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International League of Conservation Writers
The International League of Conservation Writers is a forum to bring writers together from around the world who are writing to promote wilderness, nature, conservation, or using other means to protect and restore the natural areas, habitats, animals, and plants of our planet. ILCW will present periodic writing awards to authors who excel in this field.
Member Writings

Truth can be stranger than fiction: the horn and ivory trade paradigm.

By ILCW member Ian Michler
(This article was first published in the Daily Maverick, South Africa on 17/2/2014)

Ian MichlerIt was Mark Twain who observed that “truth is stranger than fiction”, although some will suggest his shrewd comment on life was lifted directly from the line “Truth is always strange, stranger than fiction” contained in a poem by Lord Byron. Either way, both could well have had aspects of the current rhino crisis in mind when writing their respective pieces.

Who would ever have thought it true that an entire lobby group could get swept up in a cause that demands the world sets up a complete trading system for rhino horn, a product most accept has no intrinsic value whatsoever?

Ah, but I hear some saying, “don’t confuse truth with fact”, which of course has some merit as truth dabbles in the abstract while fact should withstand all ambiguity. This leeway may also have had something to do with Twain’s explanation that “fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.”

And it’s also precisely why we are now faced with a flawed pro-trade paradigm, one I might add where some aspects are stranger than both truth and fiction.

Take the ‘market’ for horn and its price for example. What is this all based on? It has never been a store of wealth, is not legal tender, and we know that imbibing horn has no medicinal value at all. It does not cure hangovers, cancer or reduce fevers, and it does not give superior sexual powers or increase body strength.

And we have little to no idea about the forces pushing both supply and demand, let alone what the prices paid on these ‘black’ markets are actually reflecting. Yet, exorbitant prices are being fixed on this animal body part.

Other factors however have become clearer. Recent research by various conservation agencies clearly shows how fiction is compounding the saga. Ignorance can no longer cloud our response as we now know that current consumption patterns are not based on age-old TCM beliefs and practices; something most assumed was the case when this crisis began. Instead, we are dealing with recently acquired social habits that come with a dose of misinformation, myth and nonsense with every milligram of powdered horn sold. Paid for with the spoils of recent economic successes experienced across Asia, the high cost seems to add a trendy boost to these flippant leisurely exploits.   

This is vital information as it refutes the notion that demand-reduction should not or cannot be an essential strategy. And bear in mind that with rhino horn, we are not dealing with addictive or maladaptive behaviour either. The good news is that successes are being achieved: China and various visionary conservation agencies have reduced the consumption of shark fin soup by 70% in a short period and this is what a spokesperson for TRAFFIC in Japan had to say about ivory consumption in that country. “There is some demand in Japan for ivory, although it is a lot less than in the past….Younger consumers are not interested in buying anything made of ivory and we are looking into the precise reasons for that now…..But we believe that enforcement of the law after CITES was signed and efforts to raise public awareness by the government, NGOs and environmental groups have all played a part.”

But what’s more, and here is the crunch, these inconsiderate actions are driving criminal activity that in turn is pushing one of our continent’s most iconic species towards extinction. These are all facts held to be true by nearly everyone battling to keep rhino alive, as well as most of us that are not Asian. How and why then does one alter this truth to accommodate a perpetuation of the misinformation and pure nonsense being pedalled? Are we not compelled by logic, good old common sense and integrity to stop the fraud?

And this leads to another fictional aspect to the crisis; the notion that keeping and breeding rhino in farm enclosures to harvest their horns is a conservation story. Nothing could be further from the truth. By all means, involve all constituencies committed to conserving rhinos, but be aware of vested interests tagging their long position in rhino horn into the cause as it may just end up damaging South Africa’s case.  

This flawed paradigm is not the only compelling reason to refute trade. Let’s for the moment stay with the notion that it could be an option. Given that the current law clearly states trading in rhino horn is illegal, the onus then is firmly on any pro-trade analysis to show conclusively that their models will dramatically reduce the poaching and be a significant contributor to biodiversity conservation if the status is changed. And this it would seem cannot be done. While those of us with a modicum of economic knowledge and trading sense have already poked at the holes and exposed some of the vagaries, the more serious critical analysis that is starting to appear is undermining the entire basis of the pro-trade modelling. Simplistic and full of suitable assumptions, it fails to take into account a number of crucial factors around supply, demand, pricing and competition. And this is before we consider the strong probability that the CITES sanctioned sales of ivory in 1999 and 2008 have been a major trigger to the massive surge in elephant poaching across the continent, which threatens the very survival of this species in many African countries.

Unsound analysis based on sweeping assumptions is likely to result in poor decision-making with severe consequences for rhino and elephant populations. If ever the authorities should be considering the ‘precautionary principle’ in conservation, then the trade issue is it.   

