Saturday, Kenyan authorities began destroying 105 metric tons of confiscated ivory and 135 tons of rhino horn.
Where are we going? To whether the market can save the elephant.
The African elephant population has shrunk but no one knows by how much. To find some answers, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen funded the Great Elephant Census (GEC). Mostly using aerial photos, spotters, a recorder and state-of-the-art big data methodology. the project is doing the count from the air.
Below you can see a GEC plane in Botswana:
With 19 participating countries and more than two years of work, the GEC has just begun to publish its results. So far, their press releases have included information on the 53% plunge in Tanzania’s elephant population (from 109,000 in 2009 to 51,000 in 2015), a stable count in Botswana, and an increase in Uganda’s elephants (from 1,000 during the 1980s to 5,000 in 2015). The group has said that their data will be peer reviewed and published towards the end of 2016.
Knowing that poachers are killing elephants, Kenya is burning their ivory. Those who like their approach say it reflects community rage and punishes the poachers whose ivory was seized. However, they might just be making the ivory more valuable by decreasing its supply.
Instead, they could generate revenue by selling the ivory and then use the money to protect elephants. Or, citing a Namibian example, one Brookings paper suggests that if local communities own the tourist attractions in game reserves, they will have the incentive to protect their investment.
Our Bottom Line: Tragedy of the Commons
Whether looking at air pollution, an overgrazed pasture or poaching elephant ivory, people have the incentive to abuse publicly shared resources. Privately benefiting from their behavior, they ignore what they destroy. The result is a tragedy of the commons.
It can be tough to solve the tragedy of the commons. For elephant ivory, most environmental groups prefer Kenya’s solution. However, those who look to the market’s incentives remind us that Kenya has been burning ivory since 1989 and the problem persists.