EconTalk |
Catherine Semcer on Poaching, Preserves, and African Wildlife
Feb 18 2019

African-lion-300x215.jpg Catherine Semcer of the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the role of incentives in preserving wildlife in Africa. The conversation discusses how allowing limited hunting of big game such as elephants and using revenue from hunting licenses to reward local communities for habitat stewardship has improved both habitat and wildlife populations while reducing poaching. Semcer draws on her experience as former Chief Operating Officer of Humanitarian Operations Protecting Elephants and also discusses recent efforts to re-locate lions in Mozambique.

Karol Boudreaux on Wildlife, Property, and Poverty in Africa
Karol Boudreaux, Senior Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about wildlife management in Africa. Their conversation focuses on community-based wildlife management in Namibia, a policy to give communities the incentives...
Yandle on the Tragedy of the Commons and the Implications for Environmental Regulation
Bruce Yandle of Clemson University and George Mason University's Mercatus Center looks at the tragedy of the commons and the various ways that people have avoided the overuse of resources that are held in common. Examples discussed include fisheries, roads,...
Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Feb 18 2019 at 10:20am

35:45 Russ Roberts: All these are examples of what we call in economics “the tragedy of the commons”, which we’ve talked about many times on the program, that any one person’s incentive to protect a fish in the ocean, a lobster in a lobster bed, or an animal in the wild in Coutada 11 is limited by the fact that, if you let it go, if you decide it’s too small, or you leave it alone, or you don’t shoot it, or you put it back (if it’s a fish) to grow up, the odds that you’re the one that captures it is close to zero.  So there’s a natural tendency to overfish, overgraze, and over-hunt these unowned areas.  So what you’re suggesting is that this one hunter has created a set of implicit property rights. …

This is a great episode for illustrating how the tragedy of the commons can be dealt with through such measures as suitable property rights.

For example, regarding the difficulty of doing this to “to protect a fish in the ocean”, New Zealand has provided a stunning example of success in exactly that context.  This illustrates the success of the same principles depicted by the examples Catherine Semcer provides in this episode.

For a description of how New Zealand applied those principles, see 9 minutes of Trailblazers: The New Zealand Story starting at 22:26.

Marilyne Tolle
Feb 18 2019 at 7:15pm

Listen to this cautionary tale (9’40”) on the unintended consequences of Pablo Escobar’s decision to import one male and three female hippos (native to sub-Saharan Africa) to his hacienda in Colombia…

Pablo Escobar’s hippos: Why drug lords shouldn’t play God

Feb 19 2019 at 7:42pm

I really liked the episode, as I found my natural suspicions overcome by the evidence Ms. Semcer provided.

I would be really curious what proponents of putting in place the US ban on bringing back trophies would say in response to the model employed in the CAMPFIRE program and Coutada 11.  Would they say it’s not feasible in many areas, and so not worth the offset of wildlife growth in those where it is?  There’s a Stanford professor named David Hayes who seems like he was influential in the US policy in this regard – might be interesting to have him on as a guest to explain the rationale.  Proponents of the ban must have heard of these different models, and I’d be curious what they say in response to their demonstrable effectiveness.  Thanks!

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Intro. [Recording date: February 5, 2019.]

Russ Roberts: Before introducing today's guest, I want to make a few remarks about the recent EconTalk Survey of your favorite episodes of last year. A little over 2400 people listening in 65 countries filled out the Survey, which I'm very grateful for. You gave me some wonderful feedback and some great ideas.

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Russ Roberts: And now for today's guest, Catherine Semcer.... I want to start by talking about poaching--the killing of protected or endangered wildlife, and the nature of the problem in Africa. Why is it such a big problem? And it seems to be a particularly important issue in Africa.

Catherine Semcer: Well, the reason it's a problem is fairly multi-faceted. First and foremost, you have the loss of what is a valuable resource for the people of Africa. Tourism is a tremendously large industry in Africa, valued at about $40 billion, according to the World Tourism Council. And, it provides about 6% of total employment on the continent. And, people are coming to see the elephants, and the rhinos, and the lions, and the other species. And, every illegal killing of one of these animals essentially represents a theft of sorts from the people whose livelihoods depend on these animals. But there's also a security element to it, as well. Much of the poaching is being driven by international organized crime syndicates. And there's also armed militant groups who are poaching in order to raise funds to procure weapons and other material so that they can wage war against the established governments in Africa.

Russ Roberts: And just to be clear for listeners who don't know the term, or who maybe English is not your native language: Poaching is the killing of an animal that is otherwise protected. In, America, it could happen in a national park; it could happen on a private, in private ownership. But, in Africa, we are mainly talking about, I assume, about game preserves--the equivalent of a national park in America.

Catherine Semcer: Well, the game preserves are slightly different. So, if you look at Africa's conservation system, it's slightly more diverse than what we have here in the United States. You do have national parks, for sure: places like Amboseli, you know, which are world-famous. But then there's also an extensive system of game ranches where, you know, you will find everything from elephants to rhino to kudu to springbok. And then there is also what they call wildlife utilization areas--a sort of a broad category. And these are areas that are set aside for the sustainable use of wildlife--either through hunting by local people to feed themselves or more often than not, the hunting rights are leased out to other concessionaires and used for trophy hunting purposes in order to raise--to raise funds.


