Saving the elephants and World Wildlife Day

The United Nations has declared March 3 to be World Wildlife Day. It’s a good opportunity to reflect on the problems of wildlife poaching, which, as Ashok Rao wrote recently, is a moral, social, and political problem.

But, as Virginia Postrel pointed out in her then-NYT Economic Scene column in 2000, it’s also an economic problem, a problem of institution-driven misalignment of incentives. The challenge is to have local community-based institutions that create long-run economic incentives to preserve, or even increase, the wildlife population:

Institutional experiments that give local people a financial stake in wildlife have had some striking successes, particularly in Zimbabwe. There, the government in the mid-1980’s began the Communal Areas Program for Indigenous Resources, better known as Campfire. The program gave local districts wildlife-management authority in communal areas outside the national parks. In some cases, the local districts devolved control further, down to groups as small as 200 villagers. …

Under Campfire, the local authorities worked with outside experts to determine, for instance, that the area could maintain a sustainable elephant population by hunting two elephants a year. Residents would then contract with a safari operator and split the fee of around $25,000 an elephant paid by the hunter. In most cases, the villagers also got the meat from the elephant.

But even such innovative economic thinking has its limits. Both neoclassical and institutional conservation models share an underlying assumption: that the government respects the rule of law and the goal of conservation.

Along the same lines, Arancha Gonzalez writes in today’s Wall Street Journal that Legal Trade Can Save Endangered Wildlife:

Giving rural communities the right economic incentives is critical to protecting wildlife. This is difficult in countries with weak governance and high levels of poverty. Trade bans are often undermined by strong incentives to supply the market demand for the animals and the products that can be harvested from them. Bribes and intimidation from poachers and illegal wildlife traders erode such incentives even further.

And, as Doug Bandow observed in The Freeman last week, a legal market for ivory may be the best way to maintain elephant populations, by creating incentives for people to have elephants around:

Some activists appear to believe that it simply is morally wrong to trade in animals, or at least elephants. But markets have been used elsewhere to help save endangered species.

CITES points to a number of examples. Once-endangered vicunas “are managed through captive breeding and non-lethal harvests from wild populations.” In China, “tigers are being farmed with the intention of supplying tiger parts in the future.” Moreover, “The legal trade in crocodiles is one of the success stories in CITES history which shows species recovery as a result of trade.”

Why not elephants too?

The current system formally treats elephants as sacred, thereby leaving them for dead. Markets would treat elephants as commercial, thereby keeping them alive.