These reservations and risks are sound and logical reasons to instead support a multi-faceted approach for both the elephant and rhino crises that focus on the following: demand reduction across all Asian nations; improving policing and prosecution both in Africa and in Asia; enhanced protection for the species, and dealing with the poverty pressures and disempowerment issues that drive the poachers.

I also firmly believe that these battles cannot be fought or won on this continent alone: these crises are as much international ones as they are African. Lobbying the international community to become actively involved may well in the long term be the most vital action of all. They have the funds to rally the global conservation community, the technology and experience to assist with ground measures, and the political clout to coerce Vietnam and China into killing both trade and demand.

And recent developments across numerous fronts allow for some optimism that headway is gathering momentum. We have seen the USA, France, China and the Philippines crush ivory stockpiles within the last while, and then last week as part of their new National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking the USA topped that by announcing a complete ban on the trade in ivory products. Other initiatives include the European Parliament calling on member states to destroy their ivory stockpiles and ban the trade in ivory, and world-renowned conservationist Jane Goodall has emphatically stated her opposition to trade.  

These are strong messages and indicate a growing international groundswell against the trade speculators. However, there now needs to be one further step: the destruction of rhino horn stockpiles.   

The most recent event may well be the most significant, and for reasons beyond the obvious. On the 13th February, 46 nations from around the world and the EU itself signed up to the London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade. Committing to co-ordinated political action, a principal component of the agreement seeks to eradicate both the demand and supply sides of illegal products wherever in the world these occur. It was a prominent conference hosted by the British PM, Prince Charles and Prince William with a wide scope and a list of worthy contributors. Given the urgency of what’s at stake, one would have thought it a recipe to attract the leading players and most of the African states affected by the poaching. And yes, most did participate, but the fact is one key player was conspicuously absent: South Africa did not attend! Why were we not represented as a country?

The opening of Parliament would excuse some, but surely amongst the hundreds of officials involved in our rhino poaching crisis was there not a single candidate available to attend such a crucial forum? They will have their own truth, but as we have already established, this can be stranger than fiction.

It’s an extremely perplexing and worrying state of affairs and questions must be asked of the South African government’s vision, will and agenda. One can only hope this is not the beginning of the country’s isolation in this whole affair.  

Ian Michler has spent the last 24 years living and working across 15 African countries as a safari operator, specialist guide, consultant and environmental journalist. He works with the Conservation Action Trust.


Upcoming Events

ILCW Member to host Writers' Nature Retreats in North and South America

Page Lambert announced her 2014 schedule of writing and nature retreats -- “connecting people with nature – connecting writers with words.”

May 31-June 5, 2014
Page on a horseWYOMING (USA): LITERATURE & LANDSCAPE OF THE HORSE, held at the historic Vee Bar Guest Ranch near Laramie, Wyoming (just 2 ½ hrs from Denver). This 5-day retreat led by Page Lambert and Sheri Griffith (legendary adventurer and equestrian, founder Sheri Griffith Expeditions), is for anyone who yearns for nature, longs to reconnect with horses, and hungers for creative inspiration in an authentic western ranch setting. One special horse will be yours for the entire 5 days. Includes field trip to the Deerwood Ranch Wild Horse EcoSanctuary.  All levels of writing and riding experience welcome. $1490US includes river-side cabins, home-cooked meals in the lodge, Vee Bar wranglers, guitar singing by co-owner Brent Kilmer, and more. $300US deposit (due Feb) holds your horse.

August 10-16, 2014

CanyonUTAH (USA): A RIVER OF OWN’S OWN: A Heroine’s Journey into the World of Story, featuring actor and playwright Ellen McLaughlin as Page’s special guest. During this 6-day Canyonlands river trip (professionally outfitted by Sheri Griffith Expeditions), you’ll float down the Colorado River, through the confluence of the Green River and beautiful Cataract Canyon. The trip culminates with a breathtaking scenic flight from Lake Powell back to Moab, Utah.  SGE provides everything—rafts, tents, sleeping bags, fresh healthy meals, etc. The fabulous women guides do all the cooking and rowing—you get to relax, enjoy the scenery, journal, and circle up each night for inspiring campfire talks under the stars. This will be Page's 17th river writing journey for women  with SGE, which were featured in Oprah’s O magazine in 2006 as “One of the top six great, all-girl getaways of the year!”  $1725US includes scenic flight. $300US deposit holds your space. The trip starts and ends in Moab, Utah.

