When I received my grant from the Earth Journalism Network’s Investigating Wildlife Trafficking project in November of 2018, I was initially planning to report on illegal trafficking in snakeskins from Southeast Asia to Europe.
I had a call with a scientist who spent years researching pythons in Malaysia and Indonesia and I talked to a biologist from a German non-profit organization, who patiently explained to me the role that a global conservation treaty called CITES plays in the regulation of trade in endangered species.
Both experts said that poaching and the illegal wildlife trade were problems, but they also said that the legal trade in some species was a problem, too.
Why? I wondered. I began hearing from sources that a group of influential experts from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) — which manages a catalog of threatened species, known as the Red List — were downplaying the threats to animals that have a high commercial value in the fashion and trophy-hunting industries.
The IUCN also plays an important role in protecting vulnerable species by determining which should be prohibited from trade and recommending measures such as quotas and regulation.
Whose interests were these experts protecting? my sources asked. And with that, my investigation turned in a surprising new direction.
A leather mafia?
When I asked for examples, I received a contact for Sabine Vinke, a German herpetologist – someone who studies reptiles and amphibians – living in Paraguay. She moved there in 2004 and has been working to help protect the Red Tegu, a lizard that lives in the Gran Chaco lowland region in Paraguay and Argentina and whose skin is used by European fashion companies to produce luxury shoes, wallets and watch straps.
Vinke talked about research that she found suspect by scientists who supported the sustainable trade in reptiles as the best way to save them from extinction. She said some experts were using calculation models that overestimated the size of reptile populations to make them seem less endangered and therefore not in need of protection under trade bans or quotas.
Vinke said she and her husband Thomas, both members of the IUCN’s Boas and Pythons Specialist Group, were also frustrated by what they called the IUCN’s “leather mafia,” a group of experts who opposed efforts that could lead to stricter animal trade regulations.
Vinke said she first felt something was amiss when she and Thomas faced pushback for trying to establish a group that could assess the threats facing the Red Tegu. I decided to investigate not only if I could verify what she was saying, but also whether efforts to support the trade in endangered species ran deeper within the IUCN.
I quickly discovered this would not be easy.
Some IUCN experts support a conservation approach they refer to as “the sustainable use” of “natural resources,” especially if it helps alleviate poverty. Their argument goes like this: Local communities will care more about protecting animals and habitats when doing so creates jobs and income. Yet arguments rage over what is really sustainable.
These advocates for the continuation of the wildlife trade point to examples showing how animal populations have recovered along with the growth of trade and business. The skins of Australian Freshwater Crocodiles, for example, are sold to fashion labels such as Hermes and Louis Vuitton, but they are not overexploited and their habitat is considered intact so their classification on the Red List as species of ‘Least Concern’ is not disputed.
In such cases, some scientists argue that species conservation is not the same as animal protection. That is to say, some individual animals may need to be sacrificed to hunters and traders in order to save the species as a whole.
On the other hand, some conservationists and many animal welfare advocates argue that the alleged benefits which trophy hunting or the leather trade bring to animal species and rural villages could be created without animal exploitation. And, they say, there have been cases where trophy hunting and trade has led to a devastating decline in wildlife populations, as is the case with lions in much of Africa.
Between 1993 and 2014 the continent’s lion populations declined by 43 percent due to habitat loss, conflicts with cattle breeders, disease and big game hunting and poaching, according to Red List data. The trade in trophies and lion bones for use in traditional Asian medicine has also increased significantly. The IUCN estimates that there are only between 23,000 and 39,000 lions left in the whole of Africa.
Yet trying to understand research with seemingly contradictory results can be confusing and frustrating, especially when you’re not a biologist. By June of 2019, after I had been researching this story for eight months, I found myself bogged down in such a complex, technical scientific debate that I wanted to drop the whole investigation.
As I contemplated how I could continue the reporting, I turned to the project coordinators at the Earth Journalism Network (EJN) and the editors at BuzzFeed News, which had agreed to publish my story. Not being alone in this investigation was one central reason why I was finally able to get back on the right track, and EJN’s expertise in wildlife reporting helped me a lot to identify the most important leads. After consulting with EJN, I decided to dig a bit deeper at the annual conference for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES. The treaty, drafted as the result of a resolution adopted at a 1963 meeting of members of IUCN, regulates the international trade of CITES-listed flora and fauna.
Through my research, I discovered that some IUCN members were strongly advocating for the rollback of wildlife trade bans. I also learned that some members of the IUCN’s Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group who were proponents of trophy hunting and the leather trade, were big game hunters or worked for places that received money directly from the trophy-hunting industry.
If the allegations I was hearing proved true, the problem seemed pretty clear: just as there could be conflicts-of-interest if the lead executive of a pharmaceutical company were to be a health minister, the people making money from sales of crocodile skins or trophy hunting probably weren’t best placed to make the rules governing global conservation efforts.
This too, I discovered, was more complex than it appeared.
The story I ended up reporting shows that trophy hunters and luxury fashion brands have been working for years to influence the IUCN to expand the billion-dollar trade in endangered animal species. You can read it in English here or in German here.
