Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Dying Elephants and Economic Policy

Written by johnleemk on 1:14:50 am Mar 17, 2007.

Before I went to sleep last night, I decided to crack open my copy of the latest National Geographic magazine. It was probably one of the saddest things I have ever done.

I'm not an easily moved person, and especially not by words on a page. I can't name a single story or article that's shook my emotions to the core — or, at least, I could not until last night.

I only read one article in the magazine — a piece written by a long-time conservationist about the problems of poaching in Africa. I have to say, it was really shocking and moving.

We normally think about problems in the abstract (or at least, I do, since I'm not fond of getting bogged down in details while missing the big picture). But when you see pictures of elephants with their faces obliterated by poachers carving them up for their tusks — when you see lion cubs who are as good as dead because their mother died after being poisoned by poachers, you can't look at conservationism in the abstract.

When I finished reading the article, though, it frustrated me that it did not offer much in the way of solutions to the problems of poaching. Its main point was to inflame emotions and raise awareness about the harm hunters are doing to our natural heritage, so I suppose the article can't really be faulted for this.

Nevertheless, its main focus was on how to halt poachers by coercion. The article talked at length about the desperate need nature reserves in Africa have for weapons and ammunition to shoot poachers, but only briefly touched on the root causes of poaching.

The fact is, people poach because there is an economic incentive to kill animals. There are wealthy people all over the world who would pay a tonne of money for ivory, without any thought for the consequences of their actions. There are a lot of poor people in Africa with easy access to powerful assault rifles. You don't have to be a professional psychologist to be able to see what would happen next.

So, how do we stop poaching? There are two ways — cut off the demand, and cut off the supply. The solution thus far has been an international ban on the ivory trade, which cuts off both demand and supply to some extent.

But at the same time, by creating an artificial shortage of ivory, the ban also hikes up the price for ivory — making elephant hunting really worth your while if you can hunt them down without getting shot by underequipped park rangers.

Thus, we need to find a way to further reduce supply. The National Geographic article hinted at this by pointing out that there is a correlation between violence and lack of economic opportunities with poaching. When there's no way to make an honest living, and you're surrounded by assault rifles and plentiful game, it's hard not to resort to poaching a few just to survive.

Ironically, poaching is not exactly a profitable business for those at the beginning of the supply chain. Most poachers are paid a pittance (although still relatively a substantial amount compared to what most of their fellow victims of war and poverty are earning). The middlemen get the largest cut.

So, how do we cut off this supply? The answer seems clear — stop the violence and start the development. If we can put an end to the strife in Africa, if we can get African governments to focus on fully exploiting the wealth of natural resources available to them, poaching will naturally become a thing of the past.

I don't think being a wanted criminal is at the top of anyone's priority list. But when you have no other choice but to commit a crime in order to live, it's not surprising that so many people end up turning to a life on the run from the law.

If we want to address the problem of poaching, a head-on approach of more guns may work. But it won't be as effective as tackling the root cause of poaching. And the root cause is the strife and abuse that goes on in Africa because of the irresponsible governments and politicians that reign there.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.

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