To trade or not to trade? Breaking the ivory deadlock


An Elephant near Kruger National park - Photo: Duan BiggsNow, an international team including researchers from The University of Queensland and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions(CEED) is working to break the policy stalemate.

UQ CEED postdoctoral researcher Dr Matthew Holdensaid the team identified a process aimed to overcome the deadlock on ivory.

“We believe there hasn’t been a resolution because each side of the debate has failed to recognise the other’s moral perspectives,” Dr Holden said.

“People are more likely to unconsciously challenge information coming from someone with a different moral view, like we see with climate change,” he said.

“Drawing on what we’ve learned from other polarised debates, we developed a structured process aimed to help stakeholders better understand each other’s perspective, and make informed policy decisions.”

The researchers recognise the politics around ivory policy are challenging, but urge countries and organisations committed to elephant conservation to initiate such a process.   

Lead author Dr Duan Biggs, who began the research as a UQ CEED postdoc researcher, said the policy impasse was wasting valuable conservation resources.

“Scientific information alone will not solve contentious issues like ivory trade,” Dr Biggs said.

“Identifying people’s beliefs, values and perspectives on ivory trade can help overcome the deadlock on ivory policy.”

The researchers say the continued policy deadlock on the trade of products from iconic species like elephant and rhino is harming the conservation of these animals.

The paper is published in Science.

Media: Dr Matthew Holden, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., @MattHHolden, +61 406 557 706; Dr Duan Biggs, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., Twitter @duanbiggs, whatsapp +61 422 09 7024 at all times, Malawi from 12 – 19 December on +265 997 176 720, South Africa from 19-27 December on +27 79 358 9061; Casey Fung, CEED Communications, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., +61 433 638 643.

High animal product prices part of a ‘vicious cycle towards extinction’

Skyrocketing prices for rare animal products can push species to extinction even when their populations are abundant, researchers say.

The University of Queensland’s Dr Matthew Holden and Dr Eve McDonald-Madden undertook a study for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions, examining the fate of animals when prices for their products change with animal scarcity.

“Past theory says that if the price for animal products – like elephant trophy hunting expeditions - were to skyrocket as animals declined, this would create extra financial incentive to sell these products,” Dr Holden said.

“The theory says that more animals then die from increased hunting, which would then skyrocket product price further, in a vicious cycle towards extinction.

“Our study shows this process can start when the population is much larger than previously thought.

“It suggests large populations predicted safe by previous theory may in fact be in danger.

“African elephants may fit this category – they are abundant.”


The vicious cycle toward extinction explained by maths from ARC CEED on Vimeo.


The study used mathematical modelling to show how quickly animal populations can decrease when prices for animal products rise with animal scarcity.


US President Donald Trump’s recent elephant trophy ban and backflip has restarted the debate about whether legal hunting of African big-game animals can help them by raising money to protect them.

Dr Holden said not enough was known about the price of trophy hunting expeditions to predict whether legalising elephant trophy transport could cause African elephants to follow this theoretical path toward extinction.

“Both sides of the trophy hunting debate make seemingly logical arguments, but actually very little is known about the social and economic side of trophy hunting and that’s a big concern,” said Dr Holden.

“Our research isn’t specific to elephants and trophy hunting, but the existence of price rarity relationships have been shown time and time again in fish, mammals and even butterflies.

“These relationships can be detrimental to animal populations.”

The research is published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology.

Media: Dr Matthew Holden, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., @MattHHolden, +61 406 557 706; Dr Eve McDonald-Madden, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., @McMadLab, +61 7 3365 6525; Casey Fung, ARC CEED Media, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., +61 433 638 643.

Is policy paying for benefits that would have happened anyway?

Many environmental policies and programs pay public money to people or businesses (or give them tax breaks or discounts) to encourage them to adopt more environmentally friendly practices and behaviours. A seemingly common-sense rule for these sorts of programs is that we shouldn’t pay people to do things that
they were going to do anyway, without payment. But it can be quite a hard rule to apply in practice.

