Before I proceed with this post, let’s get this out of the way. Here is a really cute elephant picture:
And let me get the following out of the way: even though I understand the economics and arguments about why we may want to allow and perhaps even encourage hunting, I don’t like it at all. I don’t really understand why someone wants to shoot an elephant, much less a local deer. And yes, I appreciate the arguments for why you would want to have people hunt deer (not just for population and habitat control, but perhaps for more ethical meat eating purposes and also to promote a larger conservation effort on the part of the citizenry). I get it, I do. And I know I am hypocrite for eating meat and not loving hunting. But this is not a post on that, nor is it going to be a discussion of why I think people hunt, that’s another story for another day.
Setting the Table
OK, so this post has obviously been inspired by the Dumpster Administration’s decision to permit the “trophies” from trophy hunting to be imported back into the country, and his subsequent pause on the decision. Now, I promised myself to not be in the news on a day to day basis, but my students enjoy sending me stuff, and one sent me the following article, with the statement acknowledging that the dreaded question, “what do you think of this” wouldn’t be asked … but of course, the article was sent. When these sorts of controversial decisions get made, I have to stay off social media for a couple of days, because the discourse is just really poor, and gets toxic fast, and to the extent that a few days passes, the articles I see after a few days would be more thoughtful examinations of the topic.
The Basic, Simplistic, Case for Allowing Hunting
An easy question to ask an intro level economics student is to have them ponder why the world seems to run out of so many “renewable” resources (like passenger pigeons or giant sloths) but very rarely, if ever, runs out of “non-renewable” resources like copper or oil. We can go farther and ask why we are not in any danger of running out of chickens and cows yet are mortally close to running out of tigers, pandas, polar bears, and apparently elephants.
As they ponder this, the economist may cheekily quip, “perhaps the best way to save an endangered species is to start … eating it.” Now, the logic here is extremely straightforward and simple, and the kids usually end up understanding the point. But this is NOT to say that any of us who use this thought exercise want to live in a world where the way we “save” spotted owls and tigers and rhinos, etc. is to raise them, kill them and breed them. I would actually hate that world. The point of course is that there are all kinds of incentives and institutions at play when it comes to thinking about animal existence and welfare, and that simple biology and ecology are not nearly enough to know if we want to preserve species. Indeed, we tend to argue that if you want to understand how to take care of a species, the most important thing we want to do is NOT learn about the species range, habits, and such, but rather we want to better understand humans. After all, it is humans who destroy habitat, pollute, poach, poison, etc.
Really, what we would like for the students to take away from this is that if we want to have species thrive and survive, we probably want to think of ways to not make humans and other animals competitors for the same resources, but rather we need to figure out ways to put them in harmony. In most situations where we see animal welfare falling (think about the American Endangered Species Act) we end up pitting nature against humans, and you know how that is going to play out. We need to figure out a way to align the incentives of people with the preservation of animals and ecosystems if in fact we care about protecting and promoting animals and ecosystems. When we ask about eating animals, students then seem to understand that at least in this guise, animals are increased in value in the eyes of entrepreneurs, and so there is a great incentive to figure out ways to have lots and lots of them.
The basic challenge of course is that if we want to see flourishing animals but we also do not want to see then eaten and shot and abused on a massive scale, we need to think really hard about other ways to align the flourishing of animals with the well-being of individuals and the communities they live in.
Most articles (all?) on the topic of poaching and hunting do not go anywhere near this kind of explanation.
The Current Issue
I do not think it needs rehashing. The Dumpster wants to lift the ban on imported trophies, and of course the reaction to this has been entirely predictable, and political. I understand why this is political – it is Trump and it looks and sounds awful and sort of goes along with everyone’s perception of what he is all about. But in the uproar over this issue, much chance to learn is lost. The problem with thinking about elephants is that just about all “takes” on this are forgetting one simple idea: that elephant conservation and well-being is a challenging, complicated problem.
