100 celebrities are wrong on ivory trade. Let’s privatise elephants instead!

100 leading conservationists, politicians and celebrities addressed an open letter (which has been published by The Telegraph) to the government of the United Kingdom, asking for a ban on ivory trade. They want Her Majesty’s Government to become a global leader on the prohibition of wildlife trade and help combat African poaching groups. Since we know how beneficial prohibition is for criminal gangs, the only group rejoicing this leap forward would be the poachers themselves. The alternative lies in the private sector.

Were I presented with the opportunity to become the Al Capone of ivory trade, never would the temptation be as high as nowadays. Governments are immensely successful at making products under prohibition enormously valuable. As Milton Friedman said regarding drug prohibition:

“If you look at the drug war from a purely economic point of view, the role of the government is to protect the drug cartel. That’s literally true.”

Every time there is a major call for an outright ban on ivory products, prices skyrocket, which ends up incentivising poachers to shoot more elephants. This has created a sort of cat-and-mouse game in which the volatility of ivory pricing is interdependent with outcries by NGO’s. When the Chinese ivory prices tripled in 2015 due to increased calls for bans, wildlife NGO’s said that the market was out of control and that “there is need for immediate action. There was no change in legislation, and when the Chinese prices fell back to their original level 5 months later, the same charities claimed their work to be going in the right direction.


If we want to talk about the preservation of endangered species such as elephants, then let’s not engage polemic assertions destined to sell a newspaper or get donations shipped in. Some African countries have taken action regarding poaching: the privatisation of elephants is provably effective.

Let’s take the example of trophy hunting:

This hunting sport has gotten increasingly popular over the years. As National Geographic reports in 2016, these hunters imported more than 1.26 million trophies to the United States between the years 2005 and 2014, which is an average of 126,000 trophy imports a year, or 345 a day.

Trophy hunting however is not the reason for which these species are endangered in the first place, they suffer considerably more from loss of habitat and poaching. In the case of loss of habitat, the endangered animals are driven out due to agricultural expansion for the harvesting of timber, wood or fuel.

The local population can be incentivised economically to protect these animals. In fact, in Namibia, the revenue from trophy hunting is the main revenue source for the funding of wildlife conservancies and in South Africa, trophy hunting reportedly incentivised locals to give rhinoceros land to live on and to protect them from poachers (Conservation Magazine, 2015). This evolution has led the number of existing rhinoceros to jump from 100 in 1916 to over 18,000 today (World Wildlife Fund, 2016). According to South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs, the total revenue from trophy hunting was close to R807 million (52.3 million euros) in 2012 and just over
R1 billion (64.8 million euros) in 2013.

Elephants are victims of the tragedy of the commons: maximising profits results in shooting as many animals as possible. The only protective measure we can install are private property rights through the rule of law. If elephants possess a certain utility, notably harvesting ivory, then we should prefer them to be owned privately, since their owners be incentivised to protect them.

No ban on the international trade of a good could ever do the same.

Inspired by The Essence of Free Market Environmentalism, B.Wirtz

Pictures are Creative Commons.

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About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

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