Elephants and Economics

One of the biggest skills I’ve gained writing an economics blog is dispassionate writing and thinking. Sure, we all have ideologies and spirit, but a common thread across good writing is relatively sterile analysis. For me, that means not writing about things that truly incite me (beyond an intellectual curiosity). Like the criminal justice system. Or elephants and their poachers.

But as Ferris Jabr writes, “to look an elephant in the face is to gaze upon genius”. It is abundantly clear to me that the problem is largely economic, and therefore something that I should at least try to blog about without expletive passion (of which there is plenty elsewhere). I hope more economists publicly and privately advocate market solutions to the poaching problem – because the government, unsurprisingly, lacks the necessary competence in basic market design and incentive formation.

Economics is a constructive field, and is therefore concerned with efficient means of building a market. The task at hand is efficiently destroying a market. That is very difficult. It’s not really possible argue whether a market is driven by supply or demand, but for reasons I’ll outline, it is fair to assume restricting demand should be the primary tactic.

African governments unfortunately lack the competence, wherewithal, and and will to fight monied (probably Chinese) interests in any meaningful way. The investment necessary in good law enforcement to prevent large poaching networks is something that Africa will not have for a long time. And, anyway, that money is better spent on education and infrastructure. African countries shouldn’t have to drain the public purse because of foreign demand that dwarves its national wealth. More importantly, the production function will remain cheap so long as poachers need to kill elephants to put food on their children’s plate. And who can blame them? Poaching wouldn’t be a problem if elephants roamed American prairies as they do African forests. But Africa is no America, and any real effort should start with demand.

A ban is the crucial first step, but easily circumvented (in the United States, for example, you can only purchase ivory that is at least a hundred years old – but how hard is it to forge the necessary documents), especially if the punishment isn’t commensurate with the potential reward.

Enforcement is also ridiculously expensive. Police officers and the DEA waste billions trying to stop people from smoking crack, but the results are a complete joke. Sure we don’t have the brightest people spending that money (to say the least), but enforcement costs are non-trivial, especially without a culture that supports the cause (If everyone was a murderer, police officers couldn’t do a thing about it).

Civilizing people is a long process. It took centuries for humans to see the moral flaws with slavery – a far more heinous crime – and the socioeconomic forces in emerging markets to flaunt wealth is strong; without a government that really cares it is unlikely we’ll get anywhere. So molding culture is out of the question (in the time period we have, which isn’t that long).

In contemplating a solution, I couldn’t but think of George Akerloff’s “A Market for Lemons”, one of the best pieces of economic intuition and analysis I’ve had the pleasure of reading. Without getting into the details, the import of his paper is that a market can break down  under a little information asymmetry.

Policymakers and conservationists need to stop auctioning horns and burning stockpiles of ivory, they need to create this asymmetry. And it’s not hard. By virtue of being a black market, there isn’t a good organized body that can consistently verify the quality of ivory in general. Sure, it’s easy to access, but ultimately there’s a lot of supply chain uncertainty.

There is a cheap way to exploit this. The government, or some general body that has access to tons of ivory, should douse (or credibly commit to dousing) the tusks with some sort of deadly poison, and sell the stuff across all markets. Granting some additional complexities, the black market could not differentiate between clean and lethal ivory, and buyers would refrain from buying all ivory in fear. The market would be paralyzed. It is analogous to Wall Street during a bank run, and probably stronger given that lives – and not just portfolios – are on the line. And it’s far cheaper than anything we’re trying to do now. (As a commenter notes, another smart method would be to flood the market with uncertainty of authenticity, but this is a lot harder to achieve, and possibly very expensive).

It sounds like a batshit crazy idea, and it probably is, but it’s not morally that much worse than what we have now (that is even completely ignoring the cruelty of purchasing ivory in the first place). The human suffering of the current system is immense, with many poor Africans threatened or bullied into poaching under the threat of death. Moreover, many African governments – in a Hail Mary effort to combat the Chinese economy – have draconian penalties for those caught poaching. I would only transfer that risk from producer to consumer, suggesting the trade, ethically, is weakly superior at least.

It is hard to imagine such a fragile market functioning with a competent organization trying to fool it. It wouldn’t even require governmental support (though may be illegal). If you’re a mess about the ethics of poisoning people, we can try the flu instead.

This is, like unemployment, a moral, social, and political problem. And, like unemployment, it has an economic solution. I don’t know if what I’ve outlined could actually work in practice (though I am somewhat confident that a well-thought out try, with the proper support, would make a difference). But I do know that without aligning incentives and goals we have no hope. It’s time for better ideas than burning stockpiles or auctioning hunts.

  1. Gita said:

    Way to go Ashok – I love this blog. Find a way to get those damn poachers and save the elephants, rhinos etc.

  2. Rogier Swierstra said:

    What about flooding the market with fake ivory? Less effective, perhaps, but less lethal — and so more likely to be applied.

    • Askew said:

      Or replace the poison with something causing impotence or sterility in humans. Less lethal, and fix the rhino horn problem too…

  3. Bryan Willman said:

    I think this is the right idea with the wrong polarity. Rather than trying to drive down the demand for ivory (though that’s a fine thing to do) what is needed is to drive UP the value of LIVE and HAPPY elephants TO THE LOCAL RESIDENTS.

    Start a religion where you are promised eternal salvation if you got to Africa and do service to a live Elephant. Start a strong myth where happily gazing at a live elephant assures you good health and reproductive success. Persuade the local residents that happy live elephants prevent AIDs and a lack of elephants causes Leprosy…

    Yes, those thing all sound silly, but none of them are particularly sillier that using elephant tusks or shark fins as sexual potency treatments….

    But my comment remains – if you can’t suppress demand (see the American misWar on Drug Users) instead raise competitive values more in alignment with what is desired.

    • They exist. Some poachers – not the supply lords, but the ones that get their hands dirty – talk about how painful it is for them to do the job. But there are strong economic forces – and other values – that dominate.

      But your point is well-taken, and ultimately more likely to actually happen. Time is not unlimited, though.


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  5. Jody said:

    Or you could allow elephant farming, thereby removing virtually all incentive for killing them in the wild while ensuring the preservation of the species. (e.g., cows aren’t going extinct anytime soon)

  6. NL7 said:

    Not sure I understand how the poison works. You touch ivory and die? It seems like the distributors would die of bad ivory before it got to black market retailers or consumers for them to die.

    In any case, this is not a new idea and quite emotional besides. Authorities tried this under alcohol Prohibition by intentionally poisoning many loads of alcohol and otherwise trying to drive down the quality of alcohol – the result was tons of deaths, but not a real drop in consumption. Killing people for using taboo products comes off quite spiteful and disregarding of human motives and incentives.

    Some amount of the demand exists precisely because the product is hard to obtain. That’s why there is a market in endangered species, as the rarity increases the prestige of an exotic pet. Maybe it makes sense to go the other direction and allow the use of tusks from naturally (or medically) deceased animals to meet some of the market demand and also drive down both the taboo and the prestige of owning ivory. Additionally, I think the farming comment from Jody makes plenty of economic sense and is the sort of rational analysis that the introduction seemed to preface. Though I express no opinion at this time on the moral obligations that might be owed by humans to elephants (e.g. whether it’s moral to painlessly kill an elephant, whether it’s moral to cause an elephant excess pain, etc.).

    • Can’t say I’d much care if distributors died – still achieves the goal, and maybe more effectively.

      Comparing this to prohibition is difficult, for one consumers were not morally culpable for anything which is patently false win this case.

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