Photo: Siegfried Modola/Reuters
I was never a big fan of President Obama. Oh sure, he’s a smart guy and glib with a teleprompter, but in many people’s opinion, under Obama’s watch, America lost status in the world order, and that did not set well with many of us. But he hasn’t been the worst president either. (See James Buchanan or Millard Fillmore)
President Obama tried to do something to help wildlife by declaring a war on poachers…a commendable gesture to be sure, but in the end, it is not likely to work. Theoretically speaking, a tangible, physical, boots-on-the ground attack on poaching would be a powerful tool to save endangered wildlife. But like many of the former President’s hope for change theories, in practice, his edict won’t amount to a hill of beans. For in reality, Obama really declared a war on ivory.
Like many of his contemporaries around the world, countries are fighting the war against poachers by piling up stockpiles of confiscated ivory and like the Trammps Disco Inferno, they "gonna burn the mother down." Burning ivory, or putting it in a giant rock crusher in Times Square, is a great photo op for a politician to be sure, but as far as saving elephants goes, destroying the world’s ivory stores does not do a thing to help save elephants. In fact, has just the opposite effect, as destroying elephant teeth leads directly to killing more elephants. In all of their strategic planning, mugging for the cameras, and “sending a message” to poachers, world leaders have forgotten the most important factor in starting or stopping poachers. Economics.
It’s a simple equation of supply and demand. Destroying billions of dollars of ivory does nothing to curb the ivory demand of a billions of Asians. In fact, publicly destroying ivory fans the flames of demand to even higher levels as it is human nature to want that which is taken away. These feel-good political bonfires are, if fact, sending a strong message to poachers. It’s just the wrong message: “We are pushing the price of ivory up. Go kill another herd tonight.” The unintended consequences of these well-intentioned but poorly reasoned public spectacles are helping push the African elephant to the brink of extinction in many African countries. But there is a way to save the elephant. Again, it is simple supply-side economics.
Instead of trying to change the culture and buying habits of a billion or so people's economic demand by destroying the supply, let’s instead, supply the demand. Make ivory trade legal. Flood the market with a million tusks. Microchip every one of them. Control the market. Regulate ivory down to the last pound; it won’t matter. The market price will drop to such an extent, poachers will have no financial incentive to ply their bloody trade. African warlords and criminal syndicates will derive so little profit from the bloody commodity they may be forced to transition into legitimate business like importing olive oil or owning casinos in Las Vegas. Point being, like diamonds, oil, gold, or pork bellies, the market will determine the appropriate price per pound of elephant tusk, which is guaranteed to be at a more sustainable level than the pricing today.
Proceeds from governmental sales of stockpiles could go to better anti-poaching equipment and training. Governmental fees on legal harvests of ivory, which are in place now, would also apply to whatever for-profit entities get into the business, creating more revenue to sustain jumbo. Like almost every other species in the world, a well-managed conservation plan will yield a sustainable off-take of surplus animals that would satisfy most, if not all of the world’s demand for ivory.
Most hunters recoil at the thought of commercial trade in the animals we hunt, but for many years now it has been the reality of most species in South Africa and other African countries. Creating value in game through sustainable use has worked to save scores of species throughout the world. As our impotent attempts to quell the demand for ivory have done little to slow the elephant’s slide towards extinction, perhaps we should do the obvious and utilize our most effective tool in the fight to save the elephant; the tool which we can control; the supply.