First on the basic economics of the issue. Many people wrongly believe that if you ban the hunting of elephants, that elephants won’t be killed. And that if you permit the hunting of elephants, that elephants are at greater risk of being eliminated. Now, saying nothing again about the morality of hunting them (I am against it), this idea is surely potentially mistaken. Does anyone think that banning drugs prevents drugs from being made and used? Does anyone think that full legalization of drugs means that every American will die of a drug overdose? Quite frankly, the answer is no. Obviously, if you ban easy channels to sell the proceeds of an elephant hunt, you’ve just steepened up the supply curve of elephant materials, and very likely raised the profitability, at the margin, of poaching an elephant. We can debate whether you think the actions decrease the demand for elephant trophies – but I have the drug model in my mind when I am making my claim above.
Rather than listening to my hypothesizing on it, there IS in fact a famous economics paper in the American Economic Review on it by Michael Kremer and Charles Morcom:
Many open-access resources, such as elephants, are used to produce storable goods. Anticipated future scarcity of these resources will increase current prices and poaching. This implies that, for given initial conditions, there may be rational expectations equilibria leading to both extinction and survival. The cheapest way for governments to eliminate extinction equilibria may be to commit to tough antipoaching measures if the population falls below a threshold. For governments without credibility, the cheapest way to eliminate extinction equilibria may be to accumulate a sufficient stockpile of the storable good and threaten to sell it should the population fall.
But Move Beyond Supply and Demand
Whether banning elephant trophy sales in the US is “good” policy or not depends almost entirely on what is going on outside of the US. The most important factor is to understand the property rights institutions on the ground in Africa where the actual hunting is going to be taking place. The article I was linked to above says nothing at all about property rights in land or elephants, and no popular discussion I have seen in my feeds (pro or anti) have said anything about it. Now everyone is dumber because of the politicized nature of this debate and no one is thinking of the important question of who has control over the elephants.
If you look at the conservation literature, African cities and countries that have established local ownership rights to “endangered” species have ended up promoting the growth and advancement of species. Interesting case studies have been written up by South African Conservation Economist Michael Sas-Rolfes in particular with regard to the rhino. The story of African elephants is interesting, as populations have plummetted in places where they are “conserved” and improved in places where rights to them have been assigned. And just by assigning rights, that does not mean we have to kill them, it means that locals have incentives now to promote the growth of the species either for tourism or other uses, because they will benefit from them. Shawn Regan and Terry Anderson share some data with us.
From 1979-1990, the Central African elephant population fell from 497,400 to 274,800; the East African population fell from 546,650 to 154,720; the Kenyan population fell from 140,000 to 16,000; the Tanzanian elephant population fell from 250,000 in 1970 to 61,000 in 1990; in Uganda we went from 20,000 in 1970 to 1,600 in 1990. And what did all of these places have in common? They all banned the hunting of elephants.
But not all African countries saw the same results. Zimbabwe (30k to 70k), Malawi (5% growth per year), Namibia (5% growth per year), Botswana (20k to 68k) and South Afirca (5% growth per year) all saw dramatic improvements in elephant populations. What was different in these places? In each case, governments gave rights to villagers and allowed villagers to charge for hunting elephants. While you may not like the idea that elephants are hunted, now there are huge incentives to decrease poaching and to police poaching. When locals have rights to animals, then each animal taken is a cost to them, and they now have an incentive to cultivate the populations, since they can benefit from them. If, instead, a village is told, “you cannot hunt these, or sell access to these,” while it seems to make sense, you have now set up perverse incentives.
Moving Beyond Property Rights Discussion
The articles like the one I was send just really stink because they also ignore Africans in one other essential way. In many places, the elephants are a MENACE. Poor farmers are terrified of these animals destroying their entire livelihood – and so would seem to have an interest in seeing something done about it. It’s so funny how activists tell me that we have a Western bias in our studies by promoting markets and property rights, and on an issue as important as this, we ENTIRELY ignore the poor Africans that have the most at stake here. I would love to see a group of African college student activists suggest that we ban the “hunting” and poaching of rats and mice from the basements of American homes to see how we would respond to such things. In a world absent property rights, and where elephants might be a menace, you might imagine that some locals would not be very upset at all to have poachers come around and take away the menace. Yes indeed elephants are cute – they are the cutest things ever when you live 12,000 miles from them, get to enjoy pictures of them, and don’t face the prospect of being destroyed by them, especially if your income is 1/100th of what the Americans who are complaining about the situation earn.
