Kill and let live

This is a paradoxical story of how killing endangered animals can actually advance conservation efforts… spoilers alert, it’s got to do with defined, defensible and divestible, property rights.

For an even worse spoiler check this podcast:

There are plenty of examples, both current and historical, in which well-intended schemes backfire. It is often the case where governments or whatever regulatory agent offer incentives that trigger responses that result exactly in the undesired outcome.

For instance, it is said that in colonial India a powerful British lord had had enough of snakes and decided to control the cobra population in Delhi. To do this, he offered cash reward for every cobra skin brought to him. The aftermath of the bounty system was not less but more cobras in Delhi. It turns out, that in response to this cash incentive, Indians started to breed, raise, and slaughter snakes—in essence, they established a new industry: cobra farming. When the system was dismantled, the cobra farmers closed their shops and did the logical thing: release the snakes they still had in the farm.

We can also find a colorful example of backfiring schemes in the autobiography of Mark Twain, where he describes a reward system implemented by his wife, Mrs. Clemens, to get rid of troublesome summer flies in their property. As Twain describes, their servant, George, found this scheme to be the perfect opportunity for easy profit. Assuming Mrs. Clemens’s objective was to accumulate flies, for some aesthetic or scientific reason, he was quick to hire helpers and establish a “Fly Fund” that would bring him dead flies from surrounding areas—not just the Clemens’ property. The end result was a large bounty payment for George and more or less the same amount of flies in the Clemens’ property.

In describing Mrs. Clemens’ frustrated efforts, Twain writes “Governments of the world have tried it, and wept over it, and discarded it, every half-century since man was created.” And yet, the story is repeated over and over and over. More recent examples of this situation include pest control initiatives in Vietnam, South Africa, and, closer to home, in Fort Benning, Georgia, where populations of feral pigs have been exploding and causing all sorts of environmental and economic damage  at the military base. You can guess what the outcomes of these initiative have been.

Luckily, we can learn from our mistakes. In recognizing that the failure of many incentive programs lies in the regulator’s inability to foresee people’s willingness and ability to alter their behavior in order to acquire some of the new wealth made possible by the very establishment of the incentive program, Mark Twain pinpoints a remarkable opportunity for improving conservation efforts. He concludes his reflection on the whole “Fly Fund” fiasco by asserting, “Any Government could have told her that the best way to increase wolves in America, rabbits in Australia, and snakes in India is to pay a bounty on their scalps. Then, every patriot goes to raising them.”

Well, what are some examples of that?

In 2014, Corey Knowlton, a hunter from Texas, bought a $350,000 hunting permit to hunt and kill a black rhino in Namibia. The practice of selling permits for trophy is actually widespread in some African countries—both South Africa and Namibia are legally allowed by the Convention on International Trade in endangered Species to sell five permits for the hunting of adult males black rhinos each year.

Today, black rhinos are critically endangered. There are fewer than 2,500 left in pockets in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Kenya, Namibia, and Tanzania. Illegal poaching is a major concern for rhino protection. The rising demand for rhino horn—which is thought to have medicinal powers in Asian countries—has driven the price of rhino horn powder over the roof, and a complex illegal industry is finding the way to smuggle the product to Asia.

The natural question to ask is, why are countries like South Africa and Namibia promoting the hunting and killing of black rhinos if they are in fact in danger of extinction? It seems as if promoting the hunting and killing of the rhino is contradictory with the goal of conserving it.

Well, if you ask mainstream environmentalists and conservationist, they will almost certainly agree with this view. However, if you ask hunters, they will tell you that permitted hunting is effective conservation; they will tell you that it is their licensed killing of the animal what is saving endangered species. In fact, and perhaps counterintuitively, hunters and anglers have a long history of land stewardship, and here is the rationale.

Hunters hunt for sport. You would think this is solely why they are willing to pay whatever money in licenses and hunting fees. Well, think a bit more. What do you think happens with the revenues that states and countries collect from hunting licenses and fees? Generally, these fees are tied to conservation funds used to further conservation programs that will guarantee the survival of game species.

