Burning Ivory Is Not the Solution

A few days ago, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta set fire to giant pile after giant pile of elephant ivory confiscated from poachers. Some 105 tons of ivory from over 8,000 elephants as well as 300 rhino horns. Worth some $150 million.

This was the largest such stockpile ever destroyed since Kenya began this program back in the 1980s.

Supposedly this is to send a message to poachers and ivory dealers. “Today Kenya will set fire to the ivory trade,” tweeted WildAid, an organization that “fights for wildlife by targeting consumer demand for illicit products including ivory, rhino horn and shark fin.”

It would appear, however, that the message is not getting over to the poachers. After all, it has been three decades and elephants and the remaining rhinos are still rapidly vanishing. The poachers and traders might instead take this as a message that what little remains is now even more valuable.

The Tragedy of the Commons continues to operate. Elephants and rhinos appear to be safe only in a few places like South Africa where they are carefully guarded on private parks and preserves. Or in countries like Namibia which allows landowners to own the wildlife on their lands and sustainable utilization of all the many species is more profitable than cattle ranching. Or in Zimbabwe which allows tribal villages to have ownership or quasi-ownership and management over the animals and to harvest a few on a sustainable basis. 

The noted Campfire Association allows tribal villages to take a few animals, especially those that are marauders and killing people and destroying crops, water wells, and homes. The impoverished villages can then benefit and earn substantial revenues from trophy hunters and/or the use and sale of meat, skins, tusks, horns, etc. Otherwise they had strong incentives to kill or poison the animals and not to report poachers to the authorities.

Unfortunately, the political chaos in Zimbabwe since around 2000 and the land invasions have largely ended the private wildlife preserves and severely hampered the operation of Campfire.

Some of the other countries in southern Africa also practice conservation programs based on at least quasi-property rights and economic incentives.

Even imperfect programs are far better than resorting to periodic burning of all the wildlife parts the government agents and anti-poaching patrols manage to intercept. Even the reported practice of killing the poachers in the wild has not resolved the problem.

Why not try various property rights approaches instead?