The Public Policy

Money and Ivory

Preventing profit in all cases isn't the best way to protect Africa's elephants.

By 11.7.08

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Last week began a string of legal one-off ivory sales in Africa that rekindled an argument between save-the-elephants traditional conservationists and their free-market counterparts.

The old-school conservationists are alarmed and outraged by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species' (CITES) decision to allow four African nations to sell government stockpiles of ivory. The sale, they argue, will surely lead to an increase in elephant poaching.

Free-market types are alarmed and outraged by the very idea of CITES' 1989 ban on the trade. The ban, they argue, prevents local people from profiting from their natural resources, thus extinguishing any incentives populations have to protect the animal.

These are the same arguments that were made in 1999, during the last round of legal ivory sales. Incidentally, poaching rates did not rise.

The ivory ban ignores the fact that elephants are not only killed for ivory. They are a menace to local communities -- they trample crops, compete with livestock for scarce resources and even hurt people. To many people who have to share land with elephants, they may be worth more dead than alive even without the ivory incentive.

The ban does nothing to tackle this issue and actually works against market-based solutions that would address all the aforementioned concerns.

By allowing the elephant to be as profitable as it can be, which would include the sale of ivory, and instilling local property rights, nations can provide incentives for local people to protect the elephant while also providing much needed resources to poor communities.

This is not just a theory.

Only four countries are selling ivory this round because only countries with stable and growing elephant populations are eligible. A brief look at the nations -- Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa -- shows that a property rights method of conservation is the most effective.

Namibia's system is centered on community-based natural resource management, which allows local communities to own and benefit from wildlife. According to USAID, these local conservatories earned $2.35 million in 2004.

Actual sources of income vary greatly between conservatories but include tourism, thatching grass sales, trophy hunting and live game sales. If these communities were also allowed to benefit from the sale in ivory, then the $1.1 million that the Namibian government just received would be going directly to local communities.

A similar program in Zimbabwe is called the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE). Not all CAMPFIRE districts are privately owned. Some are owned communally and others by the state. Often though, regardless of official ownership, communities have direct access to wildlife revenues. In this way, the government remains somewhat involved while still devolving the responsibility and benefits of wildlife conservation to local communities.

In Botswana another form of community-based natural resource management has been used for over a decade. National Parks are generally surrounded by Wildlife Management Areas, where local communities are allowed to use the animals profitably and practice subsistence hunting.

Wildlife Management Areas allow people to personally benefit from wildlife conservation which garners support for the parks. They also constitute a buffer zone between state-protected areas and local communities that may see the animal populations as hazardous.

The South Africa National Parks (SANPark) system has been largely successful in protecting elephants. It has, however, been heavily criticized. The parks are heavily subsidized, whereas their private counterparts in South Africa are generally profitable. Furthermore, land rights and the current use of commercial benefits have been disputed by local people.

SANPark has recognized these issues and is currently embracing a Transformation Mission that would "transfer power and control of resources from the minority that has been appointed and privileged by an undemocratic system to the majority that participates in the new democratic process."

While South Africa does show an example of how a state that is able to subsidize conservation can protect elephant populations, they have come to recognize the relative benefits of community ownership and are working to turn a subsidized government project into community projects that can benefit local development.

The countries with thriving elephant populations do not follow one formula for success. Two of the four even have national parks. They do, however, all recognize the need for transference of both the responsibility and the benefits of conservation to local people, which is accomplished through some form of property rights.

If the aim is really to save elephants and empower communities, ideology should take a back seat to methodologies that have been proven successful. There is no need to take to the streets, demanding a system based solely upon the free market. Likewise, it is impractical to rely on government conservation efforts that do not allow local people to benefit from elephant populations. The ivory ban is an outdated, ideologically based institution that has done just that.

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About the Author

Erin Wildermuth is a graduate student at the London School of Economics.