If there are no animals left, then there would be no more hunting and no more fun. If you think about it, hunters, more than any self-declared conservationist, have a direct interest in securing the survival and maintenance of game species. This is also why they are willing to pay sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars for a permit to hunt an endangered species; because through the issuing of permits, license and hunting fees is that states and countries finance conservation efforts and guarantee there will be game next season.[1] In the case of black rhino hunting in Namibia, the $350,000 payed to kill a male black rhino of post-reproductive age are used to fund ongoing monitoring, protection, and rehabilitation efforts.

Property Rights and Common Pool Resources—some economic theory on the tragedy of the common

The importance of property rights for environmental conservation is not a new idea. The idea that well defined and secure property rights are key in the prevention of the depletion of common-pool ecological resources has been recognized at least since the 70’s right after Garrett Hardin put together his theory of “the tragedy of the commons”. In fact, it is the institution of property rights what enables conservationist societies to post private reserves to protect birds from hunters, what allows land trusts to protect precious places, and what facilitated the recovery and growth of bison populations in the Western U.S. among other accomplishments of ecological value.

In essence, issuing permits for trophy hunting permit is the equivalent of establishing a system of property rights over the animal in question. Only he who purchases the rights the permit entitles is allowed to hunt and kill the animal. If the regulation is well enforced, the result is limited use of the resource in question—in the case of ecological issues, the result is less hunting, less fishing, less pollution, etc. In addition, the agency that is allowed to profit from the selling of these hunting permits will likely find it even more lucrative to continue this profitable activity of issuing hunting permits into the future. To do so, the agency must guarantee the existence of animals over which a hunting permit can be issued. Finally, he who purchases the rights has all the incentives to protect his rights—that is, he is willing to support an enforcement and protection system that will guarantee his money was not spent in vain.

This is, in a very simplified manner, what goes on with the hunting permits. The mere issuing of permits is not enough to guarantee the survival of the species. But it is a key step in the creation of a coordinated system that protects and furthers the interests of both parties in the transaction: the agency that is collecting economic reward from guaranteeing the existence of the species in question and the hunter who righteously gained access to the animal.

We can’t deny there is some sort of magic in introducing market capitalism into ecological conservation. After all, it is a way to reconcile two seemingly opposing views and have them work towards a common objective.


Challenging Tradition

From African gorillas to Californian condors to Caribbean coral reefs, much of the world’s wildlife is under threat. Assessing the success of global conservation efforts is difficult. What criteria to use when evaluating effectives and efficiency of these projects? The story is further complicated when one accounts for the fact that many of these initiatives are funded by donors and are organized by non-profit organizations. The statistics are generally depressing but there are success stories from around the world.

Traditional approaches to species conservation have focused on saving individual animals or plants in specific locations. Typically, conservation efforts have focused on improving the conditions to meet the needs of a particular species, with little attempt to reconcile the needs of human communities that interact with the species or that are impacted by these efforts.

The inherent subjective valuation of nature and lack of data make it difficult to objectively measure the performance of traditional conservation approaches. However, there is one thing we can measure: money. Saving endangered species is startlingly costly. A 2012 study found that following traditional approaches it would cost $76 billion a year just to preserve threatened land animals.

Assuming that all these money is worth spending to prevent extinction and protect species, the obvious question to tackle is where the funding will come from. When philanthropy can’t keep up, maybe property rights and hunting permits may actually be the more sustainable alternative.

In this post, I have presented hunting permits and the establishment of solid economic institutions backed by serious political interests and powers as a desirable and practical approach to conservation. But in my discussion I have consciously ignored the philosophical aspect of the issue. It is true that issuing permits will improve the numbers, but how will it change society’s attitudes and perception towards nature?

Will society begin to classify nature in the same category as consumer goods? Will people think and value nature in the same manner as they think and value Ferraris? Is this approach the equivalent of prostituting ones children with the justification that the money received will be invested in their education?

What do we care about in the end? That is the real question. Do we want numbers? Do we want animals and plants? Or do we want a society that respects and cares for nature?

A tough question.


“Think like a freak”, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner (2005).

“Mark Twain’s Own Autobiography: The Chapters from the North American Review” (2010).

“Can trophy hunting actually help conservation?”

“Sorry environmentalists, buffalo were saved from extinction by capitalism”


[1] In the US, hunting and fishing licenses together with revenues from a tax that applies to all gun a ammo sales, regardless of whether they are hunting-related—is funding about 75% of state agencies responsible for wildlife management, which makes me wonder if this would be enough to change an environmentalist’s point of view regarding gun control laws.

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