The economics of endangered species

Do trade bans remove any "value" in keeping endangered species alive? Yes, according to a debatable argument presented in this week's issue of The Economist. According to the magazine, "A trade ban means that endangered animals have no value. That encourages landowners and land users to kill the animals or to allow them to be killed or to die off through neglect." The article also claims that trade bans encourage poaching and illegal trade, which supports international criminal gangs while doing little to actually appease (or eliminate) the demand for endangered-species products.

According to The Economist:

"A better policy is to make wildlife more valuable to man, not less. One way that suits everybody is tourism."


"A second, less popular way to make money is to exploit animals sustainably."

This latter statement seems to be the crux of the argument -- and a call for renewed trade in elephant tusks and rhino horns.

Which is where the argument falls down, of course. While the world clamors for ivory or the chance to see an elephant in the wild, no one is going to go on wildlife tours to see Tasmanian devils or the Preble's Meadow Jumping Mouse, or actively seek to buy their skins or teeth or gizzards. Opening up trade isn't going to save the last two Phyllostegia hispida plants in Hawaii or the last 100 Grenada doves or any of the thousands of other rare species dying in the remotest corners of the globe.

Beyond that, legalizing trade in rhino horns and tiger penises legitimizes "traditional" beliefs that these products bring virility and other dubious medical benefits. The only way to end these practices is to re-educate half the world's population, and we can't do that if endangered-species products are still for sale.

The real "value" in keeping endangered species alive is in the health of the planet. Every species plays a key role in its ecosystem. Allow one component to disappear and the entire system can crash.

Let's see capitalists try to place an economic value on that.