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There’s a pretty interesting and stark contrast between two completely different approaches to saving wildlife in Africa (rhinos, elephants, lions, leopards and African buffaloes, etc.): a) ban the private ownership and all commercialization of wildlife except for eco-tourism vs. b) allow the private ownership of wildlife and legalize commercial activities relating to wildlife like private game ranching. Most African countries like Kenya take the first approach – individuals are not allowed to own or profit commercially from wildlife. A change in South Africa’s law in 1991 legalizing private ownership of wildlife and private game ranching provides a natural experiment to compare the two approaches.
A recent Bloomberg article provides these details:
1. South Africa’s private game-ranching is a $1.1 billion a year industry and growing at 10 percent annually. Foreign hunters, about 60 percent of whom came from the U.S., spent $118.1 million on licenses to hunt in South Africa in 2012.
2. Private game ranches have increased fivefold to 10,000 since South Africans were allowed to own and profit commercially from wild animals. The game ranches cover 20 million hectares, or about 16 percent of the country’s land.
So what’s happened to the number of wild animals in South Africa?
3. The private game industry is largely responsible for boosting the country’s large mammal population to 24 million, the most since the 19th century, and up from 575,000 in the early 1960s. For example, South Africa now has more than 20,000 white rhinos, 80 percent of the world’s total, up from 1,800 in 1968 when limited hunting was first introduced.
4. South Africa’s law change has also led to a commercial trade in wild animals with captive-bred species ranging from sable antelope to wildebeest sold at wildlife auctions.
And what about the situation in Kenya?
5. Kenya has lost 80 percent of its wildlife since it banned hunting in 1977 and large-mammal numbers are declining by 4.2 percent a year. The country’s elephant population has dropped 76 percent since the 1970s, while rhinos are down 95 percent.
MP: As counter-intuitive and paradoxical as it might seem, the best way to save African elephants, lions, leopards and rhinos from extinction is to kill them and eat them – in limited numbers of course. That is, by allowing private ownership and game ranching in South Africa, wild animals like the rhino have a commercial value that naturally results in greater conservation and protection efforts (“sustainability”) than in countries like Kenya, where wildlife naturally and predictably decline in numbers as victims of the “tragedy of the commons.”
As Steven Landsburg reminds us in The Armchair Economist, “Most of economics can be summarized in four words: People respond to incentives. The rest is commentary.” It shouldn’t be surprising then that wild animals are increasing in numbers in South Africa and decreasing in Kenya – private property rights, commercial use, market pricing, and the profit motive are the incentives that make all the difference in the world.
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