Tribute: A Giant of the Conservation World Passes Away

Mar 18, 2020 | Commentary

By Dr Adam Cruise – University of Stellenbosch

It is with great sadness that a giant of global wildlife conservation passed away yesterday. Professor Alejandro Nadal was a dear friend and colleague to many of us whose immense scholarly insight into the economics of the global wildlife trade did much to highlight the problems of the legal trade and trafficking of wildlife.

Professor Nadal was a Mexican economist who worked the Centre for Economic Studies at El Colegio de Mexico and was co-chair of a working group of the Commission for Environmental, Economic and Social Policies at the IUCN. Professor Nadal was a deep thinker known beyond wildlife circles for his critique of neo-liberal economics. He was a consummate writer and erudite speaker who effortlessly unravelled and deconstructed many mainstream economic theories of our time.

In terms of wildlife and conservation, Nadal focused on the behaviour of wildlife markets and was central in debunking the myth that a legal trade in wildlife is a solution in protecting endangered species. In a ground-breaking paper entitled Leonardo’s Sailors, Nadal and his colleague Francisco Aguayo, postured that the legal trade in wildlife products “relies on models that are based on simplistic and/or extremely restrictive assumptions.” “In most cases,” they wrote, “these models also rely on conceptual tools that have been theoretically discredited.”  In the first in-depth economic analysis of its kind, Nadal and Aguayo argued that one of the most striking features of the legal trade model, specifically as it pertains to wildlife conservation, is the high level of misinformation:

“To anyone who comes in contact with the corpus of literature on wildlife trade, and in particular the literature recommending the use of market-based policies, the uncritical use of theoretically discredited analytical instruments is a striking revelation.”

Nadal found that the most important issue with such discredited misinformation was, and sadly still is, the false conviction that a legal trade in wildlife will out-compete illegal sources because it assumes this goal is achieved through price reduction. In short, the misinformed assumption is that a legal trade puts illegal traffickers and poachers out of business by reducing prices and ‘flooding the market’.  Nadal, however, showed that this economic analysis of wildlife trade “appears to have been trapped in the backwaters of textbook economics”. Far from undercutting illicit trafficking and reducing poaching, he showed that a legal trade actually increased illicit trafficking and poaching as demand would soar beyond legal supply and that, among other things, a legal trade simply provided a veiled conduit for illegal products. This has shown to be especially evident in subsequent analyses of ivory, tiger bone and bear bile markets.

As a wildlife journalist and academic, I had the privilege of working alongside the Professor both in South Africa, where he wrote papers, gave lectures and addressed government committees on the dangers on legalising the rhino horn trade; and, more recently, on a global level, on the need for closing ivory markets, ivory stockpile destruction and the economic problems of elephant trophy hunting.

Over the past four years, Nadal was present as an advisor for Swiss NGO Fondation Franz Weber at various meetings of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). At CITES, Nadal emphasised the need to close legal ivory markets in an effort to curb rampant poaching of elephants in Africa. He also laid bare the fact that the live trade in elephants and elephant trophy hunting is not only economically unsustainable but highly destructive to the survival of the species.

Professor Alejandro Nadal was a saviour of Africa’s iconic wild giants. In his contribution to wildlife conservation, he was a giant himself. No doubt, his colossal legacy and influence will march on.

Rest in Peace, amigo.

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