from the Sixth Annual New York State Conference on Private Property Rights
November 16, 2002, Albany, New York

Private Conservation of Wildlife in Africa

Brian Seasholes

Good afternoon. Now some of you may be wondering what I am doing here. Well, besides the fact that Carol was kind enough to invite me, you may have looked at your programs and scratched your heads when you saw the topic of my talk. After all, the speakers at this conference have pretty much addressed the issues pertaining to the United States. So the topic of my talk, Private Conservation of Wildlife in Africa, would seem a bit out of place. However, I want to suggest what I have to say will be of interest to you for two reasons.

First, it is often useful to hear about successful uses of property rights, especially in other parts of the world. The creation of property rights to wildlife in southern Africa has been a stunning success story, a real win-win situation in which the landowners and wildlife have both benefited. After all, this makes sense. Property rights theory tells us that the creation of property rights tends to lead to a better world. But it is one thing to claim this in theory and quite another to see how it actually works in practice. Well, what has happened in southern Africa over the past thirty- some years has likely been the biggest experiment with creating property rights to wildlife, and has not only worked, it has worked spectacularly well.

The second reason my comments might be of interest to you is that the environment — and wildlife in particular — is one of the gaping holes in property rights in free market thought. While the institutions of private property rights and markets have been applied to a wide range of issues from health care to education to monetary policy and so on, the conservation of natural resources, and wildlife in particular, stands out as one of the last bastions in which public ownership is still dominant, both in theory and in practice. Indeed, when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, so too did much of legitimacy for state ownership and state planning. Not so with wildlife. And especially not so with wildlife in the Western world where it might seem that there would be little appetite for vestiges of collectivism. The view that wildlife ought to be property of the state still dominates. In many ways, state controlled-wildlife in the United States has strengthened since 1989, especially at the federal level. Most notable is the vast increase in the reach of the Endangered Species Act and also through other channels such as the Clean Water Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and so on and so on and so on.

Now I am going to shift and talk about how property rights to wildlife were created in southern Africa. When I speak about southern Africa, I am talking about South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, a little bit in Botswana, and somewhat in Zambia, but primarily in South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe.

How were property rights created in wildlife in southern Africa? Well, let’s engage in a little bit of a thought game. Imagine you are living in a rural area of Zimbabwe, Namibia, or South Africa, and some lions get into your cattle, killing some and maiming others, or elephants eat your entire year’s crop of corn, or antelope nibble away your cattle’s forage. Understandably, you would be upset. So you call the local wildlife authorities, and they say they will do what they can to help, but they will not compensate you because, after all, you must bear the cost of living with dangerous wildlife. In addition, if you are trying to benefit economically from this wildlife by selling the meat, the hides, or products from it, you will likely to be fined and thrown in jail. So what do you do?

Well, you do what many rural residents in Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa did throughout the early to mid-1900s. You tried to rid your land of wildlife. The growing resentment toward state control of wildlife was a major contribution towards farmers and ranchers claiming that farming a zoo was not possible. The effects of these efforts on wildlife was absolutely staggering. Rural areas became free-fire zones. Some ranchers hired people to simply shoot wildlife in order to eliminate its competition with cattle and crops. Carcasses were left around. This was a predictable result of the perverse incentives created by the state’s refusal to allow commercialization of wildlife. Fortunately, there were some people in government who were concerned about this and realized the solution lay not in trying to tweak existing regulations, or in creating public-private partnerships, or making government more flexible, or any of the other things that pass for reform of wildlife management in this country, or, for that matter, most any other country. So in 1967 Namibia gave private property owners, who were whites at that time and predominately still are, property rights to wildlife on their land. Zimbabwe, which was then Rhodesia, and South Africa followed suit in 1970s.

From here on I am going to confine my comments to Zimbabwe, because that is where I conducted research for my Masters thesis and also because, in many ways, what has occurred there over the past 30 years, I think, has really been the most interesting among the three countries in southern Africa. The real change in Zimbabwe came in 1975 with the passage of the landmark Parks and Wildlife Act, which gave landowners usufructuary, or use rights, for short, to the wildlife on their land. What this meant was that people could use the wildlife on their land, but they did not own it. They could dispose of it as they saw fit, meaning that they could hunt it, reduce it to possession. For example, a private landowner was no longer required to have permits to hunt or capture game, but the state, if it felt the landowner was over-hunting, could issue sanctions or a hunting moratorium.