The idea that we shouldn’t pay people to do things that they were going to do anyway goes under the name of “additionality”. (It is also related to the with-versus-without principle in Benefit: Cost Analysis, and the concept of market failure – see PD272).

The idea behind “additionality” is that, when a program pays money to people to change their behaviours, the environmental benefits that result should be additional to the environmental benefits that would have occurred anyway, in the absence of the payments.

The reason this matters is that, if we are able to target payments to those behaviours that do result in additional environmental benefits, we’ll end up with greater environmental benefits overall, compared to paying for non-additional benefits – we’ll get better value for taxpayers’ money.

Some environmental programs do a poor job of checking for additionality. As I noted in PD272, much of the money given to farmers in US agri-environmental programs is not additional. In Australia, the Direct Action program for climate change doesn’t consider additionality well when selecting the winning bids in their reverse auctions (it compares practices before vs after signing up to the program, not with versus without).

So, environmental programs that allocate money to people or businesses should worry about additionality, but how? It can be harder than it sounds. It’s all very well to say, “only pay people if they would not have done it anyway”, but how do we know what they would have done anyway?

Sometimes it’s reasonably easy. There are cases where we can be pretty confident that people would not have done the environmental action, and will not start doing it in future, without a payment or regulation. I suspect that most of the work on Australian farms to fence off waterways to exclude livestock would not have happened without payments to cover the cost of fencing materials.

Read the full article at David Pannell's blog.

Shall I stay or shall I go?

Conservation has a dual focus on places, like national parks, and species, like the individual and groups of animals which live in those areas. Conservation and policy outcomes are largely based on the interaction between these two things.

BubbsCanyon IMG 2177 768x576px

Restoration and other conservation actions have traditionally focused on maintaining or returning species to particular places. But in a world being rapidly changed by humans that increasingly forces species to move, is this still the best approach?  

In a recent paper, Richard Hobbs, Leonie Valentine and others, discuss how increased attention to species movement in response to environmental change highlights the need to consider changes in species distributions and altered biological groupings. 

The paper is published in Trends in Ecology & Evolution. 

Image: Bubbs Canyon, National Park Service.


Addressing stakeholder values key to success for projects

sdm23A new Australian study has demonstrated just how much environmental restoration projects can benefit from capturing and incorporating stakeholder values.

Luc Hoffman Institute and ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions researcher Dr Angela Guerrero Gonzalez of The University of Queensland’s School of Biological Sciences said the study successfully used a formal decision support framework called “structured decision making” (SDM) to guide decision makers through a decision process.

“This framework includes tools such as surveys, workshops and refinement of objectives plus specific steps for setting objectives and a mechanism for capturing different stakeholder values,” she said.

To demonstrate the SDM approach, the researchers partnered with the City of Gold Coast which was looking for a formal process for specifying restoration objectives to ensure that public expenditure on vegetation restoration across approximately 800 conservation parks, covering 12,000 ha was effective, efficient and transparent.

“Identifying stakeholder values is not easy which means that objectives often do not capture the fundamental outcomes that matter from a decision,” she said.

“If these outcomes are not made explicit, conflict between stakeholders can develop and it can also make it difficult to identify trade-offs between different alternative courses of action.

“It is important to make these trade-offs clear so that they can be understood, and negotiated between stakeholders.”

Dr Guerrero Gonzalez said the SDM approach was applied at the start of the project for stakeholders who included natural area managers, restoration ecologists and decision scientists.

She said the study showed how to account for different values, and also how to incorporate stakeholders’ expectations and preferences.

The study, Using structured decision making to set restoration objectives when multiple values and preferences exist, is published in Restoration Ecology (doi: 10.1111/rec.12591).

Funded by ARC CEED and the Australian Research Council Linkage Program, the project also involved researchers from UQ’s School of Biological SciencesMurdoch UniversityGriffith UniversityUniversity of Melbourne, City of Gold Coast, and Santa Clara University, U.S.

Media: Dr Angela Guerrero Gonzalez, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.+447948433314; Casey Fung, ARC CEED media, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., +617 3365 2454.