The theme of this year’s World Wildlife Day - Sustaining All Life on Earth – serves as a timely reminder that sustainable use is one of the three pillars of the UN Convention on Biodiversity, alongside conservation and equitable benefit sharing. Sometimes - particularly when we hear about species under threat of extinction and ecosystems on the brink of collapse – it is easy to think that the most important action we can take is to protect wildlife from humans. More often than not, it is the sustainable use of species by humans that can be key to their long term conservation.
Take the saltwater crocodile in Australia’s Northern Territories, for example. By the start of the 1970s there were only 3,000 creatures left in the wild because people had thought of them as pests and sought to eradicate them. A protection programme was started to save them from extinction which went well for a few years until they reached the numbers and sizes that once again started to have serious negative impacts on people and the protection was halted. The introduction of an egg collection and ranching programme in the 1980s, so that the crocodiles became a benefit rather than a cost to local people turned things around, and now the crocodile population has made a full recovery and numbers about 100,000 – about where it was in 1940s.
For the crocodiles, the ultimate use is to produce leather for the luxury fashion industry. But sustainable use is not all about high value commodities. Every single day a wide variety of species are used by people all over the world for a wide variety of reasons – food, clothing, income, cultural ceremonies and much more. As the CBD notes, this sustainable use “provides incentives for conservation and restoration because of the social, cultural, and economic benefits that people derive from that use.” [CBD 2004].
Wild species and habitats are lost in general because the people in a position to affect them - rural communities who farm, fish and manage forests - are not motivated to conserve them. People deforest for agriculture, they poach for money, they overuse because they need to eat. Legal, sustainable use of wild species brings benefits to people (financial and non-financial), and so people feel inclined to conserve the species so that this flow of benefits continue. IUCN highlighted this relationship noting that “Use of wild living resources, if sustainable, is an important conservation tool because the social and economic benefits derived from such use provide incentives for people to conserve them”. Although IUCN’s sustainable use policy was adopted 20 years ago, it remains as relevant today in 2020 as it was in 2000, if not more so.