This was absolutely remarkable and revolutionary in the true sense of the word. From experience, most of us know that when the state is confronted with failure, it almost never admits it and tries to solve the problem by coming up with a new regulatory scheme that tends not to solve the problem at all and usually makes it worse. Authorities in Zimbabwe figured this out. They knew that they could not possibly micro-manage wildlife on private lands and their attempts to do so had been dismal failures. So they took the incredibly courageous step and did something that public officials are loath to do. They admitted they were wrong.

With the granting of use rights to wildlife, wildlife flourished on private lands. After Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, the use rights to wildlife were extended to residents of communal lands, which are the marginal lands to which rural blacks had been relegated by whites.

Some of you may have heard of the campfire program that has been implemented in Zimbabwe and has been emulated throughout southern Africa. While much research has been done on wildlife utilization on communal lands, relatively little research has been done on private lands. So I am going to focus on the effects of the creation of property rights to wildlife in Zimbabwe where there were private landowners, most of whom are white, some of whom were blacks, rather than on blacks on the communal lands.

With the passage of the 1975 Parks and Wildlife Act that gave private landowners in Zimbabwe what was called use rights to the wildlife on their land, wildlife use burgeoned on private lands, which is actually no big surprise. It is estimated that around 30 percent of private lands in Zimbabwe have wildlife and most of this is an adjunct to cattle and crops. The way in which most landowners utilize wildlife is through the safari hunting industry, which primarily consists of foreigners from America and Europe paying thousands of dollars to hunt big game in Africa.

There have been a variety of approaches to utilizing wildlife on private land in Zimbabwe, and the most innovative of them have been undertaken by groups of what are called commercial farmers. You can really think of them more as ranchers that have formed what are called conservancies, which are wildlife co-management entities encompassing multiple properties. It is basically two or more property owners get together to co-manage the wildlife that moves among their properties. Because the conservancies require coordination among adjacent landowners who, as anyone who is familiar with rural landowners will attest, can be very independent-minded, the conservancies represent an extraordinary and progressive approach to wildlife management. That is what really drew me to do my research in Zimbabwe, because I really saw this effort for multiple landowners to manage wildlife as the most innovative wildlife conservation utilization effort anywhere in the world.

The three viable conservancies in Zimbabwe range in size from 225,000 acres to 840,000 acres and they were formed in the early 1990s. The initial purpose of the conservancies was to serve as safe havens for the imperiled black rhino, rhinoceros — not our RINO — which the government was failing to protect on state lands. No surprise there. Zimbabwe represented the rhino’s last stronghold, but the country’s population declined preciously from some 20,000 in the 1960’s, to 1,750 in 1989, to about 330 in 1993. Truly a tragedy of the “commons.” Despite efforts to prevent illegal hunting, including the shoot-to-kill policy in the Zambezi Valley, which was the rhino’s last stronghold, rhino numbers continued to plummet. So the government turned to the private sector as a last resort. This last resort has proved a spectacular success. Rhinos trans-located to the conservancies and single-owner ranches have flourished. Two of the conservancies are called Savé Valley and Bubiana conservancies. Each started with approximately 35 rhinos, which increased to about a hundred by 1999. The smaller conservancy, called Chiredzi River, began with about ten rhinos, which increased to about twenty. So successful were Savé and Bubiana that they recorded growth rates of about 15 percent, the highest growth rates ever reported for black rhinos and well above what was thought to be the maximum possible growth rate of 10 percent. In all, some 75 percent of Zimbabwe’s 440 black rhino were on private lands.

In addition to rhino, other species prospered on the conservancies. In the case of Savé Valley, the entire land area of 840,000 acres was dedicated exclusively to wildlife while, at Bubiana and Chiredzi River Conservancies, wildlife was integrated in conservancy members’ cattle operations. The conservancies did such a good job managing wildlife that species literally voted with their feet and migrated there. Hear of people voting with their feet? Well, these species voted with their feet, as well. Lions and African wild dogs traveled around 30 miles from a national park, which involved traveling over a busy paved road, which is something that those of you who know something about wildlife know that wildlife is loath to do, to get to Savé Valley Conservancy. The dogs, an imperiled species, throve and reached a population of about 70. Wild dogs also migrated to Chiredzi River Conservancy from the same national park and established a population of about 50. A handful of elephants, also from the same national park, traveled about 95 miles, breaking through the perimeter fences of the Bubiana Conservancy to get to the land there. That all of these species were drawn to Savé and Bubiana and Chiredzi River through areas of human settlement is testament to the superb job the conservancies were doing to make their lands hospitable to wildlife.

