More information needed to inform future policy approaches to badger trade in South Korea

Conservation biologist Joshua Elves-Powell and co-authors have recently released ground-breaking new work on the poorly known wildlife trade in badgers in South Korea. They concluded that increased monitoring of the trade and more targeted research would improve the availability of information and thus enhance the quality of future policy approaches.

Moreover, the conservation risks of this trade could be assessed with more focus on the welfare of the traded animals and prevention of zoonotic disease risks. This interview will give you a glimpse of one of the interesting topics you could be working on as a conservationist.

Badger farming in South-Korea

Wildlife trade in badgers is widely overlooked in South Korea. Indeed, badger farming is familiar to most people from the trade in shaving brushes, the majority of which comes from badger farms in China.

Badger trade has a long history in the country, but in the 1990s there was a dramatic shift, with the setting up of wildlife farms that house both native Asian badgers and non-native hog badgers (a genus of badger native to Southeast Asia and China). Badgers were imported to South Korea at the time to stock wildlife farms, but the report raises concerns over wild badgers being illegally captured in South Korea and used to stock badger farms.

There seems to be a relationship in trade between badger and bear farming. In South Korea, bear farming has been occurring since the 1980s. But last year there was a joint bear declaration between the South Korean government, bear farmers and civil society (for example, Project Moon Bear, which has been at the forefront of efforts to end bear farming in South Korea) to end bear farming by 2026.

If successful in its ambitious goal, South Korea would be among the first countries to completely end bear farming. When badger farming emerged in the 1990s it was intended to be able to provide a substitute for bears, in particular for use in traditional medicine. But should regulation of badger farming now take the same approach as bear farming?

Similarity between badger and bear farming

The report by Elves-Powell and colleagues shows that there are a lot of similar concerns between bear and badger farming regarding the welfare of traded animals, impacts on wildlife conservation, and potential risks to human and animal health. A major root of this concern is the lack of information that we currently have on the traded species. The Asian badger is poorly known and ecological information on the species is particularly lacking in South Korea.

Therefore, better regulation and monitoring of the trade are advised by the report.  The authors  hope that the report will inspire other researchers to take an interest in the topic, and that, based on the best available information, the South Korean government will look into better regulation and monitoring of the trade, in particular  conditions on badger farms.

A needed focus on overlooked species

A major objective of the study was trying to get a first handle on the number of badgers farmed, the location of farms and any changes that had occurred over time. Despite initial suspicion that badger farming emerged in the early 2000s and then died out very quickly, the project team found that this was not the case at all.

The number of badger farms had gone down heavily, but the number of farmed animals stayed consistent. They looked at what people were actually trading, and the range of products that were on the market and found substantial diversification over the past 20 years. Products now available online include badger-derived cosmetics, including soaps, creams and even facemasks.

This study makes a very clear case that we need to have a much better focus on overlooked species. The research team note that in many cases, while an overlooked species’ conservation status might be optimistic on paper, when you drill down into the data, there is often a lack of reliable data to back up those assessments.

It is important to also focus on species which are not large-bodied, highly charismatic species. For small, overlooked species, more information can vital to help inform future policy approaches.

Policy steps

In South Korea, there are some key policy steps that the research team recommend should be taken. As well as the need for better monitoring and regulation on badger farms themselves, which currently have few biosecurity regulations, there needs to be efforts made to address illegal badger poaching, which still occurs in South Korea. These poached animals might be entering legal markets, or being used to stock badger farms.

The study shows that it is difficult to identify any clear societal, economic or conservation benefits of badger farming to South Korea at the moment.

South Korea is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, with a GDP per capita  similar to the European Union and the United Kingdom, so badger farming, which does not support a large number of livelihoods, does not seem to provide any tangible economic benefits.

However, there are a lot of unaddressed risks, certainly as many as there are for bear farming. The researchers make clear that the decision on how to regulate badger farming is ultimately the decision of South Korean policymakers, but they suspect that there will be interest in applying the same approach to badger farming and bear farming.

Example approach for other countries

South Korea could be an example for other countries. In the case of bears, recent action by the South Korean Ministry of the Environment and particularly the leadership shown by domestic NGOs, such as Project Moon Bear, has been impressive.

South Korea is currently looking to build a number of sanctuaries to rehouse the bears, as there are a large number of bears that are still on site on bear farms. The plan is to build two public sanctuaries and potentially a private one. Animals Asia has been successful in setting up a sanctuary in Vietnam to rehouse bears, even though the country has not taken the kind of nationwide approach that South Korea has yet.

Interaction between human and wildlife

Elves-Powell argues that because carnivores evoke strong emotions in humans, their conservation is inherently intertwined with people. Many of these carnivore species are surprisingly adaptable and can tolerate living in human-dominated environments.

Recent examples from Europe and South Korea, where carnivores can survive or even rebound in small and densely populated countries, show that there is hope for the future. The real key is whether we are prepared to live alongside them.

Advice for aspiring conservation scientists

Elves-Powell explained what this means for those hoping to pursue a career in conservation science.

“The vast majority of conservation funding, research and public attention currently goes towards a very small percentage of species. This is something that needs to change if we are to have any hope of halting the high levels of biodiversity loss we currently see right across the tree of life.”

“If you are a student and you have to complete a dissertation or thesis as part of your studies, focussing on an overlooked species could be a way to ensure that your work is new and has real impact. While data may be harder to come by, for some of the most poorly studied species, there is a strong likelihood your work will become a useful resource for conservationists and policy makers.”

“How do you know which species have historically been overlooked by science and conservation? A good place to start can be resources like the ZSL EDGE of Extinction list, which classifies conservation effort for each listed species.”

About Joshua Elves-Powell

Joshua Elves-Powell is a conservation biologist and presenter for WWF International’s #WWFVoices campaign on global biodiversity. He’s currently completing his PhD at UCL and the Institute of Zoology at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), on carnivore conservation in North-East Asia. He has a long-standing interest in human-wildlife conflict, wildlife trade and protected area management. As part of his PhD, he runs the Korean Carnivore Project.

Listen to his interview on the Conservation Careers Podcast, where he talks about what drives him in his career, how he’s managed to open so many doors to opportunities and some fantastic advice for what you can do to follow in his impressive footsteps.


Author Profile | Rebecca Christiaanse

Rebecca is a Coastal-and Marine Management student at the Van Hall Larenstein University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands and a volunteer Conservation Careers Blogger.

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