In the 1980s, Caiman crocodilus yacare in the Pantanal was probably the most heavily exploited crocodilian in the world. However, when the bottom fell out of the inter- national market for crocodilian skins in the early 1990’s, the subspecies went to commercial extinction even though it remained one of the world’s most abundant crocodilians. Economic realists claimed that the industry was subject to unpredictable demands, but many conservationists claimed that the commercial extinction was due to new CITES regulations which made the costs of trafficking too high. Those conservationists do not take credit for the caiman farms that also went to commercial extinction in this period. Whatever the cause, difficulty of hunting at the source was not the cause.
Melanosuchus niger went to commercial extinction in terms of the skin trade in the early 1980’s when the populations were extremely reduced. The fact that a heavy trade in meat for local (South American) markets continued, and continues to this day, did not prevent the species from recovering to be the most common crocodilian in many parts of Amazonia (Da Silveira and Thorbjarnarson 1999). Many species of Amazonian turtles are extensively hunted, yet remain relatively common. Therefore, the persistence of hunters in the area does not always keep driving a species down.
Most conservation is about economics and economics depends as much on demand as supply. Conservationists need to think in terms of cost-benefit ratios. The highest costs are often, perhaps usually, not at the source. Conservationists can increase the costs, usually through laws restricting trade, and drive the wild populations to commercial extinction long before they reach biological extinction.
Proposals to farm the species follow the same logic, but their objective is to reduce the benefits of wild harvest by making the price fall. These proposals sometimes backfire, because the highest costs are often at the distribution and processing end. In this case, the farms may keep the industry viable long after it would have gone to commercial extinction if based only on wild populations, especially if the species is used only for food and has an intrinsically low value. As pointed out by Salzberg, when the price is forced up astronomically by rarity, such as when the product is for medicine or the pet trade, the species may reach biological extinction before commercial extinction.
Conservation is not a race between the market and nature. Conservation is about trying to adjust the market in such a way that wild populations of the species will attain commercial extinction before biological extinction. There are many ways to do this, and the best recipe will vary between places. As a generalization, conservation of Asian turtles is difficult because of strong markets, weak laws, widespread poverty close to unimaginable wealth, and the presence of common species that can maintain the market functioning in the area long after the rarer species would have gone to commercial extinction if they were the only species present. However, this generalization hides a multitude of specific cases that will have to be dealt with to obtain effective conservation.
In other places in the world, it may be better to have a wildlife market than convert the area in soybean fields. Again, it is a matter of economics. We will only have success if conservationists use commercial extinction as a tool. The question is almost always the following: How can I manipulate the market so that the species goes to commercial extinction in the wild before it goes to biological extinction? If commercial extinction cannot exist, then neither can conservation.
Da Silveira, R. and J. Thorbjarnarson. 1999. Conservation implications of commercial hunting of black and spectacled caiman in the Mamirauá Sustainable Development Reserve, Brazil. Biological Conservation 88:103-109.
Salzberg, A. 2001. An examination of the concept of “Commercial Extinction.” Turtle and Tortoise Newsl. 3: 14-15.