In addition to the wildlife activities, the conservancies have been actively involved in lending helping hands to their communal land and its poor rural black neighbors. This stands in shark contrast to the experience of rural blacks living adjacent to most state-protected areas. As some of you may know, if you live adjacent to, perhaps, a national wildlife refuge or a national park, the state can oftentimes be an unfriendly neighbor. Same thing in Africa. Yet these conservancies were actually trying to help their neighbors and doing a fairly good job of it.

At this juncture of my talk I feel that I must adhere to my belief in “truth in advertising.” At the outset I said I was going to tell you about the stunning success of the creation of private property rights to wildlife in Zimbabwe, and I did. But I did not tell you about what I am going to talk about now. While my talk so far has been good news, I am afraid I have a bit of bad news. While the conservancies in Zimbabwe have achieved remarkable success, they have been engulfed in a tidal wave of land invasions that have plunged Zimbabwe into chaos since early 2000. As a result, as we sit here today, the conservancies are being decimated. Their situation is absolutely grim. Thousands of people have invaded the conservancies. Extensive tree cutting and burning has destroyed much of the vegetation. Wire from the perimeter fences has been used to make tens of thousands of snares, perhaps hundreds of thousands. Tens of thousands of head of game, including elephant, rhino, wild dogs, zebra, kudu, and impala, have been killed, most of them by snares. Reports coming out of the conservancies are absolutely horrific. A snared wild dog ran for miles, eventually disemboweling itself. A researcher mercifully killed it. Another wild dog caught in a snare gnawed off one of its lower legs in an attempt to free itself from the agonizing pain. On Bubiana Conservancy, a rhino calf caught in a snare died when it could not escape a fire that was set by invaders. Zebra, kudu, eland, and other game have been found putrefying in snares that have not been checked. At least four black rhino have died due to snaring and at least thirteen more have required heroic efforts to dart them with anesthetic so that their wounds could be treated.

In addition to direct mortality, the clearing of land, chopping of trees, and widespread burning has displaced what wildlife remains. As a result, much of the conservancies resemble moonscapes — charred trees, burned grass, land devoid of vegetation. In the semi-arid region in which the conservancies are located, they get an average of between 12 and 24 inches of rain per year. A major drought in which they may not get any rain occurs about every ten years. The long-term impacts of the ongoing habitat destruction are in many ways more serious than the slaughter of the wildlife. If the conservancies are ever reconstituted, it will take decades for the vegetation to rebound, centuries for the larger trees. Some animals will undoubtedly hang on but these will most likely be the small and mid-size species that are elusive enough to avoid being killed. The larger species are not so fortunate. They are being picked off one by one and may well be extirpated. The situation is absolutely dire. The conservancies are close to being destroyed. The longer the land invaders stay, the less likely it is the conservancies can be resuscitated, and, even if by some miracle the conservancies were able to get up and running again, it would take at least a decade to replace the wildlife.

Now, to try to draw something good from all of this. I know it might be a little bit tough to do. After all, I have just given you a lot of bad news. While it may be too late for the conservancies, I think there are several very, very important lessons to draw from their experiences. First and foremost is that the creation of property rights to wildlife works and is a very effective conservation tool. As the conservancies have demonstrated, landowners with property rights to wildlife can engage in very innovative conservation efforts.

Second, if the state refuses to obey the rule of law and enforce property rights, there can be dire results. The anarchy in Zimbabwe is stark testament to this.

Third, the conservancies have provided invaluable examples of how wildlife co-management between multiple landowners can work successfully. The experiences of conservancies have a great deal of practical and theoretical importance. Indeed, the conservancies have provided invaluable models of how multiple landowners can co-manage wildlife. Not only can this be a benefit to landowners throughout the world, but it has significant implications for private and common property theory.

Fourth, through their communal land outreach programs, the conservancies, especially Savé Valley, have provided useful models of how wildlife sanctuaries can have better relations with their neighbors.

