If you want to save the elephants, privatize them

It starts when we’re very young. The first books we read — the soft ones that babies like to chew, and then the ones with cardboard pages that toddlers pore over — are filled with lions, elephants, and giraffes. We meet Africa’s big mammals in the guise of friends — colorful, anthropomorphized, and grinning.

As we get older, we see them on nature programs, now handsome, majestic, and endangered. Our hearts go out to them. How could anyone want to murder such noble beasts? When, two years ago, a Zimbabwean lion was shot with a crossbow by Walter Palmer of Minnesota, that hapless dentist briefly became the most hated man on the planet. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals wanted him hanged.

PETA, needless to say, does not look at lions in the way that local villagers do. Africans cannot afford the gooey sentimentalism that distance affords rich Westerners. If you live near lions, you think of them not as tourist attractions, but as predators who might carry off your child. Likewise, elephants might devour your crops, knock over your hut, or trample you. Rhinoceroses and hippopotami are deadlier yet. Even giraffes, so graceful in the eyes of safari-goers, are seen by Masai herdsmen as competitors for scarce water resources.

How, then, should we dissuade Africans from hunting big mammals to extinction? What might encourage them to treat elephants and rhinos as a renewable resource?

Over the past week, there has been much coverage of how President Trump has agonized on Twitter about allowing trophy hunters to bring their spoils home. Inevitably, the issue is an emotional one, especially for opponents of the ivory trade. How could anyone want to kill an elephant?

Wrong question. The right question is, “What is the best way to save African mammals from extinction?” People’s private motivations are not a proper matter for government intervention — but animal conservation is.

By and large, allowing some regulated big game hunting is the best way to preserve numbers. If large mammals are treated as a valuable commodity, their human neighbors become their custodians. Africans are then able to, in effect, farm them, selling their meat, hides, and horns for profit, and ensuring that numbers are kept up.

Consider the case of the elephant. In 1978, Kenya banned elephant hunting and outlawed ivory sales. In consequence, numbers plummeted, because poachers had far more incentive to succeed than government keepers had. In 1979, Rhodesia (as it then was known) made elephants the property of whomever owned the land on which they roamed. In consequence, numbers there surged, which is why there is now a row about easing the ban on trophies and allowing some much-needed wealth to flow into Zimbabwe (as it now is known).

It’s the same story every time. The white rhino, whose horn is valuable in traditional Chinese medicine, came close to being poached to extinction. But South Africa allowed local people to capture and sell the rhinos on their land and, subject to regulation, to use them as game for paying hunters. As a result, 80 percent of the world’s 20,000 surviving white rhinos now live in that country, where legal trophy hunting brings in more than $700 million. Much of that money is reinvested in keeping the big game safe from poachers. Unlike overstretched government rangers, proprietors tend to make darned sure that no one robs them of their investment. As Aristotle observed, that which no one owns, no one cares for.

In the long run, the best way to preserve a species is to enrich the people who live nearby. The science writer Matt Ridley likes to point out that wolves, tigers, and lions were all endangered in the 20th century. Now wolves are multiplying, tigers are flat-lining, and lions are dwindling. Why? Because wolves live in rich countries, tigers in middle-income countries, and lions in poor countries.

Legislation should not be used as a way to coo ostentatiously over pretty animals, nor as a way to advertise your sappy qualities. Toddlers may jab their chubby fingers at the smiley pictures, but lawmakers are at least supposed to be able to bring reason to their deliberations.


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