Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Steve Irwin's way: Economics of wildlife conservation

At Australia Zoo (I had a lovely time there on the weekend, thanks for asking) there are numerous signs posted to encourage visitors not to buy native animal products – crocodile, emu, and kangaroo meat for example.  I found this very odd, as crocodile and emu are farmed, and most kangaroo species are not endangered – far from it.  So what kind of conservation message was this I wondered?

Steve Irwin expressed his conservation message more clearly on the website:

"Sustainable Use" of native wildlife in so-called modern nations like Australia and the U.S.A. has inadvertently created a multi-million dollar 'bushmeat' industry, where local people kill native wildlife for meat, skins and products. Please don't blame the local people; it's not their fault! They're simply hunting for much needed money. The greatest wildlife perpetrators of today's world are those behind the driving force of "Sustainable Use." 

How are the Tiger Farms in Taiwan and China helping to save Tigers in India, SE Asia or Siberia? They are perpetuating the market in Tiger products, which is the single greatest reason for the endangerment of Tigers.

…If we can destroy the market, we'll destroy the industry. Historically the only reason spotted cats, like Leopards and Cheetahs are still found in the wild, is because of peer pressure. It became 'uncool' and controversial to wear spotted cat fur coats, so the market was destroyed and the industry suffered. Slowly, less and less Leopards and Cheetahs were being shot for their skins, and just as well or they would've been extinct 20 years ago.

The principle behind this message is that if we eliminate demand for wildlife products, we will preserve species.  But there are alternative ways to protect wildlife and biodiversity (a side note: do we really care about an individual species, or do we use iconic mammals as the canary in the coal mine of biodiversity protection?)

In addition to the ‘demand destruction’ technique, economists propose other ways to preserve threatened species – promote domesticated supply (farm threatened species), the Coase solution (give rights to the species to a group who can profit from non-consumptive use of the animals such as eco-tourism and research), and simple land conservation.

Which of these measures work?  Should we try them all, or are they mutually exclusive?

Promoting alternative supplies of animal products may sound strange at first, but has merit.  If we began farming pandas, bears, tigers and elephants, we could essentially flood the market for these animals’ body parts, bringing down the price to make hunting these species in the wild uneconomical for the risks involved.  The logic appears sound, and I can think of crocodiles in Australia as an example of where farmed animals have almost completely replaced wild animals as a supply of meat and skins.

But caution should be taken if this method is to be the primary conservation measure.  Solid institutional arrangements, regulations, and enough participants to avoid collusion are necessary, or this measure can simply backfire.  Because the farming of a species legitimises consumption of its body parts (thus increasing demand), farmers may collude to reduce supply and maintain a high price which may not discourage hunting of the species in the wild, especially in countries where hunting bans or their enforcement are non-existent.

For example, if all the crocodile farmers colluded to reduce supply of skins and meat while demand for crocodile products increases now that it is the new must have item, the price may be high enough for wild hunting to be profitable.

One unusual extension of this philosophy is to encourage farming by promoting various endangered species as gourmet food.  No doubt this will encourage farming, but it won’t necessarily ensure that wild animals are preserved, which is the primary goal here.  We don’t see many wild chickens, cows, or pigs anymore (or the descendants of the wild species from which they were originally domesticated).  Tuna farming is developing, and we may see whether this has any impact on wild populations; however I worry about the push for farming tigers for Chinese medicine as an effective conservation measure.  

The Coase solution gives private rights to utilise a species for non-consumptive use (such as tourism or research) to a particular group.  Since that group now has an incentive to preserve the wild population, they will protect an area for poachers, promote tourism, and potentially play a role in demand destruction (easing their efforts to protect against poachers).  For example, some African countries have private rights for tourism operators who make money from shooting elephants with cameras rather than guns, thereby having a strong interest in preserving their habitat and protecting them from poachers.  In fact, in some of these areas the elephant population is now estimated to be at the carrying capacity of the conservation area.

