Skyrocketing prices for rare animal products can push species to extinction even when their populations are abundant, researchers say.
The University of Queensland’s Dr Matthew Holden and Dr Eve McDonald-Madden undertook a study for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions, examining the fate of animals when prices for their products change with animal scarcity.
“Past theory says that if the price for animal products – like elephant trophy hunting expeditions - were to skyrocket as animals declined, this would create extra financial incentive to sell these products,” Dr Holden said.
“The theory says that more animals then die from increased hunting, which would then skyrocket product price further, in a vicious cycle towards extinction.
“Our study shows this process can start when the population is much larger than previously thought.
“It suggests large populations predicted safe by previous theory may in fact be in danger.
“African elephants may fit this category – they are abundant.”
The vicious cycle toward extinction explained by maths from ARC CEED on Vimeo.
The study used mathematical modelling to show how quickly animal populations can decrease when prices for animal products rise with animal scarcity.
US President Donald Trump’s recent elephant trophy ban and backflip has restarted the debate about whether legal hunting of African big-game animals can help them by raising money to protect them.
Dr Holden said not enough was known about the price of trophy hunting expeditions to predict whether legalising elephant trophy transport could cause African elephants to follow this theoretical path toward extinction.
“Both sides of the trophy hunting debate make seemingly logical arguments, but actually very little is known about the social and economic side of trophy hunting and that’s a big concern,” said Dr Holden.
“Our research isn’t specific to elephants and trophy hunting, but the existence of price rarity relationships have been shown time and time again in fish, mammals and even butterflies.
“These relationships can be detrimental to animal populations.”
The research is published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology.
Many environmental policies and programs pay public money to people or businesses (or give them tax breaks or discounts) to encourage them to adopt more environmentally friendly practices and behaviours. A seemingly common-sense rule for these sorts of programs is that we shouldn’t pay people to do things thatthey were going to do anyway, without payment. But it can be quite a hard rule to apply in practice.
The idea that we shouldn’t pay people to do things that they were going to do anyway goes under the name of “additionality”. (It is also related to the with-versus-without principle in Benefit: Cost Analysis, and the concept of market failure – see PD272).
The idea behind “additionality” is that, when a program pays money to people to change their behaviours, the environmental benefits that result should be additional to the environmental benefits that would have occurred anyway, in the absence of the payments.
The reason this matters is that, if we are able to target payments to those behaviours that do result in additional environmental benefits, we’ll end up with greater environmental benefits overall, compared to paying for non-additional benefits – we’ll get better value for taxpayers’ money.
Some environmental programs do a poor job of checking for additionality. As I noted in PD272, much of the money given to farmers in US agri-environmental programs is not additional. In Australia, the Direct Action program for climate change doesn’t consider additionality well when selecting the winning bids in their reverse auctions (it compares practices before vs after signing up to the program, not with versus without).
So, environmental programs that allocate money to people or businesses should worry about additionality, but how? It can be harder than it sounds. It’s all very well to say, “only pay people if they would not have done it anyway”, but how do we know what they would have done anyway?
Sometimes it’s reasonably easy. There are cases where we can be pretty confident that people would not have done the environmental action, and will not start doing it in future, without a payment or regulation. I suspect that most of the work on Australian farms to fence off waterways to exclude livestock would not have happened without payments to cover the cost of fencing materials.
Read the full article at David Pannell's blog.