To Protect Indonesia’s Wildlife, Profit Holds the Key to Success

(JG Illustration)

(JG Illustration)

From March 3 to 14, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) held its triennial conference in Bangkok. Some 2,000 delegates representing 177 governments attended, claiming to know how to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten the latter’s survival. A recent op-ed article in the Jakarta Post by Cites experts educated the reader about why he or she needed “to care about a fish” but offered little substance on why the Cites methods would be successful in delivering results.

Despite a great deal of grandiloquent conference rhetoric, it seems that endangered species such as whales, Sumatran tigers and elephants have hitherto been deriving little benefit from the enlightened wisdom of the Cites bureaucrats and their army of publicly funded green NGOs.

In a study titled “National Park Management Between Rhetoric and Results: The Failure of Indonesia’s Mainstream Conservation Model,” I argue among other things that the belief in bureaucratic solutions is fatal for endangered species. Green groups are quick to denounce such pragmatic approaches as “green washing,” which is a cheap way of begging the question of which solutions actually work. Unfortunately, all too often green activists are more concerned about attacking private enterprise and profit-making than finding truly sustainable methods that enjoy strong local support.

Cites prides itself on protecting endangered species by regulating their trade. “International wildlife trade is estimated to be worth billions of dollars,” the inter-governmental body writes on its website. By subjecting international trade in specimens of selected species to certain controls, “according to the degree of protection they need,” Cites believes to be effectively protecting wildlife. The main tool in its tool box is trade restriction.

The problem is, however, that demand for such species has proven to be highly inelastic (insensitive to price increases). Just think of the prohibitive prices Chinese buyers are willing to pay for exotic “medicines” such as rhino horn. Thus, trade restrictions only serve to drive prices further up because they create artificial scarcity, which increases incentives for poaching. That is why trade restrictions are counterproductive, as has been convincingly argued by environmental economist Michael ’t Sas-Rolfes in his study “Saving African Rhinos: A Market Success Story.” The best example for the ineffectiveness of trade restrictions is the US alcohol prohibition in the 1920s.

Moreover, a great number of empirical studies demonstrate that market solutions constitute a much more effective way to save wildlife from extinction than any trade restriction could ever hope to be. The reader who is interested in learning about sustainable wildlife management should open the website of the American Property and Environment Research Center ( There, he will learn that, for example, in Namibia, after ownership of wildlife was turned back to the people of Namibia in 1990, the country’s wildlife registered a sharp increase.

Because of the economic value contained in the wildlife and the fact that the locals derive direct benefits from it, the problems of poaching and human-wildlife conflict are very limited. For example, trophy hunting not only provides the locals with the largest source of financial benefits but also provides an effective way of dealing with problem animals, such as crop-eating elephants. The Namibian model is so successful that delegations from around the world come to Namibia to see if they can replicate it.

However, the community conservancy model might not work in other countries. It works in Namibia because of the country’s relatively small size: it only has 2.1 million inhabitants and a very low population density of three people per square kilometer. The mutual familiarity of the community members (societal homogeneity and cohesion) leads to effective social control.

By contrast, in diverse mass societies such as Indonesia the institution of individual private property lends itself to nature conservation. Effective property rights are the hallmark of a market economy. If Indonesia allowed such a market, vast economic potential by far outstripping the government-to-government transfer payments in the form of foreign conservation funds could be unleashed.

Private sector investment in wildlife conservation throughout southern Africa has resulted in more than 9,000 private game ranches, 1,100 privately managed nature reserves, and over 400 conservancies. In South Africa, 23 percent of the land is under conservation management and of that 17 percent is private. Between 1964 and 2007, estimated numbers of game have risen from 575,000 to more than 18 million.

As mentioned above, Cites itself estimates the profitability of wildlife trade to be in the billions of dollars. Given free rein, this market could be even bigger. Instead of futile resistance against these economic forces, governments should set them free. Unfortunately, some of the more radical green groups prefer to engage in mudslinging by accusing dissenters and entrepreneurs of being criminals, neo-colonialists or fascists. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono himself has been in their line of fire.

By being granted property rights to wildlife, local communities (or better: individuals) are able to internalize both the costs and benefits from wildlife. If benefits exceed costs, locals will go to great lengths to protect wildlife. Simply put, if it pays it stays. Anti-trade organizations such as Cites and anti-hunting groups such as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) refuse or are unable to understand these basic economic facts. According to Peta, there are better, nonlethal methods to deal with wildlife. However, these methods have been proven to be highly ineffective, time consuming, costly and create no economic benefits for local communities.

In their article “Shoot an Elephant, Save a Community” for the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, Terry Anderson and Shawn Regan write that Peta, Greenpeace and other anti-market organizations produce lots of rhetoric but few results. The authors conclude: “The next time you write a check to your favorite environmental group, ask whether you are buying environmental rhetoric or environmental results.”

By contrast, for-profit-endeavors such as Safari Club International “find the ways that work” and get a real bang for their buck. Prohibiting trade and private ownership lets Peta and Cites take the moral high ground but it does not put more elephants on earth. Letting people reap economic benefits from wildlife does. Indonesia should not copy the flawed conservation model propagated by Cites, the WWF and others but should study the numerous success stories of property-right-based approaches.

Sebastian Braun holds a PhD in Southeast Asian Studies from Humboldt University in Berlin. He works with the newly established and independent German Center for Research on Asia (Deutsches Asienforschungszentrum) and is based in Singapore.