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Wildlife in the Marketplace

Dr. Orient is an internist in solo private practice. She serves as the Executive Director of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. She wrote Your Doctor Is Not In: Healthy Skepticism about National Health Care (Crown, 1994).

This compendium of nine articles takes examples from the Hudson’s Bay Company, 1700-1763, to emerging Africa, to show how to turn wildlife from a liability into an asset. It is not a collection of rhetoric but of detailed economic analyses of how to manage wildlife resources, including endangered species, buttressed with a wealth of references, tables, and graphs.

The extinction of species is not a modern phenomenon. In the British Isles, the wolverine, wild boar, and lynx were probably gone before historic times. However, in modern times, property rights to large holdings in Britain (where 92 percent of the land was privately owned in the late 1800s, in contrast to 28 percent in the United States) gave English landowners ownership rights to the ambient wildlife as well. English law is a more promising model for preserving species than is the myth of the “noble savage” (the American Indian).

One particularly interesting analysis of the “economics of fatal mistakes” concerns endangered predators such as eagles. We currently have a fine-and-imprisonment system, but the bounty for killing an eagle is nonetheless about $25. Ranchers have an incentive to kill eagles because of the damage they cause. In a free-market scheme to protect eagles, someone (groups of conservationists?) would have to compensate owners for livestock lost to predation.

The discussion of elephants shows how conservationists often have things backward. The ivory trade, rather than being a threat, may be a means to preserving an animal that is very destructive to agriculture. “The African farmer’s enmity toward elephants is as visceral as western mawkishness is passionate,” states the book, quoting David Western. The right to profit from their ivory would give someone an incentive to preserve the elephant.

The book challenges the assumption that public management is always the best way to preserve wildlife. Natural areas now have to pay their way in political currency: “It is entirely possible, depending upon who happens to exercise political control, that they will fare better in the economic market than they do in the political market. Those who seek the free lunch promised by public management always run the risk that others will be served.”

Parts of the book are quite technical, and it is not on the whole intended for casual reading. It is a valuable resource for those engaged in serious study of innovative ways to conserve wildlife while meeting the needs of human beings.

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