Over 100,000 elephants have been killed in Africa in two years according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The Wildlife Conservation Society, was more reserved in its findings, recording 96 elephants per day. Even at this lower rate, elephants will be extinct on the continent within 20 years.
Ivory was originally favoured for piano keys in western cultures, with Steinway pianos only discontinuing ivory keys in 1982. The Chinese demand, however, has existed for thousands of years as a status symbol, according to John Frederick Walker, author of Ivory’s Ghosts; who traced carvings back to the sixth millennium BCE. Millions of ascendant Chinese middle-class can now afford the prized status symbol. Ivory is comparable to diamonds for the Chinese, bearing little inherent value but luxury social signifiers nonetheless.
The mechanics of poaching and smuggling increase in sync with the demand, pushing prices higher, often irrespective of formalised government interventions.History is littered with examples of rich lands tumbling poorer societies into resource wars, labour abuses and poverty cycles.
Similarly, African rhinoceroses face extinction within a decade should The World Wildlife Fund’s extrapolations of today’s poaching rate increases continue. The demand driving the trade comes from the erroneous belief held in East Asian markets that Rhino horn is a powerful aphrodisiac, powering virility, libido and is an effective cure for cancer. Not unsurprisingly then, should we have seen horns fetch $65,000 a kilo (2.2 pounds).
The irony of regulation and monitoring
Activities to reduce supply will push the price up, putting ivory once more out of reach for China’s rising middle class. The unintended side effect of limiting supply increases rarity and makes it more reserved for the elite, rising its esteem further. Poaching hasn’t fallen with the Chinese ban, and the criminal underworld and complicit corrupt governments are involved, outmanoeuvring protection efforts.
Kenya regularly burns pyres of ivory in PR stunts to show their conviction to halting the illegal trade. According to recently murdered wildlife trade expert Esmond Bradley Martin in his home last week, the ivory of 8,000 elephants seized and burned would have fetched around $105 million on the black market. Kenya’s strict legislation has not prevented the population remaining in steep decline; whereas, Zimbabwe, continues to lobby for the trade with its more lenient trade regimes saw its population rise 3% this year.
We are facing a losing battle without the infrastructure, means or compliance to check its advances. Praxeologically-inclined poachers, often working for cartels, operate on a high risk-reward basis as part and parcel of their livelihoods. Meanwhile, those imposing bans raise the price and serve to increase the incentives for desperate individuals in deprived regions.
Corruption and Cartels
Cartels emerge to serve these informal networks, and the criminal underworld followed suit, scaling up the illicit trade in horn and ivory. Removing competition often involves violence; a feature that comes with the territory in a region where the charges for homicide and poaching are not significantly different.
In a world where sizeable personal risks and eliminating competition is the norm, what’s a bribe here and there as a paltry sum for doing such lucrative business. These precipitate in twofold fashion: primarily allowing the cartels to continue operations without crackdowns, with the additional benefit of letting their competition suffer the full force of the law.
That’s assuming you’re criminals and not a world government. Grace Mugabe, wife to the infamous Robert Mugabe, sent a menagerie of safari animals to China for ivory farming operations with faux ‘approvals’ and diplomatic impunity. Permits and exemptions can be bought for anything if one has the money, and regardless of illegality, ivory and rhino horn are no different.
Free market solution – legalise ivory and rhino horn trade
The demand for spurious health benefits, trophies and ornate status symbols is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Equipping park rangers with better weaponry and surveillance leads to an arms race between ranger and poacher. Even with HRH Prince Charles’ charitable interventions, night-vision technology, laser infrared searches and a helicopter, Kruger National Park in South Africa still sees the highest poaching rates in Africa.
Legalisation removes institutional barriers to entrepreneurship, creating a short-lived gold-rush for production, resulting in a price drop until the product reaches its true commodity price – not artificially inflated by the risk of production and export.
Producers will consider their resources as capital goods, lending a profit-motive to harvest their stocks in more sustainable fashion, and in so doing, undercut the profitability of any illicit aspects of the trade, like violent cartels. The lower prices make the trafficking and poaching risks no longer justifiable, ending the butchering of these animals. and the financing of warlords like Joseph Kony’s LRA and genocides, like Darfur.
A positive net externality not often considered is to reduce the illegal arms trade, financing of warlords such as Joseph Kony’s LRA and genocides like Darfur. Terrorist operations, deprived of funding from tusk and horns trading at lower competitive market rates, could be overcome by local government and peacekeeping forces, and bring balance to park rangers tracking down and eliminating these threats.
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