Patrick Low, Fellow of Asia Global Institute, speaks to the need for wildlife management as a way of supporting wildlife preservation efforts.
Two months ago a dentist from Minnesota, Walter Palmer, bagged a lion called Cecil in Zimbabwe. Cecil's demise caused an extraordinary public outcry. Thousands of tweets and facebook postings, and dozens of press commentaries, condemned the lion's death in the strongest terms. The hunter truly became the hunted.
Halloween costumes have appeared depicting Cecil as the victim or Cecil taking revenge. The memorabilia industry is flourishing. Petitions attracting hundreds of thousands of signatures have been launched. They demand justice for Cecil, the prohibition of trophy hunting, and the extradition of Palmer to Zimbabwe.
Several airlines have undertaken not to carry hunting trophies in future. The latest sentimental speculation on the matter is whether Taylor Swift's new animal video, "Wildest Dreams," featured Cecil prior to his death.
Only a few commentaries have asked how the death of a single lion, albeit with a name, can attract such activism and indignation when the plight of entire communities of people facing death, violence, deprivation, and displacement are well reported but go largely unremarked. This is taken as a sad reflection of an ethically challenged society that has lost its moral compass. That question merits more attention than it has received.
Another issue of huge significance also received little attention in the shadow of the Cecil love-in. In a world of scarcity, with increasing pressure on resources, how is wildlife to be preserved? Nobody argues for the destruction of species, but without proper resource management large mammals such as lions, elephants and rhinoceroses will be headed that way.
It is not sufficient to rail against killing animals for sport. Many of us may have problems with that. Feelings on the matter are influenced by many things, not least of which is the background of individuals.
In the midst of the Cecil furore, a young US-based Zimbabwean student wrote a New York Times column berating the interfering sentimentality of the commentariat. He said that in his childhood community lions were a threat, and popular outrage on Cecil's behalf confused lions that kill people with the Lion King.
The underlying issue is that unless proper economic value is assigned to wildlife, it will be threatened with extinction. Permitting properly managed trophy hunting is one way to avoid that. The Minnesota dentist paid over $50,000 for the kill. Whatever the specifics of the Cecil case, a lot of money from hunting goes to preserving wildlife sanctuaries. Local people and wildlife benefit.
In broad terms there are two ways of managing wildlife, and they seem to have yielded dramatically different results. Kenya banned all hunting in 1977, and private ownership of wildlife is prohibited, although money can be made from eco-tourism. The country has a thriving tourist industry that generates a significant share of national income and thousands of jobs.
But according to Kenya's Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, the elephant population in the country has fallen by 76 per cent since the 1970s, and the rhinoceros population by 95 per cent. This destruction is substantially thanks to poaching and illicit trade in ivory and rhino horn, along with an overstretched administration and limited private incentives to manage wildlife resources sustainably.
South Africa allows private ownership of animals, and hunting rights as well as eco-tourism are for sale. The market-driven incentive to preserve wildlife has kept poaching down, allowed sustainable wildlife management on private land, and greatly increased the population of big game in the country. According to South African wildlife specialists, the big game population has grown from half a million in the 1960s to 24 million today. The game ranching business is worth US$1.1 billion a year.
Sustainable wildlife management would also argue for legalized ivory trade that destigmatizes ivory ownership, eliminates smuggler premiums and reduces the incentive to poach.
Appropriately allocated property rights could work wonders for a solid incentive structure and sound resource management. Such arrangements for saving wildlife are much better than reliance on government fiat divorced from adequate incentives.
This article first appeared in the South China Morning Post on September 2, 2015.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Asia Global Institute's editorial policy.