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Can the free market help conservation?

Monday, November 9, 2015

Does T&T suffer from the tragedy of the commons? The free-for-all in our forests certainly says so. Can private game reserves make a difference and provide a future for wildlife and for hunters? In Africa private game reserves have become the holdout for many games species. Profit-driven owners have the means and the drive to protect their land and manage game animals sustainably. 

The government-determined value of wildlife in T&T is hard to establish. The only instrument we have to value wildlife is the cost of the hunting permit that hunters must purchase to hunt game. That permit costs $20. Hunting season is five months or 150 days. This means that you can hunt one species of game animal for 13 cents per day. Hunters can buy three of these permits so they can hunt three species. The largest contribution a hunter can make to wildlife conservation is 33 cents per day. That is a bit more than the price of a peppermint. 

Compare this to the price of US$380 for one Steenbok in a South African private game reserve. A Warthog is US350. Killing an Impala is US$480. 

If the intent of the hunting permit was to allow hunters to contribute to wildlife management and enforcement of the Conservation of Wildlife Act, inflation has destroyed it. Wildlife is essentially a free commodity and we all know what happens to a free commodity. It is wasted. 

Would this have happened if the free market were combined with conservation goals? The free market for wild meat says that one agouti is worth $400. That is the price that an agouti can command on the market. That is equal to 3,077 times the daily hunting fee. 

There are different markets for wildlife. An agouti may be worth a one-time $400 on the wildmeat market. To tourism that same agouti can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. A tour guide can easily charge $300-$600 to show an agouti to a tourist. When you add the value of plane tickets, hotel rooms, meals and transport it becomes clear that wildlife is not just cute but it has a value too. Both for the ecosystem and the economy. 

We must price our wildlife right. What owner would allow his or her property to be sold at such a loss? 

State stewardship of T&T’s wildlife and forest resources has failed. It is market failure. Nobody has ownership, so “I better take what I can now before my neighbour does,” is the dominant theme. We cannot easily fix the civil service so is it time to introduce the free market?  

Private game reserves can offer a solution. T&T does not have the big game that Africa has. There are no rhinoceros here to slaughter for ivory that is worth more than gold but we do have a lot of seemingly hungry men who poach year-round, together with overhunting and an underfunded, understaffed Forestry and Wildlife Division. 

Rural hunters, wildlife, communities and landowners can benefit from private game reserves. Laws can be changed so that private game reserves can be stocked with farmed wildlife that can then be released for hunting purposes. There are many abandoned or faltering estates on both islands. The owners would be happy for the extra income. As good business people they will ensure that game numbers are well managed. 

This system has been successful in Africa. There is a big “but.” It has not stopped the poaching that takes place outside of the private reserves. That is where government enforcement is necessary. Maybe it is a good idea to ban all hunting outside of private game reserves and leave the forests for eco-tourism and other non-extractive use. 

While we give wildlife a value, let’s do so with forest trails as well. There is a community-based project to rehabilitate and create trails throughout Trinidad. The success of this will depend on funding. Why not let communities own these trails and let them maintain them, while charging a user fee. It is a model that is successfully practised in some parts of Peru. Trinidad is the land of the free-for-all and that is the root of many problems.

Introduce the free market in aid of conservation.


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