State of the Planet

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Wildlife: The Other High-Value Resource

By Leo R. Douglas 

Leo R. Douglas is a visiting scientist at the American Museum of Natural History, New York City. His research interests intersect conservation biology, political ecology, and conflict and peace studies. He has taught courses at Columbia University on conservation conflict. For more information on the research that formed the basis for this blog, including citations, contact him at 

Over the past few years, wildlife trafficking has become more lucrative, more widespread and more organized. Recent articles in the National Geographic and New York Times report that the number of elephants systematically and brutally killed each year is currently at the highest levels of the past few decades. INTERPOL now estimates that the illegal trade in wildlife is worth US$10–12 billion annually. This trade is playing an analogous role to the global illegal weapons and drugs market that finances organizations seeking to sustain, resume, and ignite conflict in many of the most conflict-prone areas of the world from Chad to Afghanistan. The United States has gone as far as to request support from national intelligence agencies to help track and prevent the illicit trade that kills thousands of animals in the far corners of the globe.

Photo Credit: Leo Douglas
Elephants are prominent wildlife targeted for their valuable tusks. The global ivory ban has led to conservation protections but also increased illicit killing in many countries. Credit: Leo Douglas

Most practitioners and scholars are well-versed in currently defined high-value resources (HVRs) such as diamonds, oil, gold, and uranium, described in earlier blogs in this series. Yet academic and policy analyses of HVRs have overwhelmingly ignored the similarities between wildlife and their products (WPs) and traditional HVRs such as diamonds. My research argues that popular, academic, and policy discourses such as Christy, Wittemyer, Daballen, and Douglas-Hamilton should continue to modify the definition of high-value natural resources to include the commercial values of WPs because of the potential of this resource to yield substantial revenues and the need to for improved policy and management interventions.

In several regions WPs can be considered HVRs in their ability to influence and/or otherwise finance social conflict, in addition to their potential to become viable resources for peace and nation building. The potential contribution of WPs to both the development and promotion of peace and livelihoods, when well-managed, is not only substantial, it is also arguably more sustainable than the extraction of most traditional HVRs. The development of many types of high-value resources involve massive land transformations, environmental damage, a high potential for chemical (among other forms of) pollution, and expensive environmental impact mitigation measures, most of which never restore these environments to their pre-development state. Furthermore, most of the negative environmental and health costs of these extractive ventures are experienced by local communities that are usually the poorest of the society. Sustainable WPs developments carry few of these risks. For example, nature-wildlife tourism is currently the fastest growing segment of global tourism, and during times of peace, rare, endemic and/or large concentrations of charismatic mega fauna can be the source of major industries.

Elephant poaching levels are currently at their worst in a decade, and seizures of illegal ivory are at their highest level in years. According to an October 2012 National Geographic article, tens of thousands of elephants are killed across Africa each year with ivory sold around the world, ranging from East Asia to underground stores in Rome.  Credit: Leo Douglas.

The demand for wildlife tourism frequently comes from both local and foreign sources, and they provide important sources of foreign currency. While exact calculations from developing countries are sparse, the Unites States Fish & Wildlife Service, for example, has calculated that bird and other wildlife watching is worth US$32 billion per year in the United States alone. Internationally, the development of mega fauna for tourism not only includes non-consumptive forms such as watchable wildlife, but also consumptive tourism, such as trophy hunting that caters to high-end tourists.

Future forums and syntheses of global HVRs, in particular those who seek to address concerns of sustainable development in the developing world (where mega fauna are disproportionately located) must consider flora and fauna as high-value, potentially able to either facilitate conflict or support the path to sustainable peace and stability through multiple pathways.

This article is one in a series emerging from the conference, “Identifying Lessons for Natural Resource Management in Post-Conflict Peacebuilding,” held at Columbia University April 25, 2012, and co-hosted by the Earth Institute and the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), UNEPELI, the University of Tokyo, and McGill University; in cooperation with the Advanced Consortium for Conflict, Cooperation and Complexity and the Vale Columbia Center on Sustainable International Investment. For more information about the conference and the book series, go to

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Philippe Le Billon
Philippe Le Billon
11 years ago

Thanks a lot for this post Leo. Not only is wildlife poached during conflicts, but the end of hostilities also poses major challenges as a result of ineffective desarmament, population resettlement, development schemes (esp. road building), and tourism growth. Major opportunities for conservation can be lost in the immediate aftermath of conflicts. More attention is required within this area (though it’s worth noting that some of the most prominent HVRs, such as Global Witness, came from a background of ivory poaching investigation).

Leo Dougla s
10 years ago

This paper has now been published as a journal article:

Douglas, L.R. & Alie, K. (2014) High-value natural resources: linking wildlife conservation to international conflict, insecurity, and development concerns. Biological Conservation, 171, 270-277.