Friday, January 29, 2016

Well, this is stupid

Kenya is about to destroy 270 million dollars worth of ivory.  That is an incredibly stupid thing to do.  They should instead sell the ivory and use the proceeds to fund anti-poaching efforts.  By destroying the ivory, they are reducing the supply, which drives up the price, which encourages more poaching by making it more lucrative.

I fully understand the visceral revulsion at state-sponsored distribution of ivory.  It kind of feels analogous to the government selling seized stockpiles of heroin or cocaine.  But ivory isn't like heroin.  It's not addictive.  People don't need regular fixes of elephant tusk.  Ivory is a Veblen good: people want only it because it's rare.  Increase the supply and demand will go down, along with the price.  Do this long enough and you might even depress the market to the point where you bring about a generational change and make the demand for ivory disappear entirely.

In fact, there is even an argument to be made that governments should actively sponsor the harvesting of elephant tusks (and rhino horns)!  It turns out that it is possible to harvest these things without serious harm to the animal.  Poachers don't do it because it's a lot harder than just killing the animal, but if governments did it they could use the proceeds to fund the activity.

In a perfect world, no one would want ivory or rhino horn, and these animals could just live in peace. But we have to deal with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be.  In this world, the elephants that created the tusks that the Kenyan government is about to destroy are already dead.  Destroying their tusks is not going to help them, nor will it help the elephants that are still alive.  Quite the contrary.


Don Geddis said...

Clever ideas! I didn't know about the possibility of regularly harvesting ivory as a "renewable" resource. Brilliant!

In general, it's hard to mix economic and moral reasoning. The moral position is: no trade at all in ivory! The economic position is: flood the supply to lower the price and lower the demand on living animals. It's surely hard to get the international community to rally around a topic with conflicting intuitions.

Ron said...

Heh, thanks! Here's a slogan: trying to fix the poaching problem by outlawing ivory is kind of like trying to solve the obesity crisis by making it illegal to be hungry. :-)

Prohibition doesn't work. Never has. Never will.

Danston said...

You might enjoy the episode of Radiolab ( which deals with this topic. It exposed me to the idea that the only reason wild animals are not extinct is due to sport hunting. The statement seemed obviously false when I first heard it but by the end of the podcast it seemed reasonable.

The episode also includes some discussion from Richard Leakey who was the director of wildlife for Kenya and he makes a case for destroying poached ivory. I'd be curious to hear your disagreements with his arguments.