100 “leading” conservationists, politicians, and celebrities just addressed an open letter to the UK government begging for a ban on ivory trade. If they wanted a better way to produce an Al Capone of the ivory trade, argues Bill Wirtz in this guest post, they couldn’t do better. [Your editor apologises in advance for the frequent use of the word ‘incentivise.’ – Ed.]
100 leading conservationists, politicians, and celebrities addressed an open letter to Theresa May’s Government asking for a ban on ivory trade. They want the UK to become a “global leader” on the prohibition of wildlife trade and help combat African poaching groups. Since we know how beneficial prohibition is for criminal gangs, the only group rejoicing over this leap forward will be the poachers themselves.
Were I presented with the opportunity to become the Al Capone of the ivory trade, however, never would the temptation be as strong as now. Governments are immensely successful at making products under prohibition enormously valuable. As Milton Friedman said regarding drug prohibition:
If you look at the drug war from a purely economic point of view, the role of the government is to protect the drug cartel. That's literally true.
Every time there is a major call for an outright ban on ivory products, prices skyrocket, which ends up incentivising poachers to shoot more elephants. This has created a sort of cat-and-mouse game in which the volatility of ivory pricing is interdependent with outcries by NGOs. When the Chinese ivory prices tripled in 2015 due solely to increased calls for bans, wildlife NGOs said that the market was out of control and that "there is need for immediate action." There was no change in legislation, and yet when the public call for bans subsided and Chinese prices fell back to their original level five months later, the same NGOs claimed their work to be going in the right direction!
Conservation from Private Property
If we want to talk about the preservation of endangered species such as elephants, then let's not engage polemic assertions destined to sell a newspaper or get donations shipped in. Some African countries have taken action regarding poaching: the privatisation of elephants is provably effective.
Let's take the example of trophy hunting.
Unpopular it may be among the twitterati, but this hunting sport has gotten increasingly popular over the years. As National Geographic reported, these hunters imported more than 1.26 million trophies to the United States between the years 2005 and 2014, which is an average of 126,000 trophy imports a year, or 345 every single day.
Trophy hunting, however, is not the reason these species are endangered in the first place. They suffer considerably more from loss of habitat and poaching. In the case of loss of habitat, the endangered animals are driven out due to agricultural expansion for the harvesting of timber, wood, or fuel.
The local population can be incentivised economically to protect these animals. In Namibia, the revenue from trophy hunting is the main revenue source for the funding of wildlife conservancies, and in South Africa, trophy hunting reportedly incentivised locals to give rhinoceros land to live on that protected them from poachers (Conservation Magazine, 2015). This evolution has led the number of existing rhinoceros to jump from 100 in 1916 to over 18,000 today (World Wildlife Fund, 2016). According to South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs, the total revenue from trophy hunting was close to R807 million (59.3 USD) in 2012 and just over R1 billion (73.5 USD) in 2013.
Elephants are victims of the tragedy of the commons: poachers maximising profits from the commons results in them shooting as many animals as possible before they’re all gone. The best protective measure in response is private property rights through the rule of law. If elephants possess a certain utility, notably harvesting ivory, then we should prefer they were owned privately, since their owners would be incentivised to protect them.
No ban on the international trade of a good could ever do the same.