Banned in Botswana


Last July 18, Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi set ablaze more than $3 million in elephant tusks. This symbolic action, demonstrating Kenya's support for a worldwide ban on trade in ivory, wowed the assembled crowd of journalists and environmental activists. But after the smoke cleared, more-responsible reporters discovered another side to the story.

In October, the UN's Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species discussed the proposed ban. Kenya and other central African nations encouraged CITES to follow their lead and outlaw all commercial use of products from elephants. Kenya permits no private role in preserving its elephant herds, and poachers there have reduced the elephant population by more than 70 percent the past decade.

Zimbabwe and its neighbors in southern Africa opposed the ban, endorsing instead limited private ownership and control of the elephant herds. In the countries that used this approach, the elephant population increased by 5 percent a year over the same period.

Free-market economists have long contended that establishing property rights in endangered species will encourage people to preserve them. With the African elephant, a concrete example reinforced the theory. Economist Randy Simmons of Utah State University and Urs Kreuter, a range scientist from Zimbabwe, published a thorough endorsement of the Zimbabwe approach in Policy Review. With this research in hand, journalists began to treat the Zimbabwe approach seriously.

Tom Miller, senior policy analyst for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which sponsored the Simmons/Kreuter study, notes that Zimbabwe's experience gave free marketeers an advantage. "We have a better approach on pragmatic grounds and evidence behind it, an actual track record, while the other side was preaching ideology in terms of a universal ban.…If we go in that direction, [the elephants are] all going to die."

Miller also reports that the debate's clearly drawn battle lines encouraged favorable coverage. The World Wildlife Fund, the Sierra Club, and many other high-profile American environmental groups oppose market-oriented strategies. "The media will gravitate toward a polarized issue," he says. "We cornered the market on the alternative views."

The Washington Post, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times gave extensive coverage to the Zimbabwe approach. CEI president Fred Smith also appeared on CNN's "Crossfire," the CBS "Nightwatch" program, and several radio talk shows.

Unfortunately, the free marketeers' favorable media attention didn't convince CITES, which enacted the ivory ban, effective January 1. The 11 nations that voted against the ban can, however, continue to market ivory inside their borders. CITES will review the ban in two years.

Between now and then, CEI will have Simmons, Kreuter, and Smith pitch the free-market message to policymakers, legislators, and journalists. "If you have some success" with a few media outlets, Miller concludes, "others begin to follow you."