What Kentucky Fried Chicken Can Teach Us About Saving Wildlife

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I alluded to this in my post on The Tragedy of the Commons:

Although well-intentioned, bans on hunting and trapping do little to protect animals on the endangered species list.

When we examine the underlying economic and sociological principles behind common measures enacted to protect animal populations, the preceding statement rings true.

There are many laws on the books with the expressed purpose of shielding endangered species from extinction. Penalties ranging from stiff fines to lengthy jail terms purportedly dissuade poachers and hunters.

Unfortunately, many of the species on the endangered list continue to suffer losses. Tigers, for example, are a point of emphasis for many conservationist groups. “Tiger” is a common ingredient in balms and medical powders in Asia, even though hunting of the animal is illegal. International protection orders have done little to curtail the killing of tigers. African and Asian Elephants experience similar treatment.

So what’s the problem? Why are bans on hunting so ineffective?

It’s all about incentives and responsibility.

Public goods (parks, highways etc.) are used and owned by everyone, but cared for by no one.

Let’s compare the average public park to a run-of-the-mill private one. It’s a near certainty that the private facility will be better-maintained, cleaner and more attuned to the desires of its local residents. Sure, maintenance and upkeep are provided for by government monies but how well are most public goods maintained? Unlike private property, there’s little motivation for any one individual to care for a public resource.

Once the proper incentives are presented, the desired result can be attained.

Wild animals can be loosely categorized as a “public good”—no one owns them and everyone can derive some benefit from them.

The plight of the American Buffalo is a perfect example.

For centuries, countless buffalo herds roamed the plains. They were the lifeblood of Native Americans and early western settlers. In the 19th century, westward expansion nearly wiped the buffalo off the planet. For a 10-year period beginning in the early 1870’s, an estimated 30 million buffalo were killed. Buffalo meat and furs were in high demand. People on trains routinely shot buffalo just for sport. With no one looking out for the interest of the buffalo, it’s no surprise they were numbered at less than one hundred in 1889.

For the better part of a century, the American government, along with special interests groups, has made a concerted effort to rescue the buffalo population from extinction. Legalized private ownership has helped the buffalo population rise exponentially. A trip to Yellowstone Park can prove as much.

Let’s look at another example of the benefits of private ownership: chicken.

Americans consume chicken by the ton. Eggs, drumsticks, nuggets, sandwiches—we have a love affair with chicken.

All this consumption, yet no shortage. How is this possible?

Farmers and other agricultural companies reap billions annually from the sale of these animals. Although the conduct of some of these companies leaves much to be desired, they offer a solid product to millions of Americans each year.

A seemingly inexhaustible supply of chicken isn’t magic; it’s economics (and dedicated science) at work. Businesses will supply a good as long as there is sufficient demand.

It’s not enough to judge a policy by its intentions. We have to examine its effectiveness in achieving its stated goal.

Some species aren’t suited for captivity—the power of incentives is the key idea of this post. When we remove emotion from the discussion and focus on facts and logic, legalizing private ownership of endangered species has potential.

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