Private Property Rights to Wildlife: The Southern Africa Experiment

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Zimbabwe has seen much turmoil in 2000, and the nation faces an uncertain political and economic future. Nevertheless, Zimbabwe has been part of an important experiment in private wildlife management that has lessons for the rest of the world. Although the past gains from this effort are being endangered by the current threats of land confiscation and other acts of violence by the Zimbabwean government, this does not detract from their potential interest to other nations.

In most nations around the world, wildlife are owned by the state. In the United States, despite its long history of a free-market economy, state game departments have strictly regulated wildlife on public and private land alike. In many countries including the US, landowners cannot benefit from the commercialization of wildlife except through controlling access to their land. Traditionally, it has been argued that the fugitive character of wildlife makes it impossible to manage wildlife under normal property-right arrangements. However, this has often resulted in static or declining wildlife populations. Past successes in southern African nations with commercialization of wildlife resources suggest there may be significant opportunities for improving wildlife habitat and increasing species diversity in other countries as well.

The future of African wildlife is a matter of great international concern. In many parts of Africa, wildlife populations have declined sharply from historic levels. Finding a means of stemming these declines has been an urgent priority of the international environmental and conservation communities.

It is thus particularly significant that in the past 30 years Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa have altered their legal regimes to give full control over the use of wildlife to the private owners of the land on which the wildlife are located. Prior to that, private landowners had limited incentives to increase wildlife populations, because the state denied them the full opportunity to profit from wildlife.

Following the privatization of wildlife management in southern African nations, wildlife tourism on private lands has boomed. Wildlife ranching is typically more profitable than cattle ranching on the semi-arid lands of southern Africa. It also causes less soil erosion and is generally less environmentally damaging. As many as 20 percent of all the ranches in Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa are now managed at least in part for wildlife tourism.

As a result of the widespread conversion to wildlife outputs, populations of plains game animals have risen rapidly on private lands throughout the region. In Zimbabwe, a majority of many desirable species—including 94 percent of eland, 64 percent of kudu, 63 percent of giraffe, 56 percent of cheetah, and 53 percent of both sable and impala—are found on commercial ranch properties. In Namibia, wildlife populations on private lands have risen by 80 percent since the creation in 1967 of a regime of private wildlife ownership.

Tsessebe, a type of African antelope, were once threatened throughout Zimbabwe but were able to recover on private ranches, allowing their subsequent restoration to public lands as well. The most successful efforts to restore rhino populations—generally decimated by poaching throughout Africa in the 1980s and early 1990s—are taking place on private lands. Privatization of control over use of wildlife has had more success in promoting biodiversity in the southern African region than any other policy measure.

In order to realize the considerable economies of scale in wildlife operations, private ranchers in the region began in the 1990s to join together in large “conservancies” for the collective wildlife management of their lands. The largest, the Savé conservancy in southeast Zimbabwe, has removed cattle altogether and is now managing 850,000 acres (1325 square miles) with considerable success: The reintroduction of wildlife, including the rhinoceros, elephant, and buffalo, has helped restore the conditions of the African past on a profit-making basis.

Most national parks and other reserved and protected lands in Africa were originally created in the colonial era and involved the removal of native Africans from the land. It is most unlikely that there will be significant further expansions of African national park systems. Further increases in the areas devoted to wildlife in Africa will have to come on private and communal lands and will have to offer sufficient incentives to justify wildlife management on the part of the occupants of these lands.

In many African countries, the best way to maximize the value of private semi-arid lands will be to encourage commercial wildlife production. The nations of southern Africa are looking to tourism as a main engine of future economic growth. Most international tourists are drawn to Zimbabwe, Namibia, and to a lesser extent South Africa to experience the spectacular wildlife populations. The potential for increasing tourism and for providing greater employment and income in these nations thus depends heavily on creating strong incentives to increase wildlife populations on private and communal lands.

Other parts of the world may be able to benefit from the lessons learned from the successes of southern African nations in privatization and commercialization of wildlife. In the United States, a large part of the wildlife—including a majority of threatened and endangered species—are found on private lands.

The United States has a long tradition of employing a regulatory approach to wildlife management. There have been growing numbers of signs in recent years that this approach is increasingly having counterproductive results—such as powerful incentives for landowners to avoid creating any habitat conditions that might attract endangered species to their land. Based on the southern African experience, American wildlife managers at both the federal and state levels should reconsider whether the carrot of positive incentives might not be more effective in the future in promoting wildlife populations than the past stick of state commands and controls.