Commodifying animals to save them? (It is easier to think about the end of the world than about the end of capitalism, indeed)

A Market to Save Whales? (Conversable Economist)

Timothy Taylor

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 7, 2013

The International Whaling Commission imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, which is still in effect. However, the moratorium has effectively allowed “scientific” whaling (mainly Japan),  “subsistence” whaling (various aboriginal groups), and limited commercial whaling (mainly by Norway and Iceland).  The total number of whales caught has doubled since the 1990s to about 2,000 per year, which is a pace that many biologists consider to be unsustainably high. After watching the moratorium approach struggle and fail over the last quarter-century, it’s time to think about alternatives. In the Spring 2013 edition of Issues in Science and Technology, Ben A. Minteer and Leah R. Gerber discuss the possibility of “Buying Whales to Save Them.” 

What Minteer and Gerber have in mind is that the International Whaling Commission or some similar body would set a quota for the number of whales that could be taken, based on estimates of sustainable catch from biologists. These quotas would be marketable; in particular, environmentalist groups could purchase the right to take a whale–but then not do so. As they describe it:
“Under this plan, quotas for hunting of whales would be traded in global markets. But again, and unlike most “catch share” programs in fisheries, the whale conservation market would not restrict participation in the market; both pro- and antiwhaling interests could own and trade quotas. The maximum potential harvest for any hunted species in any given year would be established in a conservative manner that ensures sustainability of the marketed species (that is, harvest levels would be established that would not permit taking more individuals than can be replaced) and maintains their functional roles in the ecosystem. The actual harvest, however, would depend on who owns the quotas. Conservation groups, for example, could choose to buy whale shares in order to protect populations that are currently threatened; they could also buy shares to protect populations that are not presently at risk but that conservationists fear might become threatened in the future.”
As you might expect, this kind of proposals is controversial. Many environmentalists feel that putting a value on whales is unethical, a betrayal of the underlying values involved. Other environmentalists, especially those with an economic turn of mind, note that if those who would be catching whales sell their quota to those who do not wish to catch whales, both parties can be benefit from the exchange–and the result may be that fewer whales are killed. Much of Minteer and Gerber’s article is a consideration of these issues. Here’s a sample:

“Despite the widely acknowledged failure of the IWC [International Whaling Commission] moratorium to curtail unsustainable whaling, the whale conservation market idea has proved to be wildly controversial within conservation and antiwhaling circles. Concerns have been raised about how the system would be established (for example, under what guidelines would the original shares be allocated?) and how it would play out over time (for example, would a legal market lead to increased whaling?). Many critics of the idea are also plainly not comfortable with the ethics of putting a price on such iconic species—that is, with using contingent market methods for what they believe should be a categorical ethical obligation to preserve whales. On the other hand, the negotiation failures surrounding the global management of whales underscore the need for a realistic and pragmatic discussion about available policy alternatives. Indeed, the vulnerable status of many whale populations and the failure of the traditional regulatory response to halt unsustainable harvests call for a more innovative and experimental approach to whale policy, including considering unconventional proposals, such as the whale conservation market.”

My own sense, trained as I am into economic ways of thinking, is that if ethics are to be meaningful, they need to engage with pragmatic realities. The moratorium on commercial whaling is not, in fact, protecting a biologically sufficient number of whales. The arguments that whales should not be hunted, whatever their merits, have not been winning where it counts–that is, as measured by the size of the whale population. Arguments about the ethics whaling have even not brought us to a biologically sustainable situation, much less to the far more stringent limits on whaling that many environmentalists would prefer. In that situation, real-world ethical behavior calls for looking at alternatives.

*   *   *

Scientists call for legal trade in rhino horn (Julian Cribb & Associates)

Public release date: 28-Feb-2013

Julian Cribb

Julian Cribb & Associates

Four leading environmental scientists today urged the international community to install a legal trade in rhino horn – in a last ditch effort to save the imperilled animals from extinction.

In an article in the leading international journal Science the scientists argued that a global ban on rhino products has failed, and death rates among the world’s remaining black and white rhinos are soaring due to illegal poaching to supply insatiable international demand.

“Current strategies have clearly failed to conserve these magnificent animals and the time has come for a highly regulated legal trade in horn”, says lead author Dr Duan Biggs of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED) and University of Queensland.

“As committed environmentalists we don’t like the idea of a legal trade any more than does the average member of the concerned public. But we can see that we need to do something radically different to conserve Africa’s rhino.”

The researchers said the Western Black Rhino was declared extinct in 2011. There are only 5000 Black Rhinos and 20,000 White Rhinos left, the vast majority of which are in South Africa and Namibia.

“Poaching in South Africa has, on average, more than doubled each year over the past 5 years. Skyrocketing poaching levels are driven by tremendous growth in the retail price of rhino horn, from around $4,700 per kilogram in 1993 to around $65,000 per kilogram in 2012,” they say.

“Rhino horn is now worth more than gold,” the scientists note. This growth is mainly attributed to soaring demand by affluent Asian consumers for Chinese medicines.

World trade in rhino horn is banned under the CITES Treaty – and this ban, by restricting supplies of horn, has only succeeded in generating huge rewards for an illegal high-tech poaching industry, equipped with helicopters and stun-darts, which is slaughtering rhinos at alarming rates.

Attempts to educate Chinese medicine consumers to stop using rhino horn have failed to reduce the growth in demand, they said.

The scientists argue that the entire world demand for horn could be met legally by humanely shaving the horns of live rhinos, and from animals which die of natural causes. Rhinos grow about 0.9kg of horn each year, and the risks to the animal from today’s best-practice horn harvesting techniques are minimal. The legal trade in farmed crocodile skins is an example of an industry where legalisation has saved the species from being hunted to extinction.

Furthermore, if rhinos were being ‘farmed’ legally, more land would be set aside for them and this in turn would help to conserve other endangered savannah animals, as well as generating much-needed income for impoverished rural areas in southern Africa the researchers argue.

They advocate the creation of a Central Selling Organisation to supervise the legitimate harvest and sale of rhino horn globally. Buyers would be attracted to this organisation because its products will be legal, cheaper than horn on the black market, and safer and easier to obtain, they said, adding “horn sold through a Central Selling Organisation could be DNA-fingerprinted and traceable worldwide, enabling buyers, and regulators to differentiate between legal and illicit products.”

A legal trade in rhino horn was first proposed 20 years ago, but rejected as ‘premature’.

However, the time has now come for a legal trade in horn, says Dr Biggs. “There is a great opportunity to start serious discussions about establishing a legal trade in rhino horn at the 16th CITES Conference of the Parties (COP-16), which is to be held from 3-14 March this year, in Bangkok.”

“Legitimizing the market for horn may be morally repugnant to some, but it is probably the only sensible way to prevent extinction of Africa’s remaining rhinos,” the scientists conclude.

Their paper Legal Trade of Africa’s Rhino Horns by Duan Biggs, Franck Courchamp, Rowan Martin and Hugh Possingham, appears in the latest edition of the journal Science (March 1).

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