Save Elephants by Selling Ivory

For many people free markets seem cold and calculating.  Maybe it’s the best way to sell, say, automobiles and soap.  But we shouldn’t like the process.  And we certainly shouldn’t base our behavior on markets when basic concepts of right and wrong are at stake.

Of course, markets are no substitute for understanding what the good life is all about.  However, markets offer a powerful tool to reinforce underlying moral values.

One of the great tragedies of the modern age is the slaughter of elephants.  Ivory long has been a widely desired decorative material.

Unfortunately, these days most new ivory comes from poachers.  The killing of elephants has sparked a new form of prohibition, with steadily tighter controls over ivory sales. 

As I note in my new Freeman article:

As a result, elephants have turned into modern day bison—simultaneously owned by no one and more valuable dead than alive.  The result has been devastating for elephant populations in many African states, with upwards of 40,000 elephants being killed annually.

In fact, about the only advocates of the giant creatures are Westerners who see the animals in zoos or on carefully controlled safaris.  In contrast, struggling developing nations must manage wildlife reserves and deter poachers while facing what they see as far more pressing human needs. 

Worse is the situation facing villagers and farmers.  Residents of the industrialized West wax eloquent when talking of faraway elephants, but to locals the creatures are giant rats, threatening and destructive. 

Thus, despite much effort, activists and governments have not been able to stop the massacre of elephants.  Yet faced with the failure of prohibition, the usual suspects only propose more of the same. 

They are pushing countries to destroy existing ivory stockpiles, acquired from elephants which died naturally or were culled, as well as seized from poachers.  Groups also are pressing to ban even the sale of antique ivory, as if outlawing ancient objects could bring back long-dead elephants.  Even more improbable have even been proposals that Western nations deploy military

Without a change of tactics, elephants could disappear from some African countries.  Yet some in the West favor morality lectures rather than practical innovations. 

Moral suasion always is worth a try.  But what happens after preaching fails?

Use markets to reinforce the moral message.  Observed the international conference covering endangered species (CITES):  “provided that their full value (i.e. both intrinsic and extrinsic) is fully realized by the landholders involved, not only will elephants be conserved but so will the accompanying range of biodiversity existing on such land.” 

It’s not a jump into the unknown.  Before 1989 Botswana, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe allowed legal sales.  The same countries generally enjoyed expanding elephant populations, in contrast to the shrinking herds evident elsewhere in Africa.

Even today, after closure of these ivory markets, some governments sell licenses to hunt elephants when the population exceeds the land’s capacity.  Where the money is shared locally, noted analyst Peter Fitzmaurice, “Damaged land and crop losses are not only being tolerated, but villages are doing their best to guard against poachers.”

More needs to be done.  Observed CITES:  “A legal trade in ivory, elephant hide and meat could change current disincentives to elephant conservation into incentives to landholders and countries to conserve them.” 

Some activists appear to believe that it simply is morally wrong to trade in animals, or at least elephants (speciesism lives!).  But markets have been used elsewhere to help save endangered species, such as vicunas, tigers, and crocodiles.

Why not elephants too?

The current system formally treats elephants as sacred, thereby leaving them for dead.  Markets would treat elephants as commercial, thereby keeping them alive. 

If asked, elephants likely would prefer the second policy.  So should we.