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A pair of male elephants in the Okavango Delta, Botswana
A pair of male elephants in the Okavango Delta, Botswana Copyright REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
By Euronews
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If local communities had property rights to large animals like whales, elephants or rhinos, would preserving them be easier?


By Hannes H. Gissurarson

In a famous short story, Shooting an Elephant, George Orwell describes the plight of a British policeman (himself) in Burma when he has to shoot an elephant which had gone on a rampage and killed a man. “Somehow it always seems worse to kill a large animal,” the protagonist wistfully comments. It is true that large animals like elephants, whales or rhinos tend to fascinate modern, urban Westerners, unlike some small animals, such as mosquitos, spiders and rats. Indeed, such large animals go under a special name, “charismatic megafauna.”

Certainly few would like to see elephants, whales or rhinos become extinct. They add to the diversity most people highly value. But the task of protecting charismatic megafauna has more sides to it than is often recognised in the West. It is true, for example, that in early 20th century the majestic blue whale was hunted almost to extinction. Despite a moratorium on harvesting, it has still not fully recovered. But many other whale stocks remain robust, including the two which the Icelanders have been harvesting, the fin whale and the minke whale. Marine biologists estimate that 10–20,000 fin whales and 40–50,000 minke whales are to be found in Icelandic waters, eating about six million tonnes of small fishes and other seafood a year (whereas the Icelanders harvest about one million tonnes of fish).

Nevertheless, Iceland has been under heavy pressure from neighbouring countries to stop whaling. This is not a conflict between nature and man, as ecofundamentalists insist. It is a conflict between two groups with different ideas about how to utilise these two whale stocks. Ecofundamentalists want the Icelanders to feed the whales, but not to harvest them. By contrast, wise use environmentalists would propose treating whales like other animals, defining extraction rights to them and harvesting them in a sustainable way provided there was a demand for their products.

Why should a moratorium be put on all whaling, as now is the case, while some stocks are robust? A similar consideration applies to the African elephant. Some stocks are endangered, especially in Kenya, while others are robust, for example in Zimbabwe and South Africa. The elephant essentially has two uses for mankind, as a tourist attraction (watching or hunting) and for its ivory. Because some stocks are endangered, an international ban has been imposed on ivory trade. In Africa, the ban has not been effective: Government is weak and people are poor, so the temptation to kill elephants and sell ivory on the black market is strong. Moreover, elephants are less than popular in African local communities where they threaten cultivated land, break fences and eat crop, destroy homes and kill people. It is estimated that elephants kill 500 people a year.

Again, Western ecofundamentalists apparently want local populations alone to bear the cost of preserving charismatic megafauna. There is a way, however: saving by selling. If local communities were given property rights to them, they might start to view them as a business opportunity rather than a nuisance. They would sell rights to watch and hunt elephants, carefully choosing as targets old, non-reproductive animals; and they would sell the ivory and hide of dead animals. The newfound owners would look after the elephants because they would have a strong economic motive for it.

Unlike the whale and the elephant, the rhino, relatively easy to kill, is everywhere an endangered species. Consequently, an international ban has been imposed on the trade of rhino horns, much in demand in parts of Asia. But as with the elephant, for the African rhino there is a way of turning poachers into gamekeepers overnight. It is by giving local communities (and possibly also owners of reserves) property rights to the rhinos. Then they would sell rights to watch and hunt them, and they would both sell the horns of dead rhinos and saw off for selling the horns of some living ones, a process which has become cheap and easy, with the horns growing back on the rhinos again without any harm to them.

Legal trade in the products of charismatic megafauna such as the elephant and the rhino could be much more effective than a poorly enforced trade ban, because it would create legitimate sellers who would have an interest in protecting the species in question. The rights of these sellers, or owners, would simply have to be clearly defined. Environmental protection needs protectors, as my upcoming book Green Capitalism explores in depth.

Hannes Hólmsteinn Gissurarson is a professor of political science at the University of Iceland. His latest book "Green Capitalism" will be launched at the Blue-Green Summit II hosted by the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe in Brussels on May 24.

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