Thursday, August 24, 2006

Killing endangered animals to save them?

I’ve belatedly discovered YouTube and my girlfriend was showing me some very amusing Borat clips on the weekend. There’s one interview with a particularly ghastly big game hunter in the US whose comments are so offensive you can only laugh, or cry. In one scene he’s showing off the trophy heads of animals he’s shot. He points to one and says proudly "This one’s the most expensive. I had to pay $12,000 to shoot it. But it was worth it. [beaming] It’s extinct now!"

Hunters do not attract a lot of sympathy. But I’ve come across two thought-provoking articles this week on whether allowing hunting and trade in endangered animals and their products could actually help save them from extinction.

The first article* looked at recent efforts in China to commercialise tiger ‘production’:

like forests, animals are renewable resources. If you think of tigers as products, it becomes clear that demand provides opportunity, rather than posing a threat. For instance, there are perhaps 1.5 billion head of cattle and buffalo and 2 billion goats and sheep in the world today. These are among the most exploited of animals, yet they are not in danger of dying out; there is incentive, in these instances, for humans to conserve.

So it can be for the tiger. In pragmatic terms, this is an extremely valuable animal. Given the growing popularity of traditional Chinese medicines, which make use of everything from tiger claws (to treat insomnia) to tiger fat (leprosy and rheumatism), and the prices this kind of harvesting can bring (as much as $20 for claws, and $20,000 for a skin), the tiger can in effect pay for its own survival. A single farmed specimen might fetch as much as $40,000; the retail value of all the tiger products might be three to five times that amount.

Yet for the last 30 or so years, the tiger has been priced at zero, while millions of dollars have been spent to protect it and prohibit trade that might in fact help save the species...

If we truly value the tiger, this crisis presents an opportunity to help it buy its way out of the extinction it now faces. The tiger breeds easily, even in captivity; zoos in India are constantly told by the Central Zoo Authority not to breed tigers because they are expensive to maintain. In China, which has about 4,000 tigers in captivity, breeding has been perfected. According to senior officials I met in China, given a free hand, the country could produce 100,000 tigers in the next 10 to 15 years…

tiger-breeding facilities will ensure a supply of wildlife at an affordable price, and so eliminate the incentive for poachers and, consequently, the danger for tigers in the wild. With selective breeding and the development of reintroduction techniques, it might be possible to return the tiger to some of its remaining natural habitats...

Unfortunately, the article is long on free-market rhetoric and short on examples, theory or other information on how allowing trade promotes recovery. The argument seems to be that if trade was legal, farming would become cheap and widespread and there would be no incentive to hunt wild tigers. I’m not at all sure that’s right. Breeding or ‘farming’ tigers is no doubt difficult and expensive. I imagine it’s cheaper and easier to go into the jungle and just shoot one than breed and raise these animals from cubs.

It may well be that allowing trade in tiger products could assist wild populations, but it would have to be combined with well-resourced enforcement to prevent hunting of wild tigers, effective tracking of products to ensure the traded products didn’t include illegally hunted tigers and well-resourced reintroduction programs to re-establish wild populations. Simply legalising trade would only increase the demand for wild tigers and reduce the risks of prosecution and therefore costs of hunting them.

And, of course, this all ignores the objections that many people will have to the initially repulsive idea of commercially farming majestic wild animals like tigers to grind their claws into insomnia treatments.

The second article** (pdf), which is quite detailed and much more useful, examined elephant populations in Africa.

It found that countries where ‘ownership’ of elephants (ie, the power to make decisions about what to do with them and the right to the benefits of those decisions) was vested in local communities had elephant populations that grew much more than countries where ownership was vested in the government (eg, through wildlife reserves), was not vested in anyone (open access) or where hunting was banned. Bans were ineffective because the resources required for their enforcement were too high for governments which meant that poaching was rife (in effect the position was similar to if the elephants were an open access resource).

Communities in these successful countries could decide which of the elephants in the vicinity of their village would be killed for their products, which kept for tourism benefits and which licensed for hunting. The communities made the decisions and the economic costs and benefits of their decisions accrued to them in the form of fees from tourist operators or hunting licences and food and/or income from selling elephant products. These communities could also effectively monitor their local elephants and had enough information and resources to stop poaching.

This is an interesting topic and one I’d like to know more about. It seems to me that, in theory, allowing trade in endangered animals / animal products could improve their prospects of recovery but only under fairly limited conditions:

  • The animals must be able to be either bred in captivity or their hunting regulated at a rate at which their wild populations will grow;

  • Illegal hunting must be enforced at a level such that poaching is more expensive than legal breeding / harvesting;
  • If we care about having the animals survive in the wild and not merely in zoos etc, captive bred individuals must be able to be returned to the wild and there must be some incentive or funding for that.
The main benefit of allowing trade seems to be that it allows for more effective enforcement against illegal hunting since poaching becomes a direct cost to the local community and it is often only the local community that has the local knowledge and incentive to actually enforce a hunting ban. Alternatively, it could be argued that the revenue from allowing trade could be directed into enforcement of illegal hunting.

Ultimately, it’s an empirical question (but also one of values) and it depends on the local conditions. I’ll try and track down some more empirical studies / articles. Does anyone know of any?

*Barun Mitra, The Value of wildlife: selling the tiger to save it (New York Times, 15 August 2006) via The Commons blog

** The Ivory Bandwagon:International Transmission of Interest-Group Politics
(Kaempfer and Lowenberg, 1999) via the Conservation Finance blog

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Lars Smith said...

Actually, tigers breed like rabbits in captivity. It is a problem for zoos, and female tigers are often given contraceptives. I believe that sterilization of males is also done.

Veggie Friendly said...

Reading the first argument about tigers reminded me f the tragedy of the commons scenario. Great that they're valuable, but if they're wild and "belong" to no-one then the the number of people with an incentive to kill them utweighs the population. I guess that is why the community ownership model makes a difference, provided that everyone in the community agrees on what it is in their interest to do. Surely you also need to reach a baseline survival rate before you can start killing animals again.

signature103 said...

Nice post.

I feel any form of self-justification that we the human species "owns" something is in itself suspicious. And narrowing it down to communities just delimits it with the same results.

From a theoretical standpoint it is equally valid to say that tigers and elephants "own" us in that we are slaves to them by believing in the value they hold for us.

And from a Buddhist standpoint there is nothing to be owned nor anyone to be a owner. The option of passivism and noninterference should be considered.

The assumption in both articles is that of some value where that value (economic or otherwise) is not questioned when it should be.

sachab said...

It's good to see people trying to think of new ways to promote the protection of endangered animals. I say, use whatever works!

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