Interview with Victor Watkins, World Animal Protection

Victor Watkins has worked in the field of inter­national animal welfare for over 35 years and works as a Technical Expert for World Animal Protection in London. In this interview he describes the value of using science in campaign work, and discusses challenges and changes needed in wild animal welfare and conservation.

1. You have worked on a number of World Animal Protection’s wildlife campaigns. How important, in your view, is scientific research and investigations in supporting campaign work?

It is essential to have reliable and up-to-date facts when planning a campaign, and thorough investigations are one of the ways to gather those facts. When we first started to campaign against the cruelty of farming bears for their bile in Asia we had to challenge the bear farming industry’s account that they were treating their bears humanely.  Undercover cameras were used by our investigators to expose the horrific cruelty that thousands of bears were facing in this multi-million-dollar industry.

We used scientific research to show the devastating effects that captivity and bile extraction had on captive bears and we produced a scientific report on the veterinary, behavioural and welfare consequences of bear farming.This was endorsed by researchers and scientists from around the world and was effectively used at several international conferences to highlight the inhumane industry.

Additionally, one of the first campaigns I worked on in the 1980’s was the international trade in frogs’ legs for human consumption. It was through this extensive research that we proved that unsustainably high volumes of frogs were being harvested from rice fields in India. This caused farmers to use deadly DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) insecticide to combat the insect pests left to destroy the rice crops as their natural predators, the frogs, were being removed in their hundreds of millions for what was also an exceedingly inhumane trade. World Animal Protection (then called the World Society for the protection of Animals, or WSPA) helped to bring about a ban on that trade in the mid 1980’s.

2. In your view, currently what is the biggest change that needs to happen to protect the welfare of wildlife?

One way to stop the suffering of millions of wild animals would be to ensure that CITES (the body that regulates the international trade in endangered species) accepts the welfare of animals as the main consideration in any international trade in wildlife. CITES needs to accept that if there is any indication that wild animals in international trade have their welfare compromised because of the trade then the trade should be banned.  If this were implemented, it would prevent the legal capture and transportation and suffering of countless millions of animals each year. Unfortunately, animal welfare is not yet on the CITES agenda and any attempt to press this issue in recent years has met with indifference, due to the massive commercial interests of the international wildlife trade.

CITES does work to prevent the illegal trade in wildlife, where animals are threatened by extinction, but there is a massive legal trade in wildlife that are not in immediate threat of extinction and CITES works to regulate that trade but not to stop it.  CITES aims are to ensure that the international wildlife trade is at sustainable levels and does not pose a threat to the conservation of species.  So this means millions of birds, fish, reptiles etc. can be caught from the wild and legally sold internationally, either as exotic pets, as food or as medicinal and fashion products, with very little consideration of the welfare of those animals during capture, holding, transport and eventual sale in pet shops or meat and other markets abroad. 

Millions of wild animals are injured and die during trade from poor capture and handling methods, inadequate care during transportation and insufficient understanding of the welfare needs of the animals in trade. The surviving animals can continue to suffer from sickness, injury and stress when they reach their destination pet shops and markets.Where animals are caught and killed inhumanely locally before their products are exported (e.g. snake skins) then this trade should also be banned on welfare grounds.

If CITES were forced to prevent poor animal welfare in international trade, then many trade routes would cease to exist.World Animal Protection needs to work with other specialists such as the Species Survival Network (SSN) to achieve this goal.

3. Do you think a greater dialogue is needed between those working to improve the welfare of wild animals and those working to conserve wild species? 

Yes, this is absolutely necessary.

When I started working with the World Animal Protection in the 1980’s (then WSPA) there was a clear division between animal welfare and conservation organisations.  Organisations such as WWF tended to promote sustainable use of wildlife and the preservation of animal populations, which also involved ‘sustainable’ hunting, whereas the animal welfarists focused on the welfare of individual animals.  There was very little crossover in this work and in the 1980’s I struggled to introduce conservation into the projects we were undertaking, due to the remit of the organisation being focussed entirely on animal welfare.  In my role as Wildlife Director of the WSPA in the early 1990’s I made a presentation to the organisation entitled The Welfare of Wildlife, which clearly showed that to fully protect wild animals we had to consider both the protection of wildlife in its habitat as well as protecting wild animals from cruelty. 

The first major campaign we ran which covered both of these areas was in the 1990’s when I developed the Libearty campaign.  This aimed to “Protect bears from cruelty and exploitation in captivity and in the wild”, and it funded projects which protected the species from being hunted in the wild, by campaigning against the exploitation of wild bears caught for inhumane activities such as bear baiting, bile-farming, and dancing bears.

The best way to prevent wild animals from having their welfare compromised is to ensure that they are not caught from the wild to be exploited in the first place.  So it is essential that we work alongside those organisations specialising in conservation, and a good example of such an alliance would be to campaign to ensure animal welfare is a priority at CITES which could effectively prevent the suffering of countless millions of wild animals annually while protecting them in their wild habitat.


* Any views or opinions represented in this interview are personal and belong solely to the interviewee, and do not necessarily represent the views or policies of World Animal Protection.