Russ Roberts: So, what are some of the steps--so, the obvious solution, of course, to most people, is to make poaching illegal. But that's--it already is illegal. The problem is it's hard to enforce boundaries. It's hard to enforce and monitor these laws. So, what are some of the ways that governments and others have tried to reduce the killing of animals that people would otherwise want to keep alive?

Catherine Semcer: Well, what we've seen widely across the landscape since elephant-poaching in particular began to spike around 2008 has been a very militant and militarized approach to counter-poaching. Sort of building on the fortress-conservation area, that we can somehow wall off these areas of habitat, not just we've fences as we've done historically, but increasingly with helicopters and high-powered rifles, and staff that had military training. And, what we've seen is that this has had mixed effectiveness. It's really, to a large part, alienated local populations from the idea of wildlife conservation. And there was a study that was published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the United Nations, and the International Institute for Environment and Development, which showed that the real way that we need to get at approaching the poaching problem is to build support among the people who live among the wildlife of Africa. And essentially disrupt the supply chain of ivory and rhino horn closer to the source, by increasing the opportunity costs for engaging and poaching. And that can be achieved in a number of ways, but one of the most common ways is through the aforementioned trophy-hunting programs, where people are economically benefiting from having healthy populations of wildlife over the long term, managing it as a renewable resource, as opposed to killing large numbers of animals in a short period of time just to get a quick cash return.


Russ Roberts: Yeah, I want to come back to that. And we'll go into it in some depth. But, the other strategy has been to try to make illegal or reduce the trade in the horns of these elephants and rhinos which are typically sold around the world as an aphrodisiac, or possibly, I guess, in the past, for jewelry--but I assume it's mainly the aphrodisiac use that's been dominating. But that also has not been terribly successful, the reduction in that trade. Is that correct?

Catherine Semcer: Again, it's met with mixed success. You know, I just saw some research recently showing that while, you know, ivory consumption and rhino horn consumption in China has been on the decline domestically, Chinese who travel overseas are still borrowing[?] at historic rates. And, you know, part of what's driven this was, you know, the rise of the, the middle class in China. You are dealing with a culture that has a value, you know, placed on ivory and rhino horn going back thousands of years. And as people's spending power increased, they of course went for, you know, what have long been seen within that culture as luxury goods. Now, there's been some, you know, economic downturns in China recently--some people's purchasing power has decreased. But for those Chinese who can still travel overseas, the idea of, you know, reducing consumption, does not seem to have stuck very well.


Russ Roberts: So, one of the solutions, which you mentioned, is the, trying to incentivize the local population. It's a complicated problem, obviously. Some of the poachers, some of them I presume could be local. Many of them are not local. But the idea here is to give some kind of property right or incentive, a type of ownership. People will often say when you talk about a market-based solution, or I'd call an incentive-based solution, these kind of problems, they'll say, 'Yeah but you can't own an elephant.' Well, you could. You could obviously, you could tag an elephant, and in some dimension give yourself property rights in it. But what they actually do on the ground is a little bit different. So, talk about how NGOs [Non-Governmental Organizations], organizations that are trying to help these species, have used, ironically, the possibility of hunting as a way to increase population. It's one of the great examples to me of the great paradox of economics and how, often what you assume is the effect is not quite the effect. It's a little more complicated. [More to come, 12:44]

Catherine Semcer: Right. Well, let's take elephants as an example that you mentioned. I've had a great deal of experience with elephants. I've fed them by hand in captivity. I've been charged by them in the wild. They are absolutely magnificent and humbling creatures to stand before. But they also, you know, do cause problems for people who have to live with them. They trample crops. They do kill people from time to time. And, living with them can be quite a challenge, you know, for people who make their lives in rural Africa. And probably one of the best examples of elephant conservation over the last several decades has been the CAMPFIRE program in Zimbabwe. CAMPFIRE stands for Communal Areas Management Program for Indigenous Resources. And this is a program that was set up with the support of U.S. Aid back in the late 1980s or early 1990s. And, what it does is it gives local communities use-rights over the wildlife in a given area. And, they can use that wildlife either for subsistence purposes to put meat on their own table. Or, typically, what happens is the community enters into a partnership with a hunting outfitter, to, you know, leverage those use rights in allowing--Americans, primarily: Americans represent about 70% of the global trophy hunting market--to come in and engage in those hunts. This is a program that has about 2.4 million beneficiaries, and impacts about 800,000 households in Zimbabwe. Since it was instituted, we've seen a 15-25% income increase in the CAMPFIRE areas. And this is significant, when you consider that 63% of the people in Zimbabwe live below the poverty line; 2.4 million in that country are food-insecure. And about 27% of the children in that country are stunted. So, you know, the way that this works is that when they enter into these partnerships with the safari hunters is there's a split of the revenues. Sometimes it's 50-50. Sometimes it's 60-40. But the community keeps the majority of the revenue from the sale of the hunt. So, the impact of this is to create an incentive for allowing more elephants on the landscape, because they are bringing in a sustained source of income. And, since the CAMPFIRE area was put into place, we've seen a doubling of the elephant population within the CAMPFIRE areas. And it's one reason that Zimbabwe has the second-largest elephant population in all of Africa. At the same time, you know, it's a very fragile system that's vulnerable to the dominant market--name, the United States. When the United States instituted a ban on the import of elephant trophies from Zimbabwe back in 2014, we saw a 30% decline in Zimbabwe's safari-hunting industry. And, what that looked like on the ground was decreased anti-poaching capacity. The organization I used to work with, HOPE[?], was working to support one of the anti-poaching units that operated in the Donde[?] safari area. And they reported seeing a 5-fold increase in elephant poaching following the institution of the ban. Why it was this? It was a combination of factors. First and foremost, elephants were no longer generating revenue for local people. So they immediately had less value in large numbers, and more value dead on the ground; and their tusks ripped out and smuggled elsewhere. At the same time, the decrease in revenue also meant that the anti-poaching unit could not patrol as much, just because they couldn't pay the salaries of the men who would be doing that patrolling.