Fifth, the conservancies’ success contains valuable lessons for so-called community-based wildlife programs, which, while targeted to poor rural blacks, can still benefit from the experiences of the conservancies. The experiences of the conservancies strongly suggest that individuals and communities, not centralized or regional governments, as has been the case in many of these community based programs in Africa, ought to have the legal rights to wildlife. Also, the more complete the property rights, the potentially greater the benefit for the holders of those rights as well as for wildlife.

Sixth, Bubiana Conservancy is a very useful example of how multiple landowners can integrate wildlife and livestock production systems. This is relevant to the many individual landowners around the world who own livestock and already manage wildlife or have an interest in doing so. While switching completely to wildlife as Savé Valley Conservancy did is certainly an option, combining wildlife and livestock is a more realistic option for many of the world’s livestock owners.

It is hoped that these and other lessons will not be all that remains of Zimbabwe’s conservancies. Perhaps the conservancies will emerge from this nightmare and be able to reconstitute, but the longer the invaders occupy the conservancies, the less likely that is to happen.

As I end my talk, it is with a tinge of sadness and hope for the future. Sadness because I conducted research on Bubiana Conservancy, and it breaks my heart to know what is going on there. People I know are seeing their investments literally going up in flames and being hunted, and their lives are being destroyed. My hope is that the conservancies will be able to reconstitute, but, as I said, this is an increasingly dim prospect. So, I pin my hopes for the future on the possibility that other people, people like us, will carry forth the knowledge created by those who privatized wildlife in Zimbabwe , and that this shining example of the use of property rights will live on and hopefully be replicated.

Thank you very much.


Questions and Answers (Excerpts)

Ms. LaGrasse: Brian, thank you so much. Before we have a five-minute break, we will take three questions from the audience. Mike?

Mike Hardiman: Yes, I would like to ask Brian Seasholes, regarding the national parks, what condition are they in? Have they been overrun?

Brian Seasholes: The national parks in Zimbabwe have also suffered serious poaching as well, but not necessarily wholesale invasions on the scale that the commercial farmers, who are predominately white, in Zimbabwe have. That is because there are some political issues, but basically the president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, faced unfavorable election results in early 2000 and therefore urged people to move on to the white land to redress imagined colonial wrongs — some real, some imagined — so it has been worse on the private land than the parks, basically.

Ms. LaGrasse: Barbara, question?

Barbara Patrick: Three questions. Do you know why these animals were snared? Was it for them to eat because they were hungry or was it to sell body parts to China for various purposes?

Mr. Seasholes: The snaring was going on primarily for subsistence. Zimbabwe is in the throws of an absolute humanitarian crisis. They are facing famine. So most of this was subsistence. Some was market hunting. And some of it, some of the rhinos that had been poached had lost their horns, so there was some thought that some of the rhino horn was going to be sold for the Far East where it is thought that it has medicinal purposes. But I also want to say that the prohibition on the sale of rhino horn into the commercial stream of commerce has been one of the things that has inhibited its recovery. If you attach value to something, and this is what marketing tells, but it also works. White rhino, which is the other species of rhino, were down to about 50 or 80 in South Africa about 40 or 50 years ago. They now number about 5,000 or 8,000. The reason is that people are not necessarily using the horn, but if you want to hunt a rhino and put it on the wall, for big game hunters, you go to South Africa, you hunt white rhino. So by attaching value to it, whether it is through safari hunting or selling the products, you provide people with incentives to conserve the species. If you rob the species of value in their products, then people will have less incentive to conserve them. It is simple economics. Unfortunately, most wildlife management is predicated on denying value to wildlife.

Ms. LaGrasse: R.J.?

Robert J. Smith: The Palazzolo, Rhode Island, case was mentioned. Many of you may know that the person who argued before the Supreme Court was Jim Burling of Pacific Legal Foundation, and also, many of you may know, but some of you may not remember, that Jim Burling was also the 1998 keynote speaker at Carol’s conference. That shows again the conference’s national persuasion.

I also wanted to point out that, on the rhinos, all these good things happened mainly in southern African countries. Unfortunately, in east Africa they essentially rejected all of these approaches - rejected ownership of wildlife, rejected economic value to wildlife, rejected hunting, and so on. During this period in east Africa, their black rhino population plummeted from about 17,000 to less than 1,000. Yet, on the reverse of the side showing the lack of property rights is the side reported by Brian Seasholes showing that the creation of property rights caused wildlife to flourish.

Ms. LaGrasse: Thank you for this wealth of information.

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