Why you should care

Because the laws of nature — and economics — usually trump sentimentality.

Go ahead and kill the elephants. And rhinos and tigers and all the rest of your favorite Lion King animals. It might be their best hope for avoiding extinction.

Before you fire off the angry tweets, let’s look at the grim plight of African wildlife. Over the past few years Africa has suffered an onslaught of poaching, driven by growing buying power in Asian countries where ivory is a status symbol and rhino horn powder, a traditional medicine, can fetch as much as $100,000 a kilogram. The international response has been to “get tough” with poachers and smugglers, which is a good thing. But many animal rights groups are also pushing for outright bans on hunting all “charismatic megafauna” (think: lions, tigers, bears, anything you can turn into an anthropomorphized cartoon character).

But banning big-game hunting can actually, well, backfire. The reason? Economics. It might sound counterintuitive, but hunting provides an incentive for ordinary Africans to help preserve the lives of otherwise dangerous or crop-stealing animals. Blanket bans, on the other hand, privilege sentimentality over basic economic incentives, to the animals’ detriment. In other words, to save the animals, people should be allowed to kill them.

There is a big difference between poaching and hunting, and sometimes [Americans and Europeans] do not understand this.

Wabotlhe Mokgothi Letubo, coordinator of Botswana’s Tshole Trust

To see how this plays out, look to Kenya, the go-to destination for African safaris, whose savannahs were the model for landscapes of The Lion King. Four decades after enacting a ban on big-game hunting, Kenya has compiled one of the worst records of wildlife conservation in Africa. Officials probably meant well, but while enforcing the ban, they managed to alienate the very rural communities whose cooperation they needed. To establish national parks, they displaced entire villages — and then pocketed tourism profits instead of sharing them with the people they’d expelled. That left the subsistence farmer, tired of lions eating his goats — and maybe his children — with every incentive to poison dead cattle, thereby killing whole prides of lions that ate their carcasses. Or to poach the elephant who had been raiding his pumpkin patch and sell the tusks to an ivory smuggler offering big dollars.

Meanwhile, countries like Namibia and South Africa have a more inclusive, bottom-up conservation strategy. Namibia’s 1990 constitution guarantees villages and tribes ownership of neighboring wild animals. The central government dispatches researchers to study populations and set quotas on how many animals can be killed. But it leaves implementation to local authorities, who allow traditional “bush meat” hunting by locals, negotiate with tourism companies to sell hunting licenses and distribute proceeds among villagers. Making villagers stewards of the land and its wildlife gives them an incentive to protect it over the long term, with results far better than absolutist strategies like Kenya’s.

The recent experience of journalist Glen Martin, whose book Game Changer predicted the current poaching epidemic, underscores the point. In Namibia, he and some rangers came across a poached wildebeest carcass — and ordinary villagers joined the hunt to find the poacher. “Twenty years ago, that guy would’ve been a hero for bringing meat to the people,” says Martin. “Now, he’s seen as someone stealing from the people.” Poachers are still idolized in places like Kenya, where wildlife does little for ordinary villagers, Martin says. And until that dynamic changes, no hunting ban will ever be enforceable.

That said, as poaching profits reach incredible highs, the practice is gaining a toehold even in Namibia, where about a dozen black rhinos were poached over the past year or so. The scale of the new poaching threat led Botswana and Zambia to impose temporary hunting bans last year as an experiment to see if such bans work. The key word here is experiment: a scientifically-driven analysis of policy geared toward protecting wildlife. Which is exactly what Africa’s leading conservationists are calling for.

“Hunting is part of our culture; it is a way for people to get meat and to make money,” said Wabotlhe Mokgothi Letubo, coordinator of Botswana’s Tshole Trust, at an anti-poaching program sponsored by the U.S. State Department last year. Poaching should stop, she said, but she added that ordinary Africans need ways to make money from wildlife. “There is a big difference between poaching and hunting, and sometimes people from America and Europe do not understand this,” she said.

But there is another proud tradition at work here: distant, romanticizing Westerners telling Africans what’s best for them. And that’s a tradition we hope will die off — for the sake of the charismatic megafauna themselves.

Did this argument hit the mark or miss it? Weigh in below.

This OZY encore was originally published Feb. 15, 2015.

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