Russ Roberts: So, I've always been fascinated by this. I wrote about it in my book, The Invisible Heart. But of course many people find it morally repugnant. They find hunting morally repugnant. And, this kind of solution is the kind of solution that economists love and a lot of non-economists hate. They view hunting as immoral. The idea of seeing a herd of elephants as a cash cow--to coin a phrase--disturbs them. And they would rather do almost anything as an alternative to keeping the, preserving the size of the herd. I assume you've heard those arguments. And, what do you say in response?

Catherine Semcer: I have heard those arguments. And, in response, you know, the first thing I would say is I am not a big game hunter. This is not something I engage in. But, you know I always ask those people, 'Well, what is the alternative?' Because if there was an alternative, my guess is we would implementing it by now. Also, you know: Who are we in the United States or in the United Kingdom or elsewhere to tell Africans how they should be managing their wildlife? Programs like CAMPFIRE and similar community-based programs have their genesis within these African communities. They have buy-in from the people in the continent. And I certainly understanding the discomfort that people might feel. But I would encourage them to be very careful about how they tread on this issue, lest we get back into some type of eco-colonialism in dealing with our African partners. Some people will say that, you know, photo-tourism, is a viable alternative to trophy hunting. And in some places, that may or may not be true. But, what we know from the available research--primarily from Namibia--is that if hunting was eliminated in the community conservancies, 84% of those conservancies would no longer be economically viable. Now, what does that mean on the ground? That means more than 12 million acres of wildlife habitat immediately becomes more vulnerable to development. That's roughly an area of 5 times the size of Yosemite National Park. So, I understand the discomfort. But, what are our alternatives? People like myself are very willing to listen. And, you know, would love to hear what they are. But they just have not been offered, and they are certainly not being employed on the ground right now.


Russ Roberts: I guess two things come to mind. One is: we could fund, or help fund--I'm also sensitive to the eco-colonialism charge, by the way--not necessarily on the narrowest grounds of eco-colonialism but more on the idea that I would like to let human beings craft their own lives as they see fit. And I'm not so comfortable telling other people to do with their lives. But, if you are one of those people--if you are an interventionist of sorts--you could certainly argue that we should just be funding better efforts to monitor and protect these animals from poachers. Why is that not a viable alternative?

Catherine Semcer: Well, one, it's not sustainable. Money has to come from somewhere. And, you know, to pay it out, year after year after year is just not sustainable. We are doing that, in places like national parks in Africa where there is limited to no hunting, in many cases. And, there's still poaching taking place. And the reason that poaching is taking place is because people do not have the buy-in to the conservation model, because they are not seeing a material benefit from the conservation activities like they are in places like Namibia and in the CAMPFIRE areas in Zimbabwe. Um, there certainly is room, you know, for philanthropy. And, you know, we are seeing that play out very well in terms of setting up or re-establishing conservation efforts--places like Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique is a prime example, and the work of the Carr Foundation there. But at some point those efforts are going to need to become self-sustaining. Like, the CAMPFIRE program is; like the Namibian Conservancies are. And, until we find a way to do that that doesn't involve hunting, it's going to--it's going to be hunting. Similarly, not all places are suitable for photo-tourism. If you go to most of these wildlife use areas in Africa,, they are not the scenic landscapes that you find in the National Parks. And they typically have smaller densities of the wildlife that people want to photograph. They don't have the infrastructure that's needed to, you know, support a photo-tourism business. They are often difficult to get to. They can be physically dangerous, in terms of the, of hazards that are present. And photo-tourism is often just not an economically viable idea for these areas. So, we have to come up with some type of program, lest they become developed. And that's a real threat that I think a lot of conservationists miss. I mean, Africa is a continent of 54 countries. Twenty six of them are ranked as the poorest on earth by the World Bank. There is 1.2 billion people living on the continent. Twenty seven percent of them are considered food insecure; 589 million of them live without electricity; 37% of them live without access to clean water. That's the bad news. The good news, maybe, is that the IMF [International Monetary Fund] just said at the most recent World Economic Forum that they anticipate 6% growth on the African Continent in the coming years. And that's tremendous. You know, African economies can and should grow. But I think the question we have to confront is: Given the inevitability of growth--and that growth will happen--how are we going to conserve wildlife? You know, as that growth occurs. And, obviously, wildlife is going to have to be economically competitive with other land uses. Wildlife habitat is going to have to be economically competitive with other land uses. If we're going to see elephants and lions and rhinos persist on the landscape.


