Free-Range Markets

In poor countries, hunting endangered species may be the best way to save them.

In August, the height of the dry season, Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park is so crowded with animals that wildlife enthusiasts often must stop their jeeps to let massive herds cross their path. In a single morning, the safari I was on drove amid thousands of buffalo, past vast plains packed with impala and zebra, and within feet of elephants. Such displays of abundant African fauna are becoming increasingly rare. In most developing countries, wildlife stocks have plummeted in recent decades, the consequence of poaching, urbanization, and poverty. Across Africa, black rhinoceros populations have fallen from roughly 100,000 in the 1960s to fewer than 5,000 today. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that at present rates of extinction, as much as 20 percent of the world’s species will vanish within 30 years.

But while species are perishing in most developing nations, animal populations have grown in some southern African countries, such as Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Most of these countries possess no greater financial resources, more favorable weather patterns, or lower population growth rates than other poor states. They have succeeded in protecting animal populations not by regulating animal habitats but by embracing free-market environmentalism, a theory of conservation that has become popular in rich nations over the past two decades — but which actually holds more promise for the developing world.

Free-market environmentalists posit that humans are inherently self-interested and that a government’s role is to safeguard private property rights, rather than directly protect natural resources. When private citizens are given rights to environmental resources, the market sets prices for game. Endangered species will become more valuable to own, watch, or kill, leading people to conserve them more wisely.

Yet until recently, most developing nations embraced centralized, protection-oriented conservation strategies. When the British took over parts of Africa in the late 1800s, they established national parks and removed indigenous populations from their lands to protect animals. Other colonial powers created similar reserves, and most developing countries have kept these policies since independence.

In wealthier countries, governments can afford to halt poaching and to pay park rangers decent wages, and people are generally more willing to trade some individual economic gratification for the benefit of society. But few poor nations can afford to protect their wildlife. A 1995 study estimated it would cost Kenya $200 per square kilometer of elephant habitat to protect those animals adequately, an impossible sum for the government in Nairobi. Unsurprisingly, the amount of game in Kenya has fallen by nearly 50 percent during the past two decades. Corruption and poverty, exacerbated by HIV/AIDS, further complicate wildlife management in poor countries. Desperate, hungry people cannot afford to discriminate between endangered and common species. In the Congo River Basin, locals consume nearly 5 million tons of animal meat each year.

Most important, state control of wildlife devalues animals in the eyes of local people, who derive no benefit from the creatures. One study of Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve showed that local residents received less than 10 percent of the park’s tourism revenues. Because locals earn so little by keeping game alive for tourists, they instead sell poachers information about where to find the animals.

Developing countries should treat wildlife as a renewable resource. Zimbabwe exemplifies that possibility. Due to its pariah status, Zimbabwe has been insulated from pressure by Western donor states and international organizations to avoid conservation strategies that involve hunting. When faced with widespread poaching that began decimating animal populations, Zimbabwe launched the Communal Areas Management Program for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE) in the 1980s. Under CAMPIRE, the government gave small communities rights to land and animal resources — buffalo, elephants, and other game — in their areas. Communities could exercise these rights either by selling hunters a license to kill game or by showing tourists the mammals. The new income, the government theorized, would increase the value of the wildlife to the local residents, thus reducing the incentive to assist poachers.

The residents began to recognize this long-term income potential. They made collective decisions on how much game could be sustainably hunted. They marketed their wildlife to safari guides, raising the price of game (hunting licenses now command up to $20,000 for each animal killed). Since the advent of CAMPFIRE, animal populations have recovered. For example, Zimbabwe’s elephant numbers have more than doubled during the past 20 years, although recent political turmoil and the decline of the rule of law have contributed to some wildlife destruction.

Other southern African countries have implemented programs like campfire, with similar results. South Africa’s white rhinoceros population rose from roughly 200 in the early 1970s to about 11,000 today, after the implementation of market-oriented strategies. In the Luangwa region, the percentage of village revenues devoted to wildlife management increased more than 10-fold between 1997 and 2000.

Despite such dramatic successes, mainstream environmental groups in wealthy nations worry that if they openly support free-market conservation, they will be branded animal killers. For years, the WWF did not inform its members that it funded programs in Africa that involved hunting. Western animal preservation organizations, including Defenders of Wildlife and the International Wildlife Coalition, have protested programs that treat large mammals as sustainable resources.

Even advocates of free-market environmentalism are not focusing on the developing world. Though some scholars, including New York University economist William Easterly, advocate applying market-based incentives to foreign aid, no major think tank puts market solutions for environmental problems at the top of its agenda. The U.S. Congress’s loudest environmental voices — including members who promote free-market solutions in the United States — have ignored the potential of such environmentalism abroad. Unless mainstream environmental groups, free-marketers in the United States and Europe, and developing nations have the courage to embrace the market, scenes like that in South Luangwa could become harder and harder to find.

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