3. Consumers

Why do people want to possess exotic animals? There is a myriad of reasons for that. For some, the animals are so beautiful that they want to own it. I am sure that you have seen a dress or a laptop that is so beautiful that you just want to have it in your possession, so that you can call it yours. With animals, it is very much the same thing. You could say that animals are looked upon as just another merchandise (recall the utilitarian and dominionistic attitudes people tend to have towards animals?). For some, it is a status symbol. Indonesia has 230 animals on its endangered species list, and virtually every one of them can be bought in the capital. “It’s alarming to see that Indonesia’s list of protected species is getting longer, not shorter,” Irma Hermawati, a 31-year-old Javanese native investigator for the non-profit group ProFauna, which lobbies on behalf of what she believes is Indonesia’s most precious resource: its indigenous wildlife, said. Many of these animals cost exorbitant amounts. Being able to own these animals attained from far off places means that you had cash to spare for something so completely extravagant: its only use is the pleasure you derive from looking at it. For others, these exotic animals, or parts of them, are believed to contain medicinal values for treating illnesses or to upkeeping health.

So what is it about human-ness that produces all these problems in our environment, really? Humans started really first having an impact on biodiversity 10 to 50 thousand years ago. There was a major loss of large animals like the mammoths due to hunting. Hunting large animals were possible when Man began making tools and weapons to aid them. Changes in climatic conditions also contributed to the loss of various species. However, it is only in recent times after the industrial revolution, with the nature of and intensity at which we use our technologies, that a large and diverse number of animals became extinct. It is important to have biodiversity because the animals form a sort of “biological house of cards”. As more and more flora and fauna are “taken out” of this proverbial house of cards, a collapse of the ecological system would be inevitable. Using nature to meet our needs is not a bad thing per se. After all, that is the way nature is: all life forms are interconnected and interdependent with some even sharing a symbiotic relationship. As with anything, moderation is key. The problem with the current trend is that of over-exploitation. There are many ways in which humans have exploited the Earth. Deforestation, over-fishing and illegal hunting are just to name a few. However, we focus on poaching in this blog.

Cities have a large impact on the environment, being the most consumptive regions and the highest rates of pollution. An area with a high density of people would inevitably mean so. This problem is aggravated when economic development is the primary goal of the government. This would mean greater encroachment into and pollution of the habitats of the wild animals coupled with less concern for and resources put into restoring these damages. It would appear to be such a waste of precious resources that could otherwise be used to further economic growth. Furthermore, a rapid and exponential growth of the population together with increased material affluence and more potent technology would definitely increase the human impact on nature.

In the case of poaching, it is the most affluent people who indulge in what would seem to others as frivolous hobbies. A growing collection of exotic animals would make him or her appear high up on the social rung and people all around would be talking about him or her but what this is, is only an illusion of grandeur and power. Many of these people either do not know or do not care about how these animals actually came into the hands of the sellers or even how these animals were shipped over to their homes. To them, these animals are mere goods. Do you wonder how your clothes were made and from what and in what kind of conditions they were housed in in warehouses before they came to be hung up on the racks in stores? In the same way, people sometimes forget these are living, breathing animals that once lived a much freer life in a forest somewhere far off, where they should have been left. To these people, they have paid money for the animals and all that matters to them is that they arrived in a condition that they expected the “goods” to arrive in. The rest is inconsequential. This does not necessarily make them bad people. This is just how we have been brought up, what we learnt through the norms and practices of the people around us.

For centuries, people have lived with animals, most of which we have domesticated. One of such relationships is that of humans and dogs. Through selective pressures, dogs have become one of the most popular household pets. Today, pets are kept for pleasure but in the early days, domesticated animals either had utility value of were tolerated. There are a few types of human-animal relationship: mutualistic, where both parties benefit from the other, parasitic, where one party benefits from the other and the other is disadvantaged, and commensal, where one party gains from the other but the other is not disadvantaged.

Consumers of the wildlife trade probably find it interesting and refreshing to own an exotic pet, unaware of the repercussions it would make on the biodiversity or ecological balance back in its place of origin. How many people today take note of these details when they have so much in their lives to take care of? Even if people hear about these things, they have internal biases that distort these information so that they would not be too distressed by it. This is an evolutionary adaptation that allows people to move on in life without being too stressed by certain events, as this would incapacitate them in their daily living. Furthermore, people do not like to think of themselves as bad people. They would more likely downplay their contribution to any disaster because the cognitive dissonance that they would experience from thinking about how terrible a person they are for contributing to the pain that these animals undergo when they feel like they should be good people with prosocial values.

In the empathy-distress hypothesis, it is posited that others’ distress causes us distress and through learning these cues, instrumental helping responses are elicited within us.  However, there is a cost-reward model that accompanies the empathy-distress hypothesis.  The authors hypothesised that a cost-benefit analysis is carried out when empathy is aroused within a person. This is the cognitive calculation for how much and when the individual will help. The empathic distress, reward gained from the relief of the other party’s distress and the costs of helping (or not helping) are all weighed against each other. If the individual feels that helping will not alleviate his or her distress much or that his or her help will not alleviate the distress of the other party much, it is likely that he or she will not engage in any helping behaviour. This is probably the case for the consumers who partake in the wildlife trade. They probably think that the effort of one person would not significantly reverse the fate of the animals in the wildlife trade. Making the effort to do so would make him “lose out” because the others would continue to indulge in exotic animals that could keep them healthy and live a longer life or even just as a way to flaunt one’s wealth. This is much like Hardin’s tragedy of the commons. Unfortunately, it is once again human nature to assess problems by its projected human casualties and biodiversity damage is often not taken into account. We also attend more to things that happen more frequently. By virtue of these consumers probably living in places detached from the scene of destruction, they cannot properly appreciate the consequences of their behaviour. They could read it in books, see it on the television or read it on the Internet, but these forms of media put an imaginary barrier between the consumer and the reality. Reading or hearing about things happening even just next door through the media can often have the effect of it having happened in a distant place and out of one’s control. It is also difficult for people to assess the risks that they are contributing towards, especially one that does not appear to affect them directly. Some may not even see it as affecting them at all in the first place.