of feeding requirements etc. NZ’s pioneering domestication of feral deer is said to be one of the greatest domestication advances of the millenia. We should be able to achieve something similar with some other of our unique animals and birds.
Because sadly they can’t compete on their own in our modified world. They need our protection and knowledge and investment in any event.

  • David
  • December 19th, 2017
  • 2:47 am

You tell usefull information.. I agree that cats are hard to control. Wild ones should be shot on sight. We should be able to achieve something similar with some other of our unique animals and birds.

Leave your comments:

* Required fields. Your e-mail address will not be published on this site

You can use the following HTML tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>