October 3-14, 2014
. A 12-day immersion into the culture of Peru led by Page Lambert and Laura Tyson of True Nature Journeys (founder, The Women’s Wilderness Institute).  Visit the Sacred Valley, Cusco, Pisac, Ollaytantambo, and Machu Picchu, one of the 7 Wonders of the World.  Spend time with the women weavers of Patacancha and the young Quechua weavers at the Center for Traditional Textiles.  Experience a traditional Incan “despacho” ceremony of intention and letting go. Spend an evening learning to cook authentic Peruvian cuisine.  $3300US includes all meals, lodging, ground transportation, local guides, park passes, creative facilitation, and more.  $400 deposit due by April 1st.  “Watch the nimble fingers of the women weavers with their vibrant strands of wool. Open the pages of your journal and weave your own tapestry with words.”

Call for Writers

Save Our Species (SOS) is looking for writers to promote conservation

Save Our Species logoSOS is a global partnership tackling species conservation issues through grassroots level action with partners worldwide. SOS projects help protect almost 200 species of mammal, bird, amphibian, reptile, fish and plant from a variety of threats. Their objective is to ensure the long-term survival of threatened species and their habitats.

In tandem with this SOS works to show and convince people of the need to invest in nature by telling inspiring stories, by involving them in those stories and sharing them with the world: stories of people, of success, of mankind’s relationship with nature and amazing wildlife. SOS has a wealth of content to relate stories and news.

SOS wants to work with writers and communicators who wish to promote and profile species conservation in mainstream and online media or other innovative ways. If interested please contact Simon Bradley, Website:


ILCW Member John Moir Wins 1st
Place for Literature, Eco Arts Awards

John MoirJohn Moir won First Place for Literature in the 2014 Eco Arts Awards. He received the $1,000 price for his article "Nature's Blinded Visionaries: John Muir, E.O. Wilson, and the Sixth Extinction," which appeared in the new quarterly magazine Catamaran Literary Reader. Moir is an environmental writer based in Santa Cruis, California USA. Website:

Dr. Harry Keys of New Zealand
named ILCW Unsung Hero

The ILCW Unsung Hero Lifetime Achievement Award recognizes the lifetime achievement of someone who is “unsung” or not a well-known figure, and who works to preserve nature and special places, to change laws to protect nature, or to educate the community as to why some places should be protected.

Harry KeysSteadfast defender of Antarctica’s wilderness values
Antarctica’s wilderness values have been accorded international legal protection since the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (Environmental Protocol) came into force in 1998. No government representative has worked as consistently and tirelessly to protect Antarctica’s wilderness values than Dr. Harry Keys. For 14 years (1999 to 2013), Dr. Keys served on the New Zealand delegation as an advisor on environmental protection and conservation to annual meetings of the Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP) - part of the Antarctic Treaty System. Between 1985 and 1988 he was part of the New Zealand delegation negotiating the Antarctic minerals convention – the predecessor to the Environmental Protocol. Harry’s Antarctic career spans 41 years and 28 trips to various parts of the Antarctic and Arctic regions. This year, Dr. Keys retires from his Antarctic work, and has left behind a strong foundation on which the legal obligations signed into international law 15 years earlier can finally be operationalized.

Since the Environmental Protocol first came into force, Harry has participated in the development of principles and guidelines concerning the consideration of wilderness values in the designation of Antarctic Specially Protected Areas. Over a period of 8 years, he led the development of a Systematic Environmental Geographical Framework, a technical tool legally required under the Environmental Protocol for the systematic identification of areas to be included in a representative Protected Area network. These areas include those that have outstanding wilderness values. Once the Systematic Environmental Geographical Framework was adopted by the Antarctic Treaty System in 2008, Dr. Keys moved on to the arduous task of gaining support from the 28 Consultative Parties to the Antarctic Treaty on the need to protect Antarctica’s dwindling wilderness from the expanding human footprint.

He repeatedly drew attention to the impacts of human activities on Antarctica’s wilderness values in the internationally scrutinized process of Environmental Impact Assessments. He highlighted the absence of wilderness areas in the system of Antarctic Specially Protected and Managed Areas and advocated for the identification of areas of outstanding wilderness values that warrant protection. He elaborated on the concept of human footprint and its impacts on wilderness. He began the work to develop guidelines for the consideration of wilderness values in Environmental Impact Assessments and designation of Antarctic Specially Protected Areas.

For many years, the CEP accorded little attention to wilderness. Wilderness was considered to be too abstract and philosophical and was considered to be less legitimate as an environmental issue as others that were considered to be objective and measurable.

Less explicitly, each Antarctic Treaty Party acts in its own national interest. So, naturally, any decision that might lead to the limitation of human activities in any shape or form may be conceived as threatening to a country’s national interest, and therefore not vigorously pursued. For a combination of political and technical reasons, the protection of Antarctica’s wilderness values has remained an issue of low to very low priority for most Treaty Parties throughout the past 15 years since the Environmental Protocol came into force.