Alongside the Coase solution, habitat protection is also needed.  If the group with rights over the species have no assurance that a minimum size habitat will be maintained, there is little incentive for any group to take up these right and develop the tourism industry.  A combination of land conservation and private rights can be a potent solution.

How do we go about optimising conservation with these options?

If our primary goal is to protect the species in their wild habitat, promoting domesticated supply is probably the least preferred option.  It legitimises consumption of the species and does not always ensure that farmed supplies completely replace wild supply.  It also hinders the introduction of other conservation measures.  Why would tourist pay top dollar to see wild elephants in Africa when there is an elephant farm just down the road?  If hides the plight of the species in the wild when it becomes common in captivity.

A combination of the other measures probably constitutes optimal conservation – destroy demand for consumptive use of the species, promote non-consumptive use and give a group rights to benefit from those uses, and ensure a minimum scale of habitat is preserved for our top of the food chain ‘canary’ species. 

Australia Zoo’s message at first struck me as very odd, but it may just be that the animals they cite are not endangered (kangaroos), or have been successfully farmed (crocodiles and emus).  But their logic is sound.  They may simply have needed a message accessible to children and foreigners, which is achieved by referring to common Australian animals.

You can also see the commitment to this optimal conservation strategy from the Irwin’s purchase of land in Cape York to preserve habitat and promote non-consumptive use of wild animals, which is now under threat from mining exploration (since the State still holds rights to minerals on private property).  You can read more here and sign a petition to protect this land from mining. 

The take home message is to be wary of ‘too good to be true’ solutions from economists when the outcomes are irreversible. 


  1. http://www.canberratimes.com.au/news/local/news/general/terri-irwin-accused-of-wildlife-charade/1262629.aspx?storypage=2

    Terry Irwin has no right to waltz into a country and start telling the Natives what to eat. What she think she is, a cattle farmer or something? A McDonalds production house.

    How rude for Irwin to promote hatred of a native lifestyle so entrenched in morallity and understanding of their environment that their traditions are world reknown as the world's longest living culture.

    Go home Irwin and take your Bovine with you, you and your inconsiderate nature.

  2. The economic standpoint of Terry Erwin is clear, she is a cattle producer and its about the money. The Erwins killed many crocodiles in setting up their displays as they attempted to get the conditions right to keep the crocs in captive display.

    The kangaroos they have their do not roam free they are in enclosure and are feed pellets made from partly from animal byproducts to boost protein components (Kangaroos are meant to be grass eaters last time I checked)

    The fact is that her running cattle of the Nth Qld property will kill more wildlife than their zoo could "save" in a thousand years.

    Bob Snr has a right to be heard Terry hasn't earnt that yet.

  3. Gary and Anonymous,
    There are many who would view the situation differently.
    You can find the Land Court decision here

    The Irwins lost, but only because the case ws over access for an environmental survey - a requirement prior to minerals exploration. The judge let the survey go ahead but noted:

    "Were this an application for an interlocutory order that sought drilling or major exploration activities to be undertaken on the property, then in my view the balance at this point would tip in favour of the respondent. However, as the activities to be undertaken are in the main what I would class as non-invasive in primarily being concerned with viewing and observation of flora and fauna as well as 10 per cent of other activities, which although undefined would consistently fall within those normally undertaken by an environmental study and therefore not, I expect, be overly invasive, I have reached the conclusion that the balance, though a fine balance, does tip in favour of the explorer in this matter. I therefore propose to issue orders as sought by the explorer, save for some amendments."

    The other important point to note is that the wildlife reserve was almost completely paid for by a Federal Government grant, $6.3million.

    "The zoo was not asked to fund any part of the purchase of the property, which had been identified by all parties as being of exceptional environmental significance.

    As its contribution, Australia Zoo offered to construct and operate a research station, and to be responsible for managing the reserve in perpetuity."

    I don't think many people are getting a straight story here. Why would the Terry Irwin through a few more cattle on a block of land in the Cape when her and her children are making a fortune with their tv programs and documentaries? eg.

