Trophy Hunting as a Conservation Strategy

On November 15th , the media reported that the Trump administration was planning on reversing an Obama 2014 ban on the importation of elephant trophies. On November 17th , President Trump announced the ban would stay in place. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which proposed the change in policy, argued hunting, “will enhance the survival of the species in the wild.” Despite the political backlash, the FWS’s decision to reverse the Obama-era ban does not suggest malevolence. Quite the contrary, in fact: reversing the ban reflects sound economic and environmental judgement.

Private property is integral to environmental conservation. Governments, who have gobbled up African land in order to conserve it, are a threat to conservation efforts. Illegal poaching still occurs on these lands, and local governments—with no economic incentives to do so—have often failed in taking the necessary steps to protect wildlife from poachers. In fact, the dearth of economic knowledge among policy makers has made the situation worse, as they frequently destroy ivory they acquire from poachers instead of selling it into the market, which restricts supply and increases prices, fueling even more poaching.

The root of the problem for elephants is their public ownership, and the fact that they are worth more dead than alive. A century ago, the American bison were in the same situation, but now that bison are often privately owned and sold for meat, their populations are stable. Cows, chickens, and pigs will never go extinct because they are economically valuable to the farmers and ranchers that raise these animals. As Aristotle once noted, “What is common to many is least taken care of, for all men have greater regard for what is their own than for what they possess in common with others.” In order to ensure conservation, putting land into private hands and monetizing it is a tried and true method of conservation.

In other words, in order to save elephants, we must kill them in an open and legal marketplace. If elephants were privately owned, landowners would have every incentive to keep the populations high enough in order to continue selling tickets to wealthy westerners who wanted their shot at killing an exotic beast. Pachyderm lovers should be leaders, rather than opponents, of trophy hunting liberalization.

The empirical evidence backs up the theoretical case in favor of wildlife privatization. In 1900, only 20 white rhinos were left after decades of uncontrolled habitat loss and slaughter, and all the remaining individuals lived on a single wildlife reserve in South Africa. The number of rhinos left barely functioned as a breeding population. However, by 2010, the number of white rhinos in Africa ballooned to over 20,000 individuals—an increase of 99,900 percent!

White rhinos are effectively privatized. Rhinos are valued using an auction system and both private land owners and the government has an economic incentive to conserve rhinos and their habitat in order to receive an income stream from trophy hunters.

Contrast the successful white rhino conservation efforts to the failing efforts to protect the black rhino. Black rhinos live in nations where it is illegal to privately own and hunt trophy animals. As a result, their population has fallen from 100,000 individuals in 1960 to about 2,500 today.

In Zimbabwe, trophy hunting is common on privately owned wildlife reserves. A study published in 2001 by the journal, Science, argued trophy hunting in Zimbabwe has “doubled the area of the country under wildlife management relative to the 13% in state protected areas.”

The Great Elephant Census, a peer-reviewed publication which tracks elephant
populations, found overall African elephant populations have declined thirty percent between 2007 and 2014. Zimbabwe, however, has had a stable elephant population over the same time period. The best performing nations in terms of elephant preservation—South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana—have some form of legalised elephant trophy hunting. The worst performing nations tend to rely entirely on government conservation and the prohibition of the ivory trade.

If a resource is being overused, it is important to establish ownership in order for private land owners to conserve the resources being extracted. A lack of ownership of big game animals in Africa has led to a dwindling population and shrinking habitat. The marketplace may seem cold and calculating, but putting an economic value on wild animals is the best way to protect them.

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