Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Markets can mean survival.

"Ohai, fellas!" - Elinor
This is Elinor Ostrom. She is my pet gecko, named (in case you don't know) for the first female recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics. She's a delightful and low-maintenance critter.

Elinor is a crested gecko - one of the most widely owned geckos in the world, but thought to be extinct in the wild until they were rediscovered in 1994. Their natural habitat has been reduced and changed by the introduction of a fire ant, and they're less likely to survive in the wild than they once were. But so long as they are legal to own as pets it is unlikely that the crested gecko will be in danger of extinction.

So when I read an article answering the (incredibly important) question, "Can I have a pet fox?" I had to shake my head at lines like these:
"When the internet sees a video of a red panda, the internet wants a red panda. Even though a red panda is endangered and a wild animal.*"
 "Even more insane is that Indiana provides no law preventing you from owning an endangered species."
This is the common attitude towards owning or otherwise commodifying endangered species. China floated the idea years ago of farming tigers for fur, traditional medicine and trophy hunting to move the supply away from isolated wild populations currently subject to poaching. The pushback was predictable and called for more of the same failing policy. More recently, South Africa has talked about legalizing the trade of ivory from white rhinos to try to bring it under control and save the species, again, to the protestations of preservationists.

There is one endangered species - perhaps the most symbolic one - which has successfully been commodified: Giant pandas.

Captive giant pandas do not live natural lives. They're outrageously expensive side-shows at zoos around the world. And everyone who has them (Sigh.) pays an enormous price for the privilege.
"By 1984, however, pandas were no longer given as gifts. Instead, the PRC began to offer pandas to other nations only on 10-year loans, under terms including a fee of up to US$1,000,000 per year and a provision that any cubs born during the loan are the property of the PRC"
Giant pandas are silly creatures that seem to be incapable of replacing themselves in the wild. But due to their role first as diplomatic tools and now as revenue sources (and also because they are fluffy), they are going to be around pretty much forever.

Nothing that looks like this will be allowed to go extinct.
This is based on a simple idea that most people understand when it's applied to policies they're more receptive toward: The best way to control trade in anything is not to ban it, but to bring it into the formal market and, if needed, regulate it. It seems we're too squeamish to do this with endangered species - even though the price they pay for our moral indignation may be extinction.

It's a damn shame.

The slow loris is a threatened species because of deforestation and habitat destruction. Their eyes are also an ingredient in Chinese medicine. Unfortunately, wildlife trade is seen as part of the problem rather than part of the solution - and because it's trapped in the black market, that may be true
Tell me you couldn't sell millions of these in the West at almost any price.

*The "wild animal" thing is a separate problem - domestication for pet animals is important, but not an insurmountable challenge.


Alex Taylor said...

How do you feel about legalizing import/export of slow lorises as ingredients in Chinese medicine? Does it matter what we're breeding them for?

Janet Neilson said...

The choice is between sourcing medication by poaching from a threatened wild population or from a captive-bred population. The latter is preferable for the same reasons that farming tigers and rhinos makes sense: because it would reduce the strain on the wild population.

But I think they have the potential to be tremendously popular as exotic pets, and once a significant captive population was established you likely wouldn't have to worry about extinction.