Russ Roberts: Let's talk about the local population a little bit. I'm open to--I have a lot of romance, myself, about elephants and lions and rhino. I've never seen any of them, in person, in the wild. But I would like the idea that I could, some day. And I like the idea that they are just there. That they still roam the earth in some dimension. Not just in zoos, and not just in highly constrained environments, like a zoo. So, I like that it's there. But then again, I don't live there. And I think there's a limit to my right to dictate to people who do live there how they should behave. And I'm curious if the people there, who do interact--whose crops get trampled by the elephants and who do, I assume, have some, perhaps, emotional connection to these animals--do they have any romance about it like I do? Or more? Or less? Do you have any feel for that?

Catherine Semcer: So, in my experience, you know, people, regardless of where you are on the planet--you know, understand that the majesty, you know, of African wildlife--they understand that it is something special on this planet. You know, at the same time, as special as it is, people are very conscious of the threats that this wildlife presents to them and their families. Whether it be, you know, elephants trampling crops or, you know, large carnivores like lions or leopards killing livestock. And then of course there's always the issue of wildlife killing people, which does happen with more frequency than I think a lot of Westerners realize. You know, if you read the African Press, there is regular accounts of people who are injured or killed by wildlife. They don't make it to the Press here in London or New York. So, you know: I would say that people value wildlife. But you can still value something and still be aware of the threat that it poses to your livelihood and your life.

Russ Roberts: But the suggestion from the CAMPFIRE programs and others like it, are that by creating a monetary value for hunting, communities have a much easier truce with those costs. Because they are effectively compensated in the form of sharing revenue from the hunting expeditions. Is that right?

Catherine Semcer: That's exactly right. There's an offset occurring. And it's not just a question of sharing the revenues. Some of that revenue goes into the local district councils, who then use that to build infrastructure--roads, schools, clinics, wells. Things that, you know, people are using on a day-to-day basis. And, it does not escape them that it was the elephants that paid for this.

Russ Roberts: Do you have any feel for how that incentive plays out on the ground? How the awareness that these are precious now, both not just in some emotional sense but in a financial sense? I've always thought of it as, it makes fielders[?] more likely to report poachers on their land, in these areas where the animals are. Is there anything else going on?

Catherine Semcer: So, I think you are right about the awareness of people being more willing to report poachers. When we were working in Mozambique, you know, there was a case where a man was poaching. And it was his wife who turned him in. And the reason that his wife turned him in was that the arrangement that had been set up in that area was that the hunting concession there provided the meat from the trophy animals to the local villagers. And that's very common, you know, across Africa. In Tanzania, we've got about 286,000 pounds of meat being distributed in the trophy-hunting areas each year. But, getting back to the Mozambique example, this woman turned her husband in because she was concerned that, because he was poaching, it would reduce the meat draw[?] for her family and her village. So, people do see the incentives. And, definitely become much more conscious of what the potential impacts of poaching are, if they allow it to persist in their area.

Russ Roberts: I suspect maybe their marriage wasn't so good.

Catherine Semcer: That's always a possibility.

Russ Roberts: Just a thought. Just a thought. Because you'd think she'd get even more meat--if her husband's got--she'd get all the meat. Where, otherwise, she'd have to share it.

Catherine Semcer: Well, there was a question of, what about her relations elsewhere in the village? And them not getting, you know, their share, of the meat.

Russ Roberts: Interesting.


Russ Roberts: So, what are some of the numbers involved here? You know, you mentioned that the population, the alpha[?] population in Zimbabwe, increased dramatically once these projects and programs were put in place. Do you have a feel for what kind of numbers we are talking about? In some of these countries? As well as how many animals get killed in the course of a year, as a part of the hunting? I think you said 274,000 pounds. That's like, two elephants. No, I'm kidding. But, do you have a feel for the magnitudes?

