Shoot an Elephant, Save a Community?

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Illustration by Barbara Kelley

Today in Defining Ideas PERC's Terry Anderson and Shawn Regan point out that when GoDaddy CEO Bob Parson's video of himself shooting a bull elephant in Zimbabwe went viral it unleashed a stampede of criticism and a campaign by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) urging people to drop their GoDaddy accounts.

To the non-hunter, such as myself, all of this can seem a bit barbaric at first, but as the authors point out, "the farmers who requested Parsons’ help not only culled the problem elephant, they got income, jobs, and meat from his hunt. That is results, not just rhetoric."

In Parsons’ words, "This farmer was desperate. He couldn’t get the herd out of his field. He asked us to come and deal with it." Parsons’ video, albeit distasteful at times, reveals the cold reality of conservation in Africa. Wildlife imposes real costs on the nearby communities. Achieving results means involving these communities in wildlife management and providing them the right incentives to protect wildlife and its habitat.

PETA’s anti-hunting rhetoric fails on both counts. Anti-hunting groups succeeded in getting Kenya to ban all hunting in 1977. Since then, its population of large wild animals has declined between 60 and 70 percent. The country’s elephant population declined from 167,000 in 1973 to just 16,000 in 1989. Poaching took its toll on elephants because of their damage to both cropland and people.

In contrast to Kenya, the authors explore a different approach in Zimbabwe. In 1989, a program known as the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources or CAMPFIRE was launched. This approach devolves the right  to manage natural resources to the local level, including the right to allow safari hunting. Community leaders help establish sustainable hunting quotas. Hunting then provides jobs for community members, compensation for crop and property damage, revenue to build schools, wells, etc.—just as Parsons’ elephant did.

By granting local people control over wildlife resources, their incentive to protect it has strengthened. The numbers attest to the program’s success. Ten years after the program began, wildlife populations had increased by 50 percent. By 2003, elephant numbers had doubled from 4,000 to 8,000.  And the gains have not just been for wildlife.

Between 1989 and 2001, CAMPFIRE generated more than $20 million in direct income, the vast majority of which came from hunting. During that period, the program benefitted an estimated 90,000 households and had a total economic impact of $100 million.
Allowing economic gain from the sustainable use of wildlife, in the form of sport hunting or ranching, can indeed provide landowners with the  incentives to view wildlife as an asset to be protected. Perhaps paradoxically, this has the potential to reverse the decline in large wild animal populations in Kenya and other areas of Africa, as countries such as Zimbabwe have demonstrated with elephants.
Huggins is a research fellow and former director of outreach with PERC as well as a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Her association with PERC goes back several years, although she has recently embarked on a new venture as the manager of economic initiatives for the American Prairie Reserve. Huggins coauthored...
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