Managing wild elephant populations in Africa

One animal species that has received a lot of attention from economists and policymakers is the wild elephant, which is probably the classic example of charismatic megafauna. Both the Asian elephant and the African elephant have seen major declines in wild populations over time. Once numbering in the tens of millions, the number of African elephants in the wild likely fell below one million for the first time in the 1980s.4 Since then, its numbers have continued to fall, to the point that there are currently fewer than half a million on the entire continent.

A number of factors have been responsible for the decline in wild elephant populations, including conflicts with growing human populations, and loss of habitat through conversion of land to farms and ranches. However, illegal poaching is believed to be the main factor in reducing elephant numbers. Elephant tusks are valued for their ivory, which is used to make a variety of consumer products that are marketed all over the world but are especially prized in much of Asia. Fluctuations in the international price of ivory have large effects on poaching activity. When prices increase, poaching tends to increase.

There have been three main policy responses to these dramatic declines in wild elephant populations. One is to set aside reserves such as national parks where elephants enjoy protected status, sometimes called the fortress approach. The second is to encourage community-based management on the local level, sometimes called the participatory approach. Finally, the international community has stepped in to ban international trade. Let us examine these policies in turn.

I. The fortress approach

A number of countries in Africa have set aside large protected areas for elephants, including Botswana, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, South Africa, Kenya, and Zambia. In order to be effective in protecting the elephants, these policies require governments to expend many resources to enforce protections against illegal poaching. This has turned out to be a tall order for many countries, whose parks extend over a large geographic expanse, which makes it difficult to guard again roving bandit-like attacks on the elephant populations. One response has been to increase the penalties for illegal poaching. The countries of Botswana, Kenya, Namibia, and Tanzania have all called for draconian measures to combat poaching in recent years. For example, in 2013 the Tanzanian minister of natural resources and tourism called for poachers to be shot on sight [Smith (2013)].

Despite these measures, illegal poaching continues to create significant problems for countries trying to protect their wild elephant populations. Beginning around 2010, illegal poaching in Africa spiked and remained at high levels for several years. Figure 17.2 shows CITES data for elephant killings for all of Africa. This figure shows the percentage of

Illegal elephant poaching in Africa. Source

Figure 17.2 Illegal elephant poaching in Africa. Source: CITES, Data for “Report on monitoring the illegal killing of elephants (MIKE),” CoP18 Doc. 69.2, CITES Secretariat, sites/default/files/eng/ сор/18/doc/E-CoPl 8-069-02.pdf

illegally killed elephants (PIKE) by year [CITES (2019)].To help interpret these numbers, a PIKE number above 0.5 (shown as the horizontal line) is considered unsustainable for maintaining elephant populations. Figure 17.2 thus suggests that African elephant herds have been managed unsustainably for most of the 2010s. This increase in illegal poaching is particularly pronounced in Central and West Africa and is probably attributable to spikes in the local black market price of ivory [Wittmeyer et al. (2014)].

II. The participatory approach: Community-based management

The fortress approach is an example of what is sometimes referred to as a top-down approach.That is, it is a policy created by a government and implemented in a centralized fashion. And as such, the fortress approach brings with it certain issues endemic to top- down approaches in general: less investment in and ownership of the policy by local communities, less familiarity with local conditions, and potentially high costs of monitoring.

An alternative would be a bottom-up approach, in which decision-making power is at the local level. We have already seen this approach in action in managing different resources, including forests, fisheries, and local water supplies. The basic idea here is the same: to empower local communities to manage their own natural resources sustainably: in this case, elephant herds. That is, members of the community' actively participate in herd management, presumably for the betterment of the community.

Much of the potential for local communities to successfully manage elephant herds comes from a booming worldwide ecotourism industry (see Figure 17.3). Because of tourist fascination with charismatic megafauna in general, local communities have incentive to maintain and protect local herds in order to attract tourists.That is, as long as they can realize returns on their investments in management and providing protection against poachers. This essentially means two things.

First, communities must be given lands they can manage to service ecotourist demands. This might entail governments transferring reserve lands to communities equipped to manage elephant herds effectively'. Second, communities must be allowed to retain the

Ecotourists in Africa. Source

Figure 17.3 Ecotourists in Africa. Source: Shutterstock

proceeds from providing ecotourism activities, which in practice has meant mostly hunting and photographic safari trips.To put it in terms that we are by now familiar with, they should be given broadly unconditional property rights to the elephant herds, including the right to enjoy the stream of returns on the investments they make.

The Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE) in the country of Zimbabwe provides a good example of a participatory program that works reasonably well.3 CAMPFIRE was created in 1989 by the government of Zimbabwe to support community-based wildlife management. The program allows local communities to grant access to local wildlife to safari operators, whereby communities earn revenue mostly through the operation of safaris and sale of animal products. It is true that there have been allegations of corruption and concerns about uneven distribution of revenues in different areas. However, in the first 12 years of its operation, the program generated more than 20 million dollars for the participating communities [see Frost and Bond (2008)|. In addition, wildlife numbers and habitat have stabilized and, in some areas, even increased.

The participatory approach is a relatively new approach to wildlife management, which raises the important question of how to move from the traditional fortress approach to the participatory approach. If you think about it, a move from the fortress approach to the participatory approach constitutes a change in the rules governing wildlife management. It can thus be viewed as an institutional change aimed at reducing transaction costs.These transaction costs especially consist of costs of enforcing exclusion of poachers from wildlife reserves. Switching to the participatory approach reduces enforcement costs if local communities are able to enforce anti-poaching efforts more easily than a central agency can. They may be able to accomplish this by taking ownership of local efforts and getting buy-in to management efforts by members of the local community. Participatory wildlife management is thus similar to management of other natural resources like forests and water.

Nevertheless, movement to the participatory approach has been uneven, succeeding pretty well in certain countries like Zimbabwe and not as well in others. The question is why. The answer seems to be that other sources of transaction costs can impede the move to the participatory approach.

The differing experiences of Peru and Tanzania illustrate how political factors can be decisive in determining the success of participatory efforts. In the early 2000s, both countries attempted to establish wildlife reserves that were to be managed by local communities. In Peru, local communities mostly supported the establishment and operation of these reserve areas. The result was the creation of a successful wildlife reserve, the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve, within Manu National Park. In Tanzania, on the other hand, community-based reserves largely failed to take hold in the face of indifference and even outright hostility from local groups [Haller et al. (2008)].

Several factors explain the difference between these two countries in local support for establishment of these reserves. In Peru, Indigenous groups viewed the establishment of the reserves as offering the prospect of gaining more secure land rights in the face of intrusions by outside groups such as miners, settlers, and oil and gas companies. In Tanzania, however, local groups did not view the management program as providing them greater control over the lands, which they viewed as continuing to be controlled by the government and NGOs. In addition, local communities commonly had a more antagonistic relationship to local wildlife, which they viewed as pests and potentially dangerous. Finally, government agencies imposed numerous regulations on local communities in how they managed wildlife herds, lowering their stakes in managing wildlife and taking away incentives for them to participate [Nelson et al. (2007)].

III. International bans on ivory trade

As we saw earlier, the international community has responded to threats to the survival of various species by regulating trade in certain animal and plant products. This includes outright bans on trade in certain species, including Asian elephants and some populations of African elephants. CITES imposed a ban on international trade in ivory in 1989, in response to serious declines in elephant populations in a number of counties, plus evidence that international trade in ivory was an important contributing factor.This decision was confirmed in 1997 when signatories to CITES agreed to continue to list African and Asian elephants as critically endangered.

Economists differ in their opinions regarding the effect of an ivory trade ban in protecting wild elephant populations. On the surface, banning trade in ivory would seem to have the effect of protecting elephants, by reducing the benefits from harvesting ivory. However, the issue is considerably more complicated.

For one thing, banning trade in ivory reduces the supply in ivory markets, which exerts upward pressure on ivory prices. If prices increase significantly, this can create incentives for illegal poaching, which puts pressure on wild elephant herds if elephant protection is costly to enforce. We have seen much evidence that enforcement is costly under the fortress approach. Furthermore, allowing legal trade in ivory might increase incentives to manage elephant herds in a sustainable manner. And any revenues gained from a legal ivory trade could be used to combat illegal poaching. Overall, perhaps surprisingly, it is somewhat unclear whether trade bans will tend to increase or decrease elephant herds: it depends on the relative magnitude of these different effects.

As an alternative to a trade ban, the economists Michael Kremer and Charles Morcom have proposed a novel policy that they argue might be effective in protecting wild elephants. For governments that face relatively low costs of enforcement, they recommend focusing on anti-poaching efforts. However, when enforcement costs are high, they recommend stockpiling ivory and threatening to release it onto ivory markets if elephant populations fall. This would have the effect of crashing ivory prices, which would discourage illegal poaching.The stockpiled ivory, then, is wielded like a cudgel against prospective poachers, who have to think twice about poaching ivory [Kremer and Morcom (2000)].

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