Thanks to Harry and his colleagues in the New Zealand government, New Zealand remains one of the very few Treaty Parties that has systematically spoken out in defense of wilderness protection; New Zealand has become a steady bulwark and dependable partner of environmental groups on the issue of wilderness protection, speaking out while most Parties remain silent on the issue.

Day job
Despite his dedication to the protection of Antarctica’s wilderness values, Antarctica has remained mostly a “hobby” in Harry’s career. His “day job” is a scientist with the New Zealand Department of Conservation involved in volcanic risk mitigation and the conservation of geothermal features and biodiversity. His focus is the central North Island of New Zealand, which includes Tongariro National Park World Heritage Area. In 2008 he was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit, in recognition of his leading role in the management of a controversial volcanic risk involving Mt Ruapehu’s Crater Lake. In 2007, he received the prestigious Distinguished Alumni Award from Victoria University of Wellington acknowledging his outstanding contribution to his country.

Harry’s Legacy
As a result of the efforts of Harry and his colleagues, the protection of Antarctica’s wilderness values emerged as an issue of medium priority in the CEP Strategic Planning Workshop in 2006. Subsequently, the protection of wilderness values has been incorporated in the CEP 5 Year Work Plan every year since 2008. By 2013, it has been established as a mainstream environmental issue that Treaty Parties dedicate time and attention to at their annual meeting. This is no small feat in an international diplomatic arena dominated by national and commercial interests.

The Environmental Protocol designated Antarctica “as a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science.” The act of declaration was grand and glorious; making the declaration a reality is a far more humble and tedious task. Mapping the human footprint, getting agreement that human activities are impacting Antarctica’s wilderness values and that proactive action is needed are not sexy conservation campaigns, especially when no charismatic species or indigenous tribes are threatened. Often, this work required labouring away assiduously in front of the computer or brokering deals in hallways and offices till the wee hours. Nonetheless, it remains that what is at stake is one of the last places on Earth where there is still relatively little impact from human activities, and where wild, otherly space still has a chance to inspire, to awe.

Unsung Heros receive a certificate and $250 of books of their choice from Fulcrum Publishing (Golden, Colorado, USA). Dr. Keys was nominated by Tina Tin. Many thanks to Harry for his hard work, passion, and love of nature.

Member Writings

The Route of the Whale: A Multimedia website on conservation & sustainability in Uruguay

By ILCW member Carol Ann Bassett

Program Director of "Nature & Culture: Multimedia Storytelling in Uruguay"

Carol Ann BassettIn 2012 I traveled to Uruguay to create a program on enviromental journalism through the University of Oregon. Few people I spoke with in the United States knew anything about this progressive little nation, and most could not identify it on a map. Even fewer knew that Uruguay’s coastline is a major migratory route for the Southern Atlantic right whale, which comes here to breed and raise its calves. Or that its pristine beaches are now threatened by mega-development schemes such as an open pit iron mine, a deep sea port to barge the ore to China, and a consortium of petroleum companies that have already spent more than one billion dollars to begin seismic offshore testing.

As a long-time environmental journalist I wanted to learn more about these issues. In the capital of Montevideo, I rented a car and drove northeast along the muddy waters of the Río de la Plata until the ocean turned the color of tanzanite. In the coastal town of La Pedrera I stopped at the headquarters of the nonprofit group, the Organization for the Conservation of Cetaceans (OCC) to talk with marine biologist and founder, Rodrigo García Píngaro. A few minutes into our conversation, García received an urgent phone call. An orca had just stranded on the beach only a few hundred yards from OCC’s office. Blood oozed from her blowhole, mouth and eyes, yet her mammalian body was still warm to the touch. For the rest of the day I helped García take tissue samples and data, and stayed until dusk as municipal workers bulldozed a deep burial pit. An OCC volunteer tossed a bouquet of purple wildflowers into the grave before the orca was covered with sand. Her death is still a mystery—and a solemn warning about ocean health on this fragile planet we call home.

Orca burial. Photo by Carol Ann Bassett.

“The Route of the Whale” is the culmination of the first UO Study Abroad Program in Uruguay. The multimedia website was produced by a team of eight undergraduate students—the first journalists in the world to document the entire Route of the Whale—from the hillside town of Piriápolis north to the Brazilian border at Chuy. Each video is like a chapter in a book—a narrative of OCC’s work in traditional communities to educate residents about sustainable fishing, responsible whale watching and clear-headed development. Since 2002, the organization has fought valiantly for the legal protection of cetaceans. It took eleven years for that dream to become law. In September 2013 the Uruguayan Parliament voted unanimously (62-0) to create a protected sanctuary for whales and dolphins. My students and I were present in Parliament to document the historic vote.

Welcome to The Route of the Whale:


Featured Videos

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