August 20th, 2015
Have A Question?
A couple of years ago, I took my family on a photo safari to South Africa to see the majestic animals there (many of which I worried would not exist in the wild a generation from now). We stayed on the Zululand Rhino Preserve and learned that the preserve had been established to repopulate the rhino in South Africa.We were also surprised to find out that the entire preserve was privately owned. Years ago, a few dozen landowners had decided to combine their tracks of land and make a business out of wildlife management and conservation.
While in South Africa, we did venture out to other preserves (mostly national parks) and noticed a striking contrast between them. The national parks had much less security (clearly not enough, evidenced by the frequent and persistent poaching that occurred there). At the private preserves, fences were well maintained, guards were well armed and outfitted, and poaching was rare. Likewise, the privately owned wildlife were meticulously managed, protected and cared for. “Why the difference?” I asked one of the owners. He explained (and I paraphrase):
“Matt, these animals are quite valuable. So we take great care to protect them and nurture their repopulation. We also identify mature males and select them for trophy hunting. These large trophy fees provide the funds to protect even more animals and grow the wildlife population. Locals are able to come onto our preserve and hunt for food (this also generates revenues). In South Africa, wild game does not survive outside of protected areas. For years, any animal in South Africa that left a protected area would be killed and eaten immediately by locals. It would be a tragedy to let this valuable merchandise expire on the shelf to die a suffering death and rot in the sun.”
When the sad news of the killing of Cecil the Lion broke a few weeks ago, I could see how things would play out. In response to the death of such a magnificent creature, emotions would run wild. Taken to the desired ends of many people, the man who shot Cecil would have been beaten and lynched in the public square, without due process and prior to any rational thought about the realities of animal conservation. While it appears that the professional hunting guides involved in Cecil’s death circumvented laws, it is nowhere certain that the hunter that shot him knew the laws were being broken. What is certainly true is that trophy and big game hunting contribute to the conservation of those species, perhaps more than any other efforts have. Before you decide to post my address online and call for my hanging on social media, hear me out.
Economics relies on the application of facts, logic and reason to find the truth. Emotions on the other hand, are the source of misconception and wrong thinking – resulting in a great deal of suffering. Through the lens of Economics, we can rationally solve many of our problems today (even the conservation of endangered animals). Since Economics is the study of the maximization of scarce resources (and wildlife is indeed scarce and valuable), it allows us to use reason to make good (though often hard) choices. As I will say again, the real world is about incentives. If incentives are aligned with goals, then positive outcomes are self-sustaining. If not, then society fights a constant but losing battle. (Read Economic Concept: Scarcity – Enough is Never Enough)
In Economics the “common good” is a specific good that is shared by and beneficial to all, or most, members of a given community. Wild animals that freely roam and are not the property of any particular person have usually been thought of as a “common good”. “Commons,” in this sense, refer to natural resources such as the atmosphere, oceans, rivers, wildlife or any other shared goods that are not formally regulated or specifically owned. Such goods do not fit well into the economic model of free markets, supply and demand, prices, marginal utility, competition, free exchange, etc.
In 1833, the English economist William Forster Lloyd published a pamphlet that pointed out how “common goods” tend to be depleted under the conditions of individual rational economic decisions (self interested behavior). So rather than creating wealth and maximizing social welfare (as occurs in the free-market voluntary exchange of private property), the incentives of individuals (guided by their own self interest) will tend to deplete and destroy “common goods” to the detriment of society as a whole (Lloyd used the example of common grazing areas that would ultimately be overgrazed by the total actions of individual herders[i]).
In 1968, ecologist Garret Harding further developed this concept as “The Tragedy of the Commons”[ii]. Garret argued that access to and unlimited want for a finite resource, ultimately reduces the resource through over-exploitation, temporarily or permanently (remember, economics studies the efficient allocation of scarce resources given unlimited demand through prices and voluntary exchange). When a good is common (has no market price and is owned by no one), there is no incentive to economize that resource (Read Economic Concept: Supply and Demand). The inefficient use of scarce resources occurs when the benefits of such use accrues to individuals or groups, while the costs of the use are borne by all those to whom the resource is available. In the absence of price signals and private property, most systems break down (and waste or deplete precious resources).
So what is the remedy in these situations? If a good is truly common, some sort of control, regulation or protection is in order to limit the amount of the resource that is available for use by any individual. Several approaches are:
We know from experience that when property is held in common by everyone in a society, the society does not prosper in the same way it does when property is privately owned (http://mattshafer.us/the-most-important-economic-schools-of-thought-in-1-lesson/#.Vcuv_Yb3bCQ). Due to the limitations among the choices above, commonly held goods should be strictly limited in definition to those that are truly “public goods” by their very nature (and cannot be privately owned or managed).
In economics, truly “public” goods are defined as being both “non-rivalrous” (consumption by one consumer does not prevent the simultaneous consumption by other consumers) and “non-excludable” (consumption by non-payers cannot be prevented). National Defense, Policing and the Court System seem to fit the definition of “public goods.” However, does wildlife qualify? If not, would not private ownership provide a more effective form of conservation? For the benefit of future Cecil’s, let us explore.
In earlier times, there was plenty of space for wildlife and less area needed by humans. Now, humans and wildlife are often in conflict for space and resources. Wildlife conservation programs are now vital to protect many big-game animals and other endangers species. No one wants species to be eliminated; but then again, no one wants to cull human populations to make more room for wildlife (although, by some of what I read, there seem to be some people that would make this choice).
The management and conservation of wildlife take effort and money (resources which have alternative uses) that must come from somewhere. Funding for such efforts is a struggle for many (often poor) countries, where these animals live. Government budgets, tourist revenue and charitable contributions to fund such conservation efforts have been insufficient. Additionally, local peoples have little incentive to protect (or event not poach) wildlife, as these animals often encroach on crops and attack livestock (and people). Furthermore, scientists and biologists have long known that a number of mature specific animals are detrimental to the overall species population and should be removed (older males nearing the end of their viable reproductive lives often become violent and dangerous to other members of the group – and sometimes humans).
In light of all this, private ownership of lands and wildlife, combined with hunting, appears to be doing more to protect, save and revive certain species in Africa. By placing a trophy price on specific animals, all members of the species are valued (economically, not just emotionally).
According to National Geographic, trophy hunting is the reason private hunting operations in Africa (that derive revenue from big-game hunting) now control 22 percent more preserve lands than is protected by government funded national parks. These property owners converted their (often agricultural) land into game preserves; not because they wanted to starve or go out of business, but rather to build a profitable (and self sustaining) conservation business. These owners have a huge incentive to manage, grow and protect the wildlife on their lands.
The free market provides solutions to wildlife conservation concerns. Solutions that are proving more effective to the protection of valuable wildlife than government and charitable efforts have. After all, these magnificent creatures are worth more in a system that actually establishes an economic value for them? Who among us would individually spend $350,000 toward the conservation of black rhinos? A big-game hunter will! Would you?
[ii] “The Tragedy of the Commons” http://www.sciencemag.org/content/162/3859/1243.full.pdf