But at the CITES conference in Geneva, it quickly became clear that the conservation community is split between animal welfare activists, who often focus on the well-being of individual animals, and trade-friendly conservationists. It’s important to emphasize here: I have no reason to doubt some wildlife trade advocates do their work out of a heart-felt conviction that this is the best way to save endangered species, and “sustainable use” is an approach that in some cases can indeed contribute to species conservation, as well as to the livelihoods and well-being of nearby communities.
While I found there was great distrust, skepticism and even hostility between these groups. It was important that I speak to both sides, and I always made clear that I’d need to hear different perspectives to be balanced in my reporting.
I did not feel I needed to condemn the trade advocates, but I had a hard time determining whether these experts were taking that position out of conviction or because of financial interests – or both.
I also realize I wasn’t able to include all voices, particularly those of rangers or local communities that support trophy hunting. This was in part because I didn’t have the budget to travel to remote conservation areas and also because it was already a marathon of an investigation.
What I learned
I picked up a lot of good investigative reporting practices while working on this story. It would have probably saved me some months if I knew these things from the beginning. So, for those of you interested in conducting investigations into corporate influence in conservation, here are some things I learned along the way.
- Pick an industry and a few related NGOs. I started with a hypothesis: Trophy hunting and the exotic leather trade are only legal because industries influence the rules on global wildlife trade. Then I picked one industry – trophy hunting – and looked for groups that know a lot about its activities to see which parts of my hypothesis held up. Some NGOs have experts who have worked on issue areas for decades and can answer questions such as, why is trophy hunting still legal? Who benefits from it?
- Find an insider or witness willing to provide information. If what I was hearing about opposition to animal protection inside IUCN was true, someone must have witnessed it. So, I started by looking for members who had pushed for stricter wildlife trade regulations, figuring they would know best who had opposed such efforts.
I think the reason some people agreed to open up and speak to me was that I tried to show I had done my research when writing my inquiry. I also highlighted connections. When I mentioned that biologist X had recommended that I reach out to him or her, that created credibility.
- Seek out documents, e-mails and letters. Given the size of the debate going on in the IUCN, I figured there must be official statements, studies and e-mail communication between those in favor of more strict controls on the wildlife trade and those in opposition. After building some trusted sources in the organization, I began asking for statements that could back up what they were saying about wildlife trade-defenders acting in the interests of the trophy hunting or fashion industry.
Court cases and legal documents are also excellent sources of information, as well as reports by consultants or academics or scientific studies and study reviews.
Experts’ LinkedIn profiles may also highlight expertise that indicates the types of businesses or industries they’re looking to connect with. And I found it useful to search for presentations or speeches experts had given at conferences and conventions.
- Follow money flows. Most biologists and conservationists work for the IUCN on a voluntary basis. So, my next step was to look at where the wildlife trade supporters I was hearing about were employed. Some companies make money directly from selling animal products, but there are also indirect connections, such as tanneries that process reptile skins or consulting firms that provide sustainability assessments for crocodile farms, for example.
In such cases, the money flow starts with their clients, which are sometimes named on the company website or in annual reports. Individuals’ LinkedIn profiles are also good information sources, as are company newsletters, which often report on partnerships or grants from organizations that may have conflicts of interest. To me, this was the most important step in the investigation because receiving money direct from the industry indicates a real potential conflict.
- Create a spreadsheet. In my table, I entered the names of people I was investigating; their positions in the IUCN; positions in other companies; evidence of potential conflicts of interest, such as statements or letters; and contact details. I ended up with a list of 24 people (although I was only able to include seven of them in my story). The table was a way to see the scope of the problem, and I found that when I had doubts about whether my research was interesting enough, I looked at the table and saw why it was worth working on.
I am sure there are more stories to tell about business interests’ influence over conservation efforts. I’m happy that the Earth Journalism Network and Internews supported this project over such a long period. Without their great support, guidance and understanding, I wouldn’t have persisted with this investigation.
There was some criticism that the English-language headline on the BuzzFeed story – “Inside the Global Conservation Organization Infiltrated by Trophy Hunters” – was too sensationalist. I will say I understand the objection, but sometimes it’s not easy to bundle a complex topic into a single headline. And while use of the word “infiltrate” is debatable, since what the article describes is something that has been occurring for decades, I did indeed see a lot from the "inside," and I continue to ask myself: Do trophy hunters and people with links to industry deserve so vast an amount of power to determine the international rules of species conservation?
In addition, we always strived to make sure we were treating these sensitive issues fairly throughout this journey.
I am a freelance journalist, but I spent such a long time on this investigation that I began to understand how the legal system of global conservation works and why it appears so dysfunctional.
Conservation has become a huge challenge over the past 20 years because climate change and the destruction of natural habitats have brought an array of urgent tasks to the forefront. At the same time, government funding for environmental protection efforts has hardly been steady, so conservation organizations are increasingly relying on private-sector money to fund their work. The possible influence that comes with this money raises a lot of important questions. Even after more than a year spent on this story, I believe that I have only seen the tip of the iceberg and that the investigation is far from finished.
Click the link here to read the complete story in English on BuzzFeed news.
Banner image: Male elephants are shot by trophy hunters legally in some parts of Africa. Researchers are monitoring elephant behavior in and around hunting areas/ Credit: Michelle Gadd/US Fish and Wildlife Service via Flickr