Property rights save animals, UNT study says

Tuesday, October 12, 1999

Nations with stable governments and established property rights or community programs for endangered species are likely to have more rapid growth of the species than nations that lack such programs and have unstable governments, two University of North Texas economists have discovered.Dr. Michael McPherson, associate professor of economics, and Dr. Michael Nieswiadomy, professor of economics and director of the Center for Environmental Economic Studies and Research, spent several years studying changes in elephant populations in 35 African nations.Hunted for their valuable ivory, the number of African elephants on the continent declined dramatically from 1.3 million in 1979 to 600,000 10 years later. When McPherson and Nieswiadomy began their research in 1994, the total population was 543,000, despite international outrage over the slaughter during the 1980s that led to a worldwide ban on ivory sales beginning in 1989. Fourteen African nations had lost more than 60 percent of their elephant populations by 1994.However, by 1994, eight African nations -- mostly in Southern Africa -- had increased their elephant populations. The most dramatic increase was in Tanzania, which gained more than 37,000 elephants between 1989 and 1994.McPherson and Nieswiadomy say all of the nations with growing elephant populations use community-based natural resource management programs, a property rights system that allows local tribes to receive benefit from the use of the elephants."In the past, African elephants were seen as pests, since they trampled crops, destroyed property and occasionally killed people," McPherson says. "So when poachers came along, villagers were glad to cooperate with them. Some villagers illegally harvested the elephants themselves. To the villager, the only good elephant was a dead elephant."However, under the community-based natural resource management programs, Africans receive a percentage of the fees for government-sanctioned photographic and hunting safaris into their villages and nearby areas. They also receive profit for the sale of products from elephants in their area that the government has culled to control the population."Not one person actually owns an elephant, but with property rights, there's a sense of ownership as a tribe or village," Nieswiadomy says. "Now, small groups of people can profit by the elephants being alive. When a poacher comes along and kills their elephants, the villagers will alert the government."These community-based natural resource management programs also create some jobs, generate revenue to fund community improvements -- such as new schools and roads -- and often allow local residents limited rights to use the wildlife themselves, "most typically for meat and hides," he says.Nieswiadomy says these programs have become increasingly popular because of the general failure of state-controlled national parks."Areas were set aside as preserves controlled by the central government, and residents of the area were abruptly forbidden to use the resources of their surroundings, despite the fact that they had used the resources for many generations," he says. "Not only could local residents not profit from the sale of animal products, but they also lost income they might have earned as guides for safaris."As effective as they are, property rights systems may not increase the elephant populations if a nation is experiencing political instability, McPherson says."Things like strikes, riots and major regime changes negatively affected the elephant populations we studied," he says. "Citizens may not view the property rights systems as being secure if the government is not secure. And if a country had experienced political instability in the recent past, citizens may still feel insecure about property rights."McPherson and Nieswiadomy say a property rights system may be applied to other threatened or endangered species in the world."Along the coasts, many fish species have been overharvested and fish can't mate. Property rights have been assigned to some sectors, with governments paying fishermen to stop fishing," Nieswiadomy says.He also gives the oysters in Chesapeake Bay, which lies in the boundaries of Maryland and Virginia, as an example. "In the 1960s,Virginia assigned property rights to the oysters. The population has rebounded in the Virginia section of the bay, but not in the Maryland section, which did not have property rights and was a free-for-all regarding harvesting of oysters," he says, adding that Maryland now has a property rights system similar to Virginia's.Property rights, however, are only effective for species that do not migrate long distances, he says."Birds and whales migrate to other states or countries for part of the year, so you would need property rights for both nesting places before it can be effective," he says. McPherson's and Nieswiadomy's study will be published in an upcoming issue of Contemporary Economic Policy. They next plan to examine how political instability has impacted endangered species worldwide.

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