Elephants, Ivory, and Economics

Those attacking the ivory trade are killing far more elephants than poachers ever did.

A primitive, ill-educated ruler, clinging to backward belief systems, declares that ancient and priceless works of art must be destroyed. The world looks on in despair, helpless to intervene, as the destruction begins.

No, I’m not talking about Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, and ISIS. I’m talking about Prince William, in England, and his determination to destroy the Royal Family’s ivory collection. Unlike with ISIS, unfortunately in this case, much of the world does not look on in despair. Much of the world thinks it’s a good idea. Ivory is evil. We have to protect the elephants. Death to poachers! And, yes, let’s destroy all objects made of ivory, because it’s the politically correct thing to do.

How is it possible the world has become so confused on this issue? Well, the world seems to be confused on lots of issues these days: global warming, terrorism, effective health care policies, etc. And compared to some of those world-class concerns, maybe ivory isn’t all that important. Sure, destroy all those priceless works of ivory art, and bask in the inner-glow of thinking you’ve helped the elephants. But you haven’t. You’ve condemned the elephants to eradication.

Unlike most things, I actually know something about elephants. I’ve been on more safaris than I can count (where you drive around in a Land Rover on the game reserves and see elephants and other animals in the wild.) Many have done this. But I’ve done it in Botswana, and in particular, in Chobe park. Chobe has more elephants per square inch than anywhere else on the planet. Something like 60,000 elephants are in Chobe park. Touring Chobe is a good way to learn about elephants. I’ve been chased by elephants; have had them lunge at me with their vicious ivory tusks from about 3 feet away, and even had my canoe attacked by elephants, at least until I paddled fast enough to get away from them. Actually that happened twice, on different canoes, and on different rivers. I had a rogue elephant come very close to destroying my VW bug on a deserted dirt road—while I was in it.

And here’s the first lesson I learned: Elephants—other factors equal—are a disaster for the environment. Think of them as walking environmental-destruction-units, or EDU’s. There are places in Chobe (actually most of it) that look like a war zone, like we carpet-bombed it with B-52’s or something. Trees ripped apart. Dead foliage all over the ground. No green vegetation as far as the eye can see. Mud and dirt piled in strange shapes and patterns. One looks at the debris and thinks a satanic creature must have come through here, on a mission to eradicate all life from Earth. But, no, it was just an elephant herd.

As I’ve said many times, you can be pro-environment or you can be pro-elephant, but it’s difficult to be both. Elephants live by destroying the environment. It’s what they do. It’s their thing. Farmers in Africa utterly loathe elephants. If they can cause such fearsome destruction to a rain forest, you can imagine what they do to a crop field. Oh, and that fence you put up to keep out the wildlife—the elephant herd simply stomps it into the ground; and then eats the food you were trying to grow to feed your family.

I grew up in Iowa and I can well imagine what it would be like for Iowa corn farmers to have to put up with herds of elephants rampaging through their fields. They wouldn’t like it one bit. What can you do? Put up a fence? No, that won’t even slow them down. Shoot them? No, they’ll throw you in jail for that. Call the game warden? Nope. Game warden says the elephants are a protected species and not to be interfered with.

OK, having said all that, it might sound like I hate elephants. I don’t. I think they are very cool, and I love seeing them in the wild, ripping apart trees and such. They are majestic, wonderful creatures, and worthy of preserving and protecting. However, I’m aware of the problem society has balancing the needs of farmers, with the needs of elephants.

Against this backdrop comes the ivory poacher. Are they evil? Yes, absolutely. Should they be locked up and the key thrown away? Sure. Is the ban on ivory helping the elephants? Absolutely not. It’s destroying them. And to understand why, you need look no further than the drug war in America. The same dynamics of supply and demand apply to both.

In America, we think drugs are bad, so we ban drugs, and arrest drug dealers. That lowers the supply of drugs. Which of course increases the price of drugs. Which increases the profitability. Which increases the quantity of people willing to take a risk and become drug dealers. Which produces more drugs. How effective has the drug war been since it began in earnest more than half a century ago? Drugs are a far worse problem today, than they were when we started. We’re losing the drug war. And the more we enforce the drug laws, the more we lose it. Because of the economics of supply and demand which are immutable.

Here’s how the ivory ban works: We ban ivory, and make it illegal to trade in it, ship it, buy it, etc. We think: “This will kill the ivory trade.” But, just as with the drug war, it only makes it worse. The ivory ban has succeeded in making ivory one of the most precious, sought-after, expensive commodities on the planet. So of course this propels a large quantity of folks who are trying to make a living in Africa, into the illegal ivory trade. Sure, if they’re caught, they’re screwed. But if they’re not caught they can make a fortune. Not too many ways to make a fortune in central Africa. And there will always be people willing to risk everything to try. So they sneak in at night with a high powered rifle, shoot an elephant with big tusks, saw them off, and try to escape. If they succeed they’re wealthy for life.