Catherine Semcer: Well, in terms of the magnitude of take by the trophy-hunted thing, you know, as I mentioned, Zimbabwe has the second-largest elephant population in Africa. Which, with about 83,000 individual animals. And, the export of trophies is regulated under the convention on International Trade and Endangered Species. Which is a multilateral convention. That, Zimbabwe and the United States and many other countries are a party to. And the convention allocates permits to each party country, each year--you know, dictating how many animals they are actually allowed to export as trophies or for other purposes. Zimbabwe exports less than 1% of its total elephant population each year. Replacement, you know, far outpaces take, with regard to trophy hunting in that country. I believe it's .3% that are leaving the country, you know, due to trophy hunting. So, it's a really, really small amount of animals that's generating a tremendous amount of income and a tremendous amount of social license for conservation projects. In terms of, you know, how many animals could be restored to this type of approach: I think about Coutada 11 in Mozambique. Coutadas are Mozambique's hunting areas. They comprise a little bit more than 9 million acres in the country. There is 11 of them. But they cover about 9 million acres, which is roughly 7 and a half Grand Canyon National Parks. And, in Coutada 11, they'd taken a very entrepreneurial approach to their program. Mozambique, you know, went through a very long period of violent conflict. They fought a War of Independence from Portugal that lasted from 1964 until 1975. And then they were embroiled in a Civil War from 1977 until 1992. There was still scattered belligerence up until about 2016. You know, roughly 2-plus decades of peace and stability have allowed for some economic and social progress. So, stepping into that in 1994, with a South African gentlemen named Mark Haldane. And Mark is a professional hunter, which is what Africans call, what we would refer to as a Guide or an Outfitter. And he took over the lease of Coutada 11 from the Mozambiquan government. And, when he got there, the area was almost completely devoid of game. And the reason for this was that this area, which is in the Zambezi River Delta, was essentially a meat locker for all of the warring factions in the country over the year. Everyone would go there to shoot bush meat--to feed rebel forces, to feed national army forces. There were even reports that the Russians were sending in helicopter gunships to gun down the herds of Cape Buffalo, which were then ferried offshore to waiting ships to be canned, with the Russians using that meat to feed their troops in Afghanistan. So, Mark comes into this area of high quality habitat that's lacking the game in 1994. And, through a very deliberate and scientific wildlife management program that was subsidized by his hunting concessions in South Africa and Botswana, he increased the Cape Buffalo number from around 2100 to more than 21,000. The number of Sable Antelope grew from 44 to over 5000. And so on and so forth. So, we can see very dramatic increases in game populations because of trophy hunting programs. And Haldane's operation is one example of that. Now, how did he achieve this? First and foremost, he got the local people on his side. And the way he got the local people on his side was through a number of different ways. You know, first, as I mentioned earlier, whenever an animal is shot in his concession, the meat is either used in camp, but the majority of it goes back to the local villages. And, you know, that's a big deal. Eighty percent of the people in Mozambique cannot afford an adequate diet, according to the World Food Program. Chronic food insecurity is at 24%. So, these meat drops that come from the hunting outfit are a huge boost in food security in the region. The second thing he did was give them jobs. He employs about 150 people in his camp, including what they call a 'stick' of 20-plus men who are his anti-poaching patrol. All of his members of his patrol are former poachers themselves. And, you know, they are patrolling that concession and making sure that people from outside of the area are not coming in and poaching. Now, that's not to say that no poaching occurs. There's some poaching, of course. But they've managed to bring it down to an incidental level, and managed to keep it in check at such a level that they've seen the dramatic increases in game numbers that I mentioned earlier. It's also worth noting that while Mozambique has been seeing an increase in elephant poaching, Mark's concession is a place that has not seen an increase in elephant poaching. And it's due principally to both his building the social license for his operation and getting the local people interested in conservation, but also through his very vigorous anti-poaching efforts. Which is funded completely out of his revenues, along with, you know, donations from clients.


Russ Roberts: All these are examples of what we call in economics the Tragedy of the Commons, which we've talked about many times on the program: that any one person's incentive to protect a fish in the ocean, a lobster in a lobster bed, or an animal in the wild in Coutada 11, is limited by the fact that, if you let it go--if you decide it's too small or you leave it alone, you don't shoot it, you put it back--it's a fish--to grow up, the odds that you're the one that captures it are close to zero. And so there's an actual tendency to overfish, overgraze, and overhunt these un-owned areas. So, what you're suggesting is that this one hunter has created a set of implicit property rights. He still has to deal with the fact that--I assume the rule of law is not as enforced in Coutada 11 as one might like. Right? I assume he has to bring some of his own--that group of 20, the stick of 20 people, is I assume effectively a private police force.

Catherine Semcer: That's one way to look at it. In terms of the way that justice is handled, when a poacher is arrested, if they are from the surrounding area, they are brought to the local tribal chieftains. And the local tribal chieftains are the ones who hold the trial, pass judgment, and determine what the sentence is. Usually, the sentence that they give is working on some type of conservation project within the Coutada. If they are from outside the area, the anti-poaching patrol hands them over to the police for the nontribal government to decide what to do with them.

Russ Roberts: And I'm curious about education. It's a strange thought. But, I assume that there's some--I'm not sure it's a seminar, but that there's some ongoing conversation taking place on the ground about the virtue of how we all benefit if these animals thrive and become sustainable.

Catherine Semcer: I think that's a very fair thing to say. And I think that what might illustrate that is, most recently, you know, Mark's numbers of game animals in Coutada 11 have grown to such a point that they are exceeding their ecological carrying capacity. Even with hunting taking place. Even with allowing local people to legally harvest some of the animals. They still have just too many herbivores on the landscape. And it's creating environmental problems. So, to solve that, he partnered recently with the Cabela Family Foundation and the Ivan Carter Wildlife Foundation. And they've begun restoring lions to the Coutada, to help control the game herds. And the lion restoration project has the full support of the local people, which I think is a testament to the, the social license that has built up over the years. People have seen the benefits that wildlife provide them and have welcomed the lions back into the area, with full knowledge that, you know, they could create some problems back down the line; but also full confidence that those problems, you know, will be addressed in a way that is acceptable. Now, it's worth noting that these lions--the intent is that they will never be hunted. They've brought 24 back, which is effectively two prides with some redundancy built in. And the lions themselves are the subject of a long-term scientific study looking at what happens when lions recolonize their former habitat. But, you know, to your point that people understand the value of conservation as these programs mature: I think that this is a prime illustration of that. We've got an animal that's very difficult for people to live with, and yet they are opening--they are welcoming it back with open arms, because they've seen the benefits that conservation can provide their communities.


