Market Failure

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Case in Point: Protecting Wildlife by Establishing Private Property Rights

Imagine that you are a rural landowner in Kenya. You grow crops, sell them, and earn a return. You raise livestock, sell them, and earn a return on them as well. Wild animals, from birds to elephants, are also found on your property, but you are severely restricted in terms of what you can do with them. In Kenya, wildlife ownership and user rights are largely the property of the state (i.e., wildlife is owned by all the citizens of Kenya). But if wild animals kill some of your cattle, the loss is entirely yours, as the state will not compensate you. And do not seriously think about offering wildlife viewing on your property because that is restricted by the state to about 5% of the rangelands where the wildlife are found. If crops and livestock were treated in the same way as wildlife in Kenya, how much of their production would continue in these areas?

Mike Norton-Griffiths, a long-time resident of Kenya and researcher of conservation and land use policy, argues that the lack of private property rights for wildlife explains why wild animal populations there have been dwindling. Since 1977, when Kenya banned all sport hunting and all other consumptive uses of wildlife, the large animal wildlife population there has fallen by 60 to 70%. Over the same period, human population has grown by more than 3% per year, crop production by more than 8% per year, and livestock population has been stable.

To reverse the decline in wildlife population, Norton-Griffiths argues that property rights for wildlife should be changed so that returns to wildlife become competitive with returns to crops and livestock. This would mean that rural landowners would be allowed to generate income from wildlife from activities such as sales of wildlife between landowners and to the public sector, ranching for local and overseas and local trade, sales of wildlife products, tanning, making of trophies and curios, and sport hunting.

Private property rights for wildlife (sometimes referred to as private sector conservation) have been established in much of southern Africa (South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe). In those countries, there exist over 9,000 private game ranches and 1,100 private nature reserves. These private areas engage in wildlife viewing services, sport hunting, live game sales, and bush meat production.

The bounce back in wildlife population in the southern African countries is remarkable, even though the animals may move from property to property. For example, the wildlife population on private game ranches in Namibia has increased by about 70%. Similarly in Europe, rural landowners have invested in raising game birds, even though the birds can move freely from property to property, because they can sell the rights to game bird hunting on their property.

Peter Kareiva, the chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy, and Michelle Marvier, a professor at Santa Clara University, support a conservation-for-people approach. They argue that it does not make sense to pit people against nature. Rather, human well-being should become a part of biodiversity conservation efforts. If humans can benefit from managing wildlife, the wildlife may benefit as well.