The more we try to stop this activity, the higher the price of ivory will go, the greater the reward for the ivory poachers, the more ivory poachers there will be, and the more elephants will be killed by the poachers. Just like with the drug war in America.

So, take all these problems together: If you let them run wild, elephants destroy the environment. As their populations increase, elephants wipe out farmers’ crops and leave the families of those farmers destitute. Meanwhile poachers are eradicating the herds so as to get rich on ivory. Farmers are being destroyed financially. Poachers are being jailed. People who want to make beautiful art objects out of ivory, and display them in homes and in museums are being vilified and guilt-tripped. And the royal family in England decides the way to cure all these problems is to act like ISIS and start destroying works of art.

There’s no solution, right? It’s hopeless, right? No, actually the solution to all these problems is very easy. The solution costs no money to implement—it’s self funding. The solution results in all the farmers being happy and prosperous, despite the elephants—actually because of them. The solution dramatically expands the elephant herds and eliminates poaching. The solution solves the problem of the environmental destruction caused by the elephants. No resources need be spent by law enforcement in trying to catch poachers because this solution eliminates poachers. And finally, all those people who love ivory can now have as much of it as they want. No ivory objects d’art need be destroyed, and in fact new ones can and should be made.

What’s the solution? Legalize the ivory trade. Make it possible to harvest ivory legally, and sell it, ship it, own it, and make cool stuff out of it. Instead of trying to suppress this activity, encourage it. When society does this, here’s what happens.

  1. All those farmers in Africa who were having their crops destroyed by elephants, now shift their revenue model and create what let’s call large elephant ranches. They no longer have to hate elephants, they can love them. They can set aside vast quantities of land so the elephants can do their thing, with no one being upset by it.
  2. Instead of man and elephant locked in a bitter struggle for resources, man is happy to provide the resources to the elephants, much as ranchers in Wyoming provide resources (land, food, water, etc.) to cattle on the open range.
  3. The price of ivory falls to much more reasonable levels, thus pulling the rug out from under the poaching industry, and making poaching un-economic.
  4. The “harvesting” of the ivory can now occur humanely and in a way that doesn’t really bother the elephants much. You don’t have to kill them for their ivory, you just harvest a bit of their tusks. With lots of elephants, that’s lots of tusks, and it’s actually a problem for elephants when their tusks grow too long. Think: human fingernails.
  5. The more people buy ivory, the more the elephants prosper and the more the elephant ranchers prosper. And the more no one minds the environmental damage an elephant herd does, because it now makes sense to set aside such land just for the enjoyment of the elephants. No problem elephants, go for it!

It may sound counter-intuitive that legalizing the ivory trade would cause a huge explosion in the number of elephants, but it shouldn’t be counter-intuitive. Consider this thought experiment. If, tomorrow, the U.S. made all the consumption of beef and beef products illegal—a felony—how many cows would there be in America five years from now? Uh, maybe a few dozen, kept mostly in zoos. Today there are millions, but there are millions only because beef is legal. The moment it became illegal cows would quickly become an endangered species.

Making ivory illegal has precisely the same effect on elephant herds as making beef illegal would have on cattle herds.

Ah, but this is only theoretical, right? This would never work in reality, right? Wrong again. Before 1989 several enlightened African countries (Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Malawi) allowed this benign economic system to flourish, and made ivory sales legal. Elephant populations soared in these countries, and poaching was nearly eradicated. Meanwhile in non-enlightened countries like Kenya and Tanzania, ivory was illegal, and elephant populations plummeted. Well, duh.

Unfortunately, since that time misguided world opinion against ivory has forced those enlightened countries to make ivory illegal once again. Result: elephant herds are being massacred. Poaching is on the rise. And farmers are having their crops destroyed by elephants and they can’t do anything about it.

But the real lesson here isn’t about ivory or elephants. It’s about how Western civilization does such a terrible job teaching the most basic concepts of economics. People who love elephants think the ivory trade is awful, not realizing that legalizing ivory is the best thing you can do for elephant populations. People who think workers deserve more money, want the minimum wage law increased, not realizing that doing so throws vast numbers of workers into the street, and even worse, keeps new workers from learning the skills they need to be productive. People who think medical care should become more accessible, believe the government should take control of the medical industry and ration care, not realizing that this will vastly reduce both the quantity and quality of care available, and everyone will suffer—as has happened every time it’s been tried.

Countries that flirt with statism have to re-learn simple economics the hard way: as Venezuela is currently doing. The free market may not solve all problems in life, but it solves most of them. And it can certainly solve the problem of the ivory trade. Prince William would be doing elephants a far bigger favor by educating himself on this topic, rather than destroying priceless art collections.

Back to elephants. Those wanting to learn more about this issue can go here: http://www.cato.org/publications/co…

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