Russ Roberts: Just to remind listeners: Coutada 11--a coutada is just a certain type of region where hunting is allowed. There's 11 of them. So, this happens to be the one that, this entrepreneur, Mark Haldane, has been working in. Right?

Catherine Semcer: Correct.

Russ Roberts: And, do you have an idea of how many people live there, in Coutada 11? You said it's--there's--the 11 had combined the equivalent of 7 Grand Canyons. Which is very helpful, if you know something about the size of the Grand Canyon. If you don't, it's not helpful at all, but it helps me. And most of us don't have a feel for what, say, a million acres is. We have no idea. Is that Rhode Island? Or the Appalachians? But, Coutada 11 is pretty large, evidently. Do we have a feel for how many people live there on the ground?

Catherine Semcer: So, just to clarify: It's the entire Coutada System that's more than 9 million acres, or 7 and a half times Grand Canyon National Park. I don't have an idea of the total number of people who live in the Coutada itself. The Coutada itself is a little shy of 300,000 acres. Most of the people who do live there live on the periphery of the Coutada, where there's slightly more infrastructure--not much. It's generally a place that you have to fly into. It's very difficult to access over land. But I don't have a solid population number that I can give you. I'm sorry.

Russ Roberts: That's okay. But I--the periphery thing is a big deal, because I know from Yellowstone that, you know, ranchers and people who are raising cattle and other domesticated animals on the edges of Yellowstone, where the park ends--a lot of the animals don't just stay in the park. When they see the sign that says 'Leaving Yellowstone Park,' they don't turn around. That sign is only from the roads, anyway. So there's always a constant--in the United States, there's a constant issue between ranchers and wildlife folk who--because of those spillover effects. It's just the way it is. And I assume that's true in Mozambique, as well.

Catherine Semcer: It absolutely is. And one thing that illustrates that in relation to the lions is there was a lion population to the north of Coutada 11, or I should say there is a lion population to the north of Coutada 11. Since they've reintroduced the two prides into Coutada 11, lions have begun moving south, particularly males, to mate with the females that have been reintroduced into the Coutada. And at least one of the females is now known to be pregnant. But obviously those lions are moving through areas where they may or may not encounter people.

Russ Roberts: I'd love to know how they spread that word. But, funny how that works--

Catherine Semcer: yeah--

Russ Roberts: It's not an app, presumably. But they did find out.


Russ Roberts: Now, that process--and you wrote an article about it, which I found utterly fascinating--the idea that you would--I remember these lions came from South Africa. The idea that you would take 24 lions--"two prides"--and then put them on a helicopter, an airplane, and fly them into Mozambique seems like a very crazy idea. So, just--what are some of the logistics of that? How did they pick the animals? How did they subdue the animals? How did they--and once they were done and got them into Mozambique, what do you take--you draw straws? You go over here, you go over there? How far apart are they? It seems like a remarkably challenging ecological problem to get that to go well.

Catherine Semcer: It was. But by all accounts--I was not part of the translocation, so I can't speak to the details of it. But what I do know is that the partners in this venture--you know, Mark Haldane, the Cabela Family Foundation, the Ivan Carter Wildlife Foundation--they turned to South Africa, you know, to source the lions, because unlike the United States and Canada and some other countries, South Africa allows for private ownership of wildlife. And a lot of, you know, the conservancies that people visit on their holiday, and you know, go to for photo-tourism in South Africa--many of those animals are privately owned. And that can range from giraffes to elephants to lions. And it's one reason that South Africa has so much wildlife. But, um, they contracted with a veterinarian who went to South Africa. And he was tasked with finding 24 genetically distinct lions. Which, I don't know how you do that. I'm not a veterinarian. But I can imagine that it's not something that just gets accomplished in a weekend.

Russ Roberts: You don't just pour over the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] database, DNA [deoxyribonucleic acid] database, probably.

Catherine Semcer: No. No. There was a lot of legwork involved, I'm sure. So, after, you know, sourcing 24 genetically distinct lions and acquiring that, the lions were sedated. And they were placed in an airplane. And flown to Mozambique. This was the largest international translocation of lions in history. And once they were in Mozambique they were put into an enclosure in the coutada, where they spent some time trying to acclimate to their new environment: new temperatures, new smells, etc., etc. And then on August 5th of last year the doors to the enclosure were opened. And the lions left at their own pace. They had formed prides, and they almost immediately began hunting the game that they found within the coutada. And, it's a story that I feel needs to be told more, because I think it's just as dramatic as the restoration of wolves to Yellowstone, but it shows that private enterprise and private initiative can have a very similar impact that government-run programs can have.

Russ Roberts: It reminds me of "The Far Side"--a cartoon, Gary Larson. I'm just imagining the dialogue when they woke up, and they turned to the lion on their left, the lion to their right, and said, 'Whoa. What are we doing here?' But, they went out; and, is there some idea of what the size of that lion population in Coutada 11 could grow to? Is 24--is that a seed population, or is it more of like: Well, this is what we expect it to stay at? There's a wonderful book called Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare, and it talks about the fact that, obviously, large animals that have a lot of pounds and eat a lot of protein--they need a lot of stuff underneath them that's smaller to sustain them. And so, I don't know how many lions Coutada 11 can hold. Is it 250 or is it more like 30? Do we have any idea?

