Economic Use Need Not be a Death Knell
By Vin Suprynowicz
Special to The Libertarian Enterprise
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
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
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
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 the world's most totemic 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
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. The web site for the Suprynowicz column is at
http://www.nguworld.com/vindex/. The column is syndicated in the
United States and Canada via Mountain Media Syndications, P.O. Box
4422, Las Vegas Nev. 89127.