ivory irony

Yesterday this country took a stern position against ivory poaching. In Denver, Colorado, six tons of the illegal but globally prized commodity were crushed to “take the value out of ivory,” according to Edward Grace, the deputy chief of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement. Call me crazy, but I don’t think the crush is going to achieve that purpose.Ivory Crush in Denver, CO November 14, 2013

I have a mild interest in economics—mild meaning: please don’t try to talk to me about futures, make me understand the math in this lecture, or ask me to take a side between Keynes and Hayek. But supply and demand curves, that we can talk about.

When there’s a reliable demand for something, the price people are willing to pay for a good is inversely related to the amount of the good available. In other words, the less of it there is, the more people will pay to get some for themselves. (And vice versa: the more there is, the less people want to pay.) So…how is destroying ivory going to reduce the demand for it? Oh! It’s not going to reduce the demand, you say? It’s just going to send a message that the poachers should be very, very ashamed of themselves? That ought to do the trick.

Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes, an environmental economist with Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), is one of the critics who pointed out the potential flaw in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s symbolic gesture (quoted here). The service stated officially that the ivory it destroyed would “never be made available to the market. Its destruction has no impact on the overall supply and does not create any incentive for poaching” (here). Another part of the same statement indicates that releasing the ivory back into the market might instigate new trade rather than driving prices down. That’s because “legal ivory trade [of pieces that entered the market before 1989] can serve as a cover for illegal trade.” So it’s complicated.

Back to Sas-Rolfes for a second. I found a Q&A with this intriguing tidbit: The interviewer asks Sas-Rolfes about the African countries where it’s legal to hunt rhinoceros, another animal with coveted facial adornments. He responds, “Legal white rhino hunting started in South Africa in 1968. At the time there were only 840 white rhinos in the country…. Today, rhino trophy hunts make a significant contribution to the South African economy and last year they counted 18,780 rhinos, of which 25% were privately owned. The value of a live rhino has soared during this time, making rhino breeding a highly lucrative business, not only for private owners but also for the state parks who sell their surplus rhinos to the private market. Hunting has played a pivotal role in saving the white rhino, which is now the most common of all the rhino species.” (source, emphasis mine)

A statement like that gives one pause, doesn’t it? It’s counterintuitive to allow an act we deplore, but economic incentive is a strange beast. In the countries most infamous for ivory poaching and smuggling, officials who are supposed to protect elephants sometimes betray them, as you can see for yourself in this Nightline clip. What would happen if the international community dropped the conservationist charade? (Other than environmentalists getting righteously indignant for a while?) Do you think it’s a worthwhile risk, or are publicity stunts enough for now?