There is no Persian cat shortage. The world is in no danger of running out of chickens. Yet the world has fewer and fewer elephants. lions, tigers, giraffes and so forth. Why? In part it is because no one owns wild animals and consequently they are nuisances rather than resources. Many species in the U.S. also declined when they were unowned. For example, by 1900 in the U.S. the number of bison had dropped from millions to just 200. Today, there are 500,000, and 95 percent are privately owned.
In the New Scientist conservationist Mike Norton-Giriffiths asks the right question: Whose wildlife is it anyway? (subscription required). He notes:
Since 1977, the country [Kenya] as lost between 60 and 70 per cent of its large wild animals.
The two immediate reasons for the dramatic decline in animal numbers are destruction of habitat and uncontrolled poaching. The economic driving force behind both these is the fact that for most landowners the returns available from agriculture greatly exceed those from livestock, so it pays them to plough up the rangelands. Everything is loaded against landowners making money from wildlife…
If Kenya wishes to maintain significant wildlife populations outside its protected areas, then it has to ensure that landowners can gain an income from wildlife that is competitive with what they can earn from agriculture and livestock.
What should be done? Norton-Griffiths argues:
First, user rights, and perhaps even ownership rights, need to be devolved from the state to landowners so that they can treat wildlife as a marketable commodity. Second, restrictions on income-generating opportunities need to be relaxed to permit activities such as ranching, the sale of live wild animals, the culling of locally abundant populations, the marketing of trophies, and the most valuable of all-sport hunting.
Norton-Griffiths notes that recent legislative moves in this direction have been blocked by lobbying from big Western non-government organizations including the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Humane Society. He concludes:
If they succeed in derailing the wildlife policy review, the decline in the country's wildlife will carry inexorably on. That would hardly be a victory for conservation.
But it would be a victory for blind pig-headed anti-market ideology. And that may be what's more important than saving wildlife to the NGOs.
Disclosure: I don't hunt. I'm a terrible shot and skinning and gutting game is way too labor intensive for me. However, I certainly do eat game that someone else has killed and cleaned. For example, I've enjoyed squirrels, rabbits, groundhogs, opposums, elk (road kill), venison, bison, alligator, caribou (tastes nastily of liver to me) and springbok (the tastiest meat ever).