  4. Well you've replied to my name but not to my writng. The story well sandwiches the meat we should be eating as the one throught that was taken Australia Zoo. My comment focused on the centre of the issue and remarked on just who immigrant to this country of the world's longest living culture thinks she is by advising us on food. My mother's family, of the world's longest living culture, lived very well on sharing life with their surroudnings. Garnaut reports that for "60,000 years" a strong and healthy culture thrived here. Read about the surgical procedure that enabled population control, the Utpoian area now known as Brisbane, and Ganauts advice to Australians to "eat Kangaroo" Now why I wonder does she not say don't eat cow, bovine, ox etc etc. Why did not Cameron come home with thoughts of "don't eat caged or chained animal"? Does madam pip skeak also against the over fishing of the waters that once lived side-by-side with man here. Does she hang signs that berate the massive movemnet of people around the world but pointedly here to Australia so that we can continue the determined destruction of the land of the world's longest living culture? One here would be wise to view things from an Austrlian perseptive, after all, This is Australia. Maybe you could ask Cameron to email you some pictures of the Brisbane city hall and after viewing ask again, who does she think she is?

  5. Excuse me miss, but would you tell me where I might see some wild kangaroo?

    “Haha no, no, no, heehee, no sir, no wiled Kangarooo. Needed the land ya see, fer tourists; ohh, er yea, and cattle. Ohh the cattle. They bulldozed those open-forests, closed-forests and rainforests here in good ol' se of q hehe, and now well weze just gotta have land fer cattle. No sir, leave the wiled Kangarooo out of it 'round here.” “But hey, if'n the thought it don't kill yer, open up that fat wallet of yours there and I'll let you see a couple of real beauties in a pen out back. Come on through”.

  6. Gary, the link you posted and the comments from Anonymous accused Terry Irwin of an alternative agenda to expand cattle grazing in Cape York. My response explained the judges findings on the matter of her property, the involvement of John Howard to fund the property as a reserve, and the unlikely need for the family to make a few bucks by compromising their values.

    The blog post itself addresses your other point about eating kangaroo - it is a bad example for the demand destruction method of conservation. Your attack on Terry Irwin for being foreign, and the accusation of hatred towards indigenous culture seems to have foundation, thus no there was no response.

    However, it is ironic that you promote eating kangaroo and fishing coastal waters, with reference to indigenous culture, but you then posted the last comment about a situation where there are no kangaroos in the wild. Would you still promote a diet of kangaroo if there really were non left in the wild?

  7. Slightly off this topic - after a driving trip to Longreach a couple of weeks ago - I have been wondering; how much mining growth is good growth? How do we decide who's interests take priority over contested land: miners or farmers? And will a slowdown of resources growth actually help reduce population growth (and hence we won't need all those additional houses and services that go with increasing populations), and why isn't anyone sensible talking about 'SUSTAINABLE' growth!

  8. There are no animals in the wild, in particular areas, not because of resource use or community consumption through sustainable use, it's because of overpopulation and the requirement for Land for excessive human habitation over sustainability;

    Land for human use over Kangaroo (and Koala etc etc).

    Over-fishing is another story that is also not demonised by Irwin at all. Yet, Indigenous Lifestyle of sustainability is chastised.

    It would be farcial to talk of sustainable growth and also include Autralia's current immigration policy into the mix. Yet it seems there were no Aust Zoo signs regarding that heightening problem. It takes a mother a whole generation (and then some) to allow her children to learn about their future lives and the culture (and economy) of their country.

    Throwing an excessive immigration number into the mix is not a sustainable option. Living in an area requires give and take; a circle of responsibility through sequence of action.

    Economics does not parallel sustainability where money is economics. While immigrants immediately take, what have they given? What have they grown from seed that might mature along with them so that their family will prosper from now?

  9. Good points Annette. How much growth is good growth is a choice we should be making as a society. You might be interested in this article about the benefits of the mining boom - they are much smaller than you'd think

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