Catherine Semcer: So, the intent is for this population to grow. You used the phrase 'seed population,' and that's exactly what the people behind this project intend for these 24 lions to be. We shouldn't look at Coutada 11 in isolation. It's part of something larger called the Marromeu Ecosystem, which is Mozambique's only internationally recognizes wetland. The larger ecosystem includes other coutadas, of course, conservation area, some agricultural lands. So it's a much larger system that we're looking at. And, part of what they had to do with this project was get buy-in from people elsewhere in the ecosystem, because it is expected that this will be a seed population that will eventually grow into possibly several hundred animals spread out over the landscape. And this is all part of the post-war restoration of Mozambique. These animals were in the lower Zambezi valley up until recently. And the end of the conflict has created a great opportunity to bring them back. And, I at least am personally grateful that Mozambique has the conservation system that it does have, that allows for this type of private enterprise to speed up this kind of restoration, because Mozambique is still a very poor country. It does have a fast-growing economy, but it's not growing at the kind of pace where the government could be expected to shoulder a project like this.


Russ Roberts: Long-time listeners will know that there was a period in EconTalk's history where I mentioned the word 'prairie' fairly often. There's an EconTalk drinking game; I don't know if 'prairie' is on it, but there was a period when it should have been on it. And, the reason I like the idea of a prairie is that a prairie is not something you can easily build from scratch. You might know what's in a prairie when it's done; but knowing the ingredients is not enough to bake a cake. There's a certain order that things have to grow, and if you don't do the order correctly, you're going to mess it up: you're not going to get a prairie; you're not going to get a cake. And the challenge, of course, is that we're sort of--there's a bunch of actors you can't control. And, the other thing long-time listeners will know is my favorite Hayek quote, which is 'The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to man how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.' So, one of the challenges, I would think, of this kind of project is that introducing 24 lions into an existing--I won't call it the balance of nature, because I think that's a misleading metaphor that it's a mistake, actually--but introducing them into whatever is on the ground at the time is going to have implications and effects that you can't forecast easily. And, we're not very long into the project. I think it happened last August--we're something like 5 months in, 6 months in. Have we learned anything yet about this? How worried were the people behind this that it might, you know, get out of control, or not work well, or lead to consequences that people didn't anticipate? Obviously, threats to the local human population would be one example. But, more generally to the whole complex of wildlife that you've already alluded to?

Catherine Semcer: Well, my understanding is that, you know, they undertook this project very, very deliberatively. And, as I mentioned earlier, the lions that they reintroduced are the subject of a long-term scientific study that will, I'm sure it will produce multiple peer-reviewed articles. In terms of their concern going in, I think it was a measured concern. I think that they treaded very carefully, and that's why they started with two prides--you know, 2 is better than 1 in case something happens to the one: disease outbreak, what have you. But they didn't go for six. So they are starting small. And they are going to monitor what happens over time, as this population becomes more rooted and begins to expand and we move from 2 prides to 3, to 4. And how they interact with the restored game populations that live in the Delta, as well--that's going to be a key factor. So, that is the basis of the business that was able to bring the lions back in the first place.

Russ Roberts: What do lions eat? Besides things that are smaller than they are.

Catherine Semcer: They're eating waterbuck, reedbuck[?], they're eating Cape buffalo calves. They're pursuing whatever game they feel they can take down that's present in the Delta. The only thing I don't think they've pursued, or I haven't heard of them pursuing yet is crocodile.

Russ Roberts: And--pardon my naivete--a pride of 12 is not 6 females and 6 males. Or is it?

Catherine Semcer: No, no; it doesn't have to be 6 females and 6 males. It can be--there's--I'm not sure exactly what the gender mix would typically be; I'm not a lion expert. But it's not evenly split, necessarily.

Russ Roberts: My impression is that the men sit around all day and the women do all the work. Is that true?

Catherine Semcer: That's sort of the joke. And you do see that. The women do do a fair bit of hunting. But you will see male lions hunting, as well.


Russ Roberts: There's a strange interaction, which one would not imagine, between this project and U.S. endangered species law. What is it?

Catherine Semcer: Well, I think one thing to think about in relation to this project and the U.S. Endangered Species Act is that we've seen a very concerted effort since 2015 and the affair of Cecil the Lion that sort of captivated worldwide attention, to list African wildlife under the U.S. Endangered Species Act for effectively the sole purpose of prohibiting the import of hunting trophies of those animals. And, if this is allowed to continue, it's going to cause a lot of destabilization in African conservation programs. As we've talked about here today, hunting plays a major and significant role in conserving the lands between the parks that need protection as well--the places where photo-tourism is not viable but where the wildlife habitat is still of high quality. And, about 70% of the global trophy-hunting market is based in the United States. And that's a figure according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare. If that market is effectively closed because people can no longer import their hunting trophies, operations like Mark Haldane's are going to have a very tough go of things. Even, you know, listing lions themselves is problematic. There was research conducted by, I believe it was the University of Pretoria that indicated that if lion hunting were to end in Mozambique, Tanzania, and Zambia, almost 15 million acres of conservation areas would suffer decreased viability, and become increasingly vulnerable to development. To put that in context, that's about 7 Yellowstone National Parks. So, we have to tread very carefully with how we apply the Endangered Species Act in relation to African wildlife, because there could be a lot of unintended consequences for wildlife--negative consequences--if these species are listed and trophy import bans go into effect as a result. This is especially true given that the United States is making a very concerted effort to engage its partners in Africa. You know, we would be sending, in my opinion, a very wrong signal by discouraging trophy hunting, because it's a market-based means of conservation; the U.S. strategy is very much focused on free markets and helping African nations benefit from free markets. And at the same time, you know, partnership means meeting people where they are. And, these are indigenous African programs that have the support of local people, that have the support of national governments. To disrupt them in such a severe way as by closing the U.S. trophy-hunting market would probably be a very significant strategic mistake on the part of the United States. There's a lot of discussion, too, that trophy hunting doesn't contribute a lot to African economies. There's research out there showing that the actual cash contribution is around $426 million dollars. That doesn't sound like a lot, but to put it in context, that contribution is 3 times the amount collected in entrance fees to all of Africa's national parks. So, we shouldn't discount the amount of money that the trophy hunting is providing for conservation, even though it may seems small by our standards.

