Today’s Wall Street Journal carried an edifying op-ed penned by Mokgweetsi Masisi, the President of Botswana. That Southern African country of a little over two and a quarter million inhabitants is being overrun by elephants. In the mid-1990s, President Masisi reports that there were roughly 50,000 elephants in Botswana. Since then, the elephant population has exploded to more than 130,000—thanks, in part, to a ban on hunting. Now, Botswana’s elephants pose a danger to life, limb, and property. So, in May, the government indicated that it would lift the hunting ban. This drew outrage from many but from not rural Botswanans who have witnessed their property destroyed, neighbors killed, and lives disrupted by elephants. President Masisi argues that controlled big game hunting would transform the elephants from vermin into something of economic value. This, he concludes, would save the elephants. President Masisi is right. I know. I spent considerable time studying the problem of wildlife conservation in Africa many moons ago.
It all started with a lunch in 1972 and subsequent collaboration with Richard Leakey — son of the famous paleontologists Louis and Mary Leakey, a famous paleontologist in his own right, bon vivant, etc…
In addition to paleontology, Leakey has a passion for wildlife conservation. I learned of this during my first lunch with Richard Leakey in the spring of 1972. It was then that the anthropologist Neville Dyson-Hudson, an expert on East African pastoral peoples, and I broke bread with Leakey at the Johns Hopkins Faculty Club in Baltimore. I anticipated plenty of paleontology and anthropology, but those weren’t on the menu. The conversation quickly turned to the topic that most interested Leakey, and as it turns out, the reason why my former colleague Dyson-Hudson had invited me to lunch in the first place: to discuss the economics of wildlife resources.
Leakey had a vision of land use and wildlife resources in East Africa. His observation was that the East African savannahs were, in large part, common property resources. In addition, Leakey noted that the wildlife that roamed over these vast savannahs were fugitive common property resources, too. He concluded that, unless property rights could be established, both the savannahs and wildlife would eventually be destroyed. For him, this would be a great tragedy, not only for wildlife but also for indigenous peoples living off the lands in East Africa.
Leakey questioned whether the current system — burdened with its common property problems and regulated by a very British-type system of hunting rules (charges for hunting licenses and penalties for unlicensed hunting, violations of closed seasons and the killing of protected species) — was sustainable. He also questioned whether parks and game reservations — coupled with restrictions on the trade of wildlife meat, skins, and trophies — would actually conserve wildlife. Leakey’s conjecture was that, if private property in the savannahs and wildlife resources could be established, they could be properly managed to enhance land-use productivity. This, he concluded, would give wildlife economic value, save it from destruction, and enhance the economic wellbeing of those indigenous peoples who co-exist among the wildlife herds.
Steve Hanke is a professor of applied economics at The Johns Hopkins University and senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He is a columnist at Forbes and a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal. Over four decades Hanke has advised dozens of world leaders from Ronald Reagan to Indonesia’s Suharto on currency reforms, infrastructure development, privatization, and how to tame hyperinflation. You can follow him on twitter @steve_hanke.
First appeared in Forbes.