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Elephant ivory

I read in NewScientist that the US Fish and Wildlife Service are crushing and destroying 6 tonnes of illegally-poached elephant ivory.  The obvious response as an economist to this action is that it might be better to sell the ivory on the open market thereby deflating its price and reducing incentives for further illegal poaching.   This possibility is mentioned in the NewScientist argument but is rejected because it creates a precedent for legal sale.  That doesn’t really make sense since there are legal sales already. NewScientist contends however that selling it in large quantities would blur the line between legal and illegal sales. I don’t see this either.  Finally it says that demand is so strong that legal sales would lead to the elephant population being wiped out.  That would be a terrible consequence but that prospect can hardly be worsened by reducing the incentives to poach.

I can think of reasons for not selling it off. You might be seeking to establish the moral norm that it is wrong to trade in such products and enhanced legal sales might thwart that. You might also be attempting to disrupt the industry that processes such products to encourage shifts to other products. Legal provision might enhance dependence on ivory. If the ivory was sold then a sensible auxiliary policy would be to dramatically increase the costs to poachers by increasing penalties.

Elephants are being killed primarily for their ivory these days so one possibility might be to tranquillise, capture and de-tusk them.   Their remain strong incentives for poor people to hunt them for bushmeat and to kill them because of human cultivation/animal habitat conflicts.  Governments then argue with respect to the latter that the elephants must give way because our first duty is to our fellow humans.  I don’t agree with that – it is speciesist and inconsistent with valuing things at the margin.  There are plenty of humans in Africa but it natural biodiversity that is under threat.   Humans should make their life decisions – including choice of family size – on the understanding that they don’t have the intrinsic right to trample on the rest of nature.  That’s true even if they are poor.

1 comment to Elephant ivory

  • Jim Rose

    HC, doug allen wrote a nice paper on the rhino’s horn. the rhino’s horn is compacted hair so it can be cut way painlessly. the elephant’s horn is a tooth with nerves.

    I can’t see how flooding a market can increase the demand for poaching. falling prices and profits is hardly a hook for new entry!

    the ivory was destroyed to please expressive voters. they do not care much about whether what they cheer and boo makes for a better world

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