Economic use need not be a death knell

By Vin Suprynowicz
web posted July 1997

Worried that the pig, the Angus steer and the dairy cow are ever likely to face extinction?

Such concerns sound goofy precisely because humans find it of economic benefit to maintain healthy, self-sustaining populations of these creatures.

But other species, equally or more valuable, have been driven to the brink of extinction by economic exploitation before other sources were found for the products they provided -- the whales that used to fill the world's lamps with oil, for example, and the large, plumed birds hunted for their feathers in the days when a proper lady wouldn't be seen in public without half a bird on her head.

Why the different fates of these two types of "exploitable species"?

Private ownership.

Given the price of beef these days, one might expect freelance hunters to roam rural America, shooting all the cattle they can find, and loading them quickly into refrigerator trucks for a quick haul to the closest urban market.

Indeed, some such activity still occurs. But the reason it's limited is precisely because it's against the law -- and not just the kind of law that might be enforced by one lonely government ranger assigned to patrol hundreds of thousands of remote acres, hoping to catch someone stepping on an endangered bug.

Nope, cattle rustling is, to this day, the kind of crime that's likely to draw the urgent attention of every nearby private stock owner, who the perpetrator fully realizes are not likely to stop with a polite request to "leave that at the ranger station on your way out."

On the other hand, nobody ever came up with a system to establish private property rights in whales. And it is that very lack of private title that has long crippled efforts to protect the remaining populations of some of wild species.

Modern Africa provides an object lesson. As detailed by Ike Sugg and Urs Kreuter in their book, "Elephants and Ivory: Lessons from the Trade Ban," published by London's Institute of Economic Affairs and available from Laissez Faire Books in San Francisco, the largely socialist regime in Kenya has long held that private ownership of any of that nation's wild herds would be anathema. The result -- despite a huge force of government game wardens armed with fully-automatic weapons -- is that poaching has continued to decimate Kenya's herds.

On the other hand -- while some government controls remain, many imposed from outside by American and European meddlers -- nations further south, like Tanzania and Zimbabwe, have opted to grant the very farmers who might otherwise kill marauding elephants, an economic incentive to preserve those herds for their tourist value, by granting them some form of private title to the beasts.

As a result, southern Africa's elephant herds are thriving.

But the largest potential economic incentive to preserve elephant herds at self-renewing levels -- the ability to sell their ivory -- has been blocked for seven years by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

That's why -- as limited as the exemption is -- Western newspaper readers were presumably puzzled June 20 by the photographic spectacle of members of Zimbabwe's Department of National Parks and Wildlife raising their arms and cheering at news that a U.N. wildlife panel will finally allow Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe to make a one-time sale of 59 tons of stockpiled elephant tusks to Japan next year.

"This is a triumph for sanity, objectivity and for recognizing developing countries' ability to take their own decisions on natural resource management," cheered Dick Pitman of the Zambezi Society of Zimbabwe.

The general response in this country seems to have been that it's too bad the elephants have to be sacrificed in the necessary process of allowing more African self-determination.

But this decision need not be bad news for the herds or those who admire them -- providing the governments in question are encouraged to continue embracing the "private property" model.

Word is, some of the $30 million expected to be realized from the sale will be used for elephant fences, and to compensate farmers who lose crops to the huge herbivores.

A good start. But why not go all the way, get the process out of the political arena entirely, and grant the local folk title to the herds -- along with the right to sell the ivory themselves, once they've demonstrated sufficient husbandry skills to maintain populations at self-sustaining levels?

Vin Suprynowicz is the assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Readers may contact him via e-mail at The web site for the Suprynowicz column is at The column is syndicated in the United States and Canada via Mountain Media Syndications, P.O. Box 4422, Las Vegas Nev. 89127.

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