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Does Burning Ivory Save Elephants?

by Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes

This week marks the 62nd meeting of the Standing Committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), taking place in Geneva, Switzerland. To coincide with this meeting, the World Wildlife Fund has released a “Wildlife Crime Scorecard” report which lists 23 countries in Asia and Africa that it claims could all do more to enforce trade bans intended to protect tigers, rhinos, and elephants.

But what about WWF’s scorecard? Unlike the governments it assesses, WWF has specifically purported to protect endangered species since its inception in 1961. It has also mostly endorsed the CITES trade ban approach to saving tigers, rhinos, and elephants for more than the last two decades, but the results of this have been unimpressive. Tiger numbers have plummeted, as have rhino numbers in all but a handful of former range states; elephants have fared slightly better since the ivory ban, but poaching is on the rise again. So while WWF can claim some individual successes with certain localized conservation projects, its broader policies on wildlife trade deserve closer scrutiny to see if they make sense.

For example, last month WWF commended the government of Gabon for burning a stockpile of almost 5 tons of confiscated ivory, estimated to represent the equivalent death of 850 elephants. Presumably the architects of this event think they can repeat the performance of the Kenyan government, which famously burned a pile of ivory (and rhino horn) back in 1989.

Kenya’s dramatic gesture had three effects:  First, as a media stunt it caught the attention of many people and helped to stigmatize the use of ivory products in the West. Second, this in turn appeared to reduce consumer demand (and therefore prices and the incentive to poach elephants). And third, Kenya was able to leverage this event as a means to raise significant donor funding.  (The funding benefits did not endure and other African elephant range states did not benefit in this way; instead many had to bear the cost of forgone ivory sales harvested from sustainably-managed populations.)

That was then, this is now. Ivory demand in East Asian markets has a deeper cultural imprint and was far less impacted by any stigma effect from the 1989 ban. With the rising affluence of East Asian consumers, black market prices and elephant poaching levels are increasing significantly.

Economists may disagree about many things, but one thing we do agree on is that if you reduce the supply of a product without a corresponding reduction in demand, prices will rise. In a 1990 peer-reviewed journal article*, economist Ted Bergstrom explains clearly why: If the goal is to protect threatened species, it does not make sense to destroy confiscated stockpiles, but rather to sell them back into the market to satisfy demand and restrain prices. If trade is already banned and consumers are still buying ivory, there is no reason to believe that reducing the supply will change their preferences. So burning ivory stockpiles at this time does not seem like such a great idea. Although intended to send out a message about the acceptability of buying ivory, this gesture may simply send out a different message to the market: that ivory is an increasingly scarce resource worthy of speculative investment.

WWF’s approach of constricting supplies is not restricted to elephants. It adopts similar policies toward tiger and rhino products. The same principles apply here and the black market values for such products only appear to be rising over time, with disastrous consequences for wild populations.

* Ted Bergstrom. “On the Economics of Crime and Confiscation.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 4.3 (1990): 171-178.

Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes is an environmental economist based in South Africa and a 2012 PERC Lone Mountain Fellow. He is the author of Who Will Save the Wild Tiger? (1998, PERC Policy Series), a contributor to Tigers of the World: The Science, Politics, and Conservation of Panthera tigris (2010, Academic Press), and author of the recent PERC Case Study “Saving African Rhinos: A Market Success Story.” For more, visit his website: rhino-economics.com.

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Trade a Tortoise

Two years ago in PERC Reports Todd Gartner wrote about his efforts at “helping the American Forest Foundation develop a market-based habitat credit trading system in portions of Georgia and Alabama. The incentive-based framework will complement other efforts in the region to keep the eastern population of the gopher tortoise off the Endangered Species list.”

Today, Gartner, in collaboration with Josh Donlan and James Mulligan of Advanced Conservation Strategies, are ready to launch their first pilot transactions.

Here is how the gopher tortoise candidate conservation marketplace is being designed and piloted:

  • An interested and eligible private landowner (the “seller”) receives a negotiated payment to conserve, manage, or restore longleaf pine forests capable of supporting healthy populations of gopher tortoises on his or her property. In so doing, the landowner generates gopher tortoise habitat credits.
  • The entity paying the landowner (the “buyer”) receives the habitat credits in return. The buyer may use the credits to offset the impact on gopher tortoise habitat elsewhere, in order to meet a voluntary net zero biodiversity impact commitment.  Or, the buyer can save the credits for later use to meet offset requirements if the species is listed under the ESA. Other buyers may purchase credits simply to spur gopher tortoise conservation.
  • A gopher tortoise habitat credit is the currency that can be bought and sold. The number of credits on a parcel of land is determined via a science-based and peer-reviewed method to ensure a net conservation benefit for the tortoise when used as offsets for future impacts. The credit price includes funds to manage and monitor the habitat, along with a negotiated profit margin for the seller.
  • The USFWS approves the crediting methodology and maintains agreements with buyers and sellers. The agency may also provide federal-level assurances to both the buyer and seller. This regulatory certainty allows buyers to preemptively buy credits that can be used toward offsetting future impacts if the species were to be listed.