An additional missed opportunity for learning comes from the lack of any mention of past US policies in regard to elephants. In recent years the US has gleefully advertised that it is going to destroy tons of ivory that it has stockpiled from previous raids. Going back to examine the Kremer paper above, does anyone understand that this is very likely a policy that is going to increase future poaching? Would anyone compare the impacts of this policy with the relaxation of the importation ban from the current administration? Of course not.
On the Morality of Hunting and Property Rights to Conserve Animals
A good criticism of the “let’s allow hunting to save species” argument is that while this is surely a decent way to ensure the survival of entire species, it may not be the best “way to go” from the perspective of a singular animal (HT to LAP and LF for the criticism). This may in fact be true but it is not entirely obvious to me. First of all, from a utilitarian welfare perspective, we do need to at least ask the question of whether it is better to have lots and lots and lots of animals exist, even if they end up being hunted or having less pleasant lives. Second, the argument seems to be that, “a larger population with lots of deaths is worse than a smaller population with fewer deaths.” But at some level this makes no sense. There are between 50 million and 60 million deaths each year in the world today, but the death rate is considerably lower than it was 10,000 years ago. Indeed, there were something like only 250,000,000 people in the entire world 10,000 years ago, so though a far smaller number died annually, the death rate was much higher and the lives of those who lived would seem to have been worse than our current lives.
But also remember, we are talking about wild animals and not farmed animals. The lives of these animals, one may argue, is FAR superior to farmed animals – what we are focusing on here is what happens at the end of their lives. I am not sure the number of deaths is a good measure of morality, especially if we compare the way animals die when we “intervene” versus the way animals die naturally. I think the way young elephants die “naturally” is quite horrific, especially when they are disemboweled and eaten alive by their prey species, or when they starve to death because the rainy season was too rainy or not rainy enough. I suspect those methods of dying are probably worse than being shot. I know, this is gruesome to consider, but it does seem to me to be a good economic approach. Finally, when we think of animal suffering, we rarely think of (1) how wild animals suffer, quite gruesomely and (2) all of the small animals and non-famous animals that suffer from our various food practices. It is not at all clear that being vegetarian means we cause less animal suffering. Where I am g9ing with this is that while the article I was sent and this discussion is intended to focus on the case of elephants, it is implicitly about animal welfare and probably more about what our role on this planet should be. I offer to you that it is just not that simple a problem. To help you appreciate the complexity, I think a very reasonable case can be made that the most moral thing in the world to do would be to eat ONLY elephants. For a first pass as to why this may make sense – consider perhaps that we care most about (1) the quality of life lived by all of the “sentient” animals on earth and (2) the number of brains we destroy by our eating habits. It seems obvious to me that huge herds of elephants can subsist in areas that are not great for farming and have the potential to turn the sun’s energy into very useful calories in a way that would otherwise be inaccessible to humans. So, if we have lots and lots of elephants, they are not going to be taking away as many resources from people as raising other animals on more fertile ground. Furthermore, on average an elephant is something on the order of 6 tons as compared to a cow being one ton, or a chicken being 1/500th of a ton. So, if you simply look at the potential calories to be had from “eating” each animal, you would need to kill a lot fewer elephants to feed people than you would cows or chickens. If every person on earth ate meat like an American (270 pounds), an elephant could feed 44 voracious people for a year. That would be a lot less suffering and killing than if we tried to do this with cows. Furthermore, the life of an elephant would seem to be considerably more pleasant than the life of a cow, even a free-range cow.
Do I want to live in that world? I doubt it highly, but surely these are valuable exercises to at least consider. As I have said of so many other things before, “elephant outrage is not about elephants” … sadly for both the elephants and for the Africans involved.