With 87 percent of southern forests in private ownership, protecting species like the gopher tortoise requires an innovative approach. The gopher tortoise conservation marketplace is testing a new strategy, which provides financial incentives to private landowners who manage their woodlands for habitat and candidate species.

If you would like to learn more about market-based approaches for conservation, such as the approach Gartner began formulating as a PERC Enviropreneur Fellow, then apply to PERC’s Enviropreneur Institute by March 5.

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Assessing Endangered Species Science

Last Thursday, at a congressional hearing, Assistant U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Gary Frazer said that the Interior Department’s Office of Science Integrity would conduct an independent evaluation of the work of FWS biologists accused by a federal judge of being dishonest with the court and acting in ’”bad faith.”  As the Los Angeles Times reports, Frazer said the FWS stands behind the work of its scientists but the Department will seek an independent assessment from outside experts nonetheless.

Frazer’s comments were delivered at a House Science Committee Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing on “The Endangered Species Act: Reviewing the Nexus of Science and Policy” at which I was also a witness. In my testimony, I focused on the broader issue of how science is and should be used in under the ESA, and made three basic points.

First, it is important to ferret out genuine instances of scientific misconduct or science politicization.  At the same time, it is essential to recognize that science merely informs, and does not dictate, policy. Species conservation is not – and cannot be – a wholly scientific exercise. Whether a given species is at risk of extinction may be a scientific question, but what to do about it is not. The likelihood that habitat loss or the introduction of an invasive species will compromise a species chance of survival in the wild is a question that can be answered by science. On the other hand, what conservation measures should be adopted to address such threats, and at what cost, are policy questions. Science can – indeed, must – inform such inquiries, but science alone does not tell us what to do. Insofar as debates over conservation policy are dressed up as scientific disputes — or instances of science abuse — we hamper our ability to assess competing policy options and pursue optimal conservation strategies.

Second, the structure of the ESA both undermines our ability to base conservation decisions on the best possible scientific information and creates substantial incentives to manipulate science so as to influence policy outcomes. The former occurs because the ESA makes the presence of endangered or threatened species a liability to private landowners. As a consequence, private landowners are often reluctant to allow government or other researchers to conduct surveys or engage in other species-related research on their land. This means the ESA makes it more difficult to know which species are most in need of help and where they are.

The ESA creates incentives for interest groups and others to try and manipulate science because certain science-based determinations, such as whether a species is “endangered,” are triggers for non-discretionary regulatory measures. This means that if an interest group wants to influence regulatory outcomes, it is in their interest to try and influence the initial scientific determination. This explains why there is so much controversy and conflict over species listing decisions. The Act itself turns what should be primarily a scientific inquiry — whether the best available science indicates that a species meets a given definition of what it means to be endangered or threatened — into a high stakes proxy battle over regulatory policy. This is not good for science, and further complicates the quest for optimal conservation measures.

For those interested, my full testimony is here. Portions of my testimony are based on my chapter in Rebuilding the Ark. An archived webcast and the written statements of the other witnesses should be available here, as are pictures from the hearing.

Originally posted at The Volokh Conspiracy.

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Wolf Counts and Management Costs

Largely extirpated in the 1930s, wolves were reintroduced into the Rocky Mountain Region of the United States in 1995. The recovery plan required approximately 300 wolves, as defined by at least 10 breeding pairs in three distinct regions. Today there are more than 1500 wolves in the combined regions and more than 20 breeding pairs in each region. Yet debate continues over the removal of the gray wolf from endangered species status.

Even though wolf numbers exceed recovered status according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, many groups continue to oppose their delisting. The debate, fought in both the courts and Congress, has cost individuals and taxpayers millions of dollars (see chart above).

According to the Fish and Wildlife Service [PDF], “Delisting the [Northern Rocky Mountain] wolf population would allow implementation of a more efficient, sustainable, and cost-effective wildlife conservation model, but has been difficult to achieve.” In the meantime, the costs of wolf management increases with their population.

Originally posted at Environmental Trends.
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How Property Rights and Limited Trophy Hunting Saved the African White Rhino

From PERC’s latest Case Study:

“In 1900, the southern white rhinoceros was the most endangered of the five rhinoceros species. Less than 20 rhinos remained in a single reserve in South Africa. By 2010, white rhino numbers had climbed to more than 20,000, making it the most common rhino species on the planet.

Saving the white rhino from extinction can be attributed to a change in policy that allowed private ownership of wildlife. While protecting the rhinos encouraging breeding, the ranchers were able to profit by limited trophy hunting.

Poaching for rhino horn, which is in high demand for medicinal and ornamental purposes, had also devastated the rhino population. CITES banned the commercial sale of rhino horn, which caused black market sales to sky rocket and encouraged poaching. If the ban were lifted, ranchers are ready to supply the market by harvesting the horns humanely, which then regrow just like fingernails.

Strong property rights and market incentives have provided a successful model for rhino conservation, despite the negative impact of command-and-control approaches that rely on regulations and bans that restrict wildlife use.”

The author is Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes, who recently launched Rhino-Economics.com. See also Michael’s Q&A on rhinos and tigers from earlier this year.