Russ Roberts: You're pretty passionate about this. But you said you're not a hunter of big game. Why do you care so much?

Catherine Semcer: You know, I've had some really peak experiences with wildlife in general, and African wildlife in particular. And, it's something I would like other people to have in the future. Like we talked about earlier, Africa is a fast-growing continent; and there is a looming question out there. The economies will continue to grow; these landscapes will continue to be developed. The big question is: Will wildlife still have a place 20, 30, 40 years from now? And, if it's going to, it needs to be economically competitive with other land uses. We're already starting to see the system fray. Tanzania has finalized plans to dam a river in the Selous Game Reserve, one of the premier protected areas on the continent. And, if the Selous, which photo-tourists from around the world flock to each year, can't be protected, we should be very, very concerned about places like the CAMPFIRE areas in Zimbabwe, and places like Coutada 11 in Mozambique; and we should be doing everything we can to make them economically competitive.


Russ Roberts: So I want to go back to something you mentioned a few minutes ago about the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone. I also wrote about that in my book, The Invisible Heart. I want to give you my thumbnail version and see if you think it's right; and if not, what you think needs to be corrected. But, at some point in the past, either because wolves were scary to people or occasionally would tear up livestock of ranchers near Yellowstone, wolves were basically eliminated. And, that allowed things like wolves eat, like elk, to grow without any restraints, other than the land. We have a tragedy of the commons problem there that the elk don't take account of the fact that they are wearing down the grass. And they don't take account of the fact that they are eating virtually everything near streams, so-called riparian areas where aspen and alder and other things are sustaining the beaver population. And, at some point--I want to say in the last 20 years--so years, a small group of wolves was reintroduced into Yellowstone that allowed, that culled some of the elk population, particularly the sick; reduced obviously the [?] of baby elk that were coming out because they were more vulnerable; reduced the size of the elk herd within the Park, and brought the beavers back. Which is a fabulous example of the complexity of systems like this and the Hayekian warning about things that we don't fully understand. You'd think that getting rid of wolves in Yellowstone Park wouldn't have allowed beavers to thrive because wolves, if anything, eat beavers. But they don't eat them in any number. And they eat things that make it harder for beavers to build their dams because there's no willow and alder. And as a result, reintroducing wolves has been great for beaver. My understanding is that the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone has been a great success. Do you perceive that to be the case? Do I have that right?

Catherine Semcer: I think it depends on who you ask. You know, I think there's people in the environmental community, for sure, who would see it as a great success. I think there's people in the livestock industry who would say it's been too much of a success. Now, obviously there's a middle ground there that most of us are probably resting on. From a personal standpoint, I would have preferred to have seen wolves come down on their own from the Ninemile Valley over time, as opposed to being physically reintroduced on the ground. And that largely has to do with what the public sentiment around wolves was back in 1994. But I really think, you know, how you judge the success of conservation efforts really depends on where you sit in relation to them.

Russ Roberts: So, we had Pete Geddes on, of the American Prairie Reserve--we'll try to put a link up to that old episode. But, what they try to do is they try to give the ranchers an incentive to give passageways to animals--predators and non-predators--across their land. Understanding that it's sometimes going to cause the loss of livestock. But, allowing them to rebrand their meat or whatever else they do as eco-friendly or prairie-friendly--whatever you call it. That's an interesting way to solve these kind of tensions that might otherwise be there.

Catherine Semcer: Absolutely. And I think ventures like the American Prairie Reserve are really products of the lessons that we've learned from the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction. And conservation is a learning process. And I think that that's okay. We just have to make sure that we all keep an open mind and are willing to receive the lessons that we're being given.


Russ Roberts: Now, the last thing I want to mention is something that intrigues me; and it's, again, there's a lot of romance around it. I certainly find it romantic; but again, I don't live in these places, so it's easy to be romantic about it. But, that's the so-called rewilding movement. I read an interesting book by George Monbioton--I think that's how you pronounce his name--but I think the book is called Feral; I may have that wrong, but we'll link to it. What his book is mostly about is the reintroduction of native species to the United Kingdom and parts of the Black Forest area, Eastern Europe. And it's a really remarkable, extraordinary idea, that we think of [?] the United Kingdom--we think of it as a nation of sheep. When we think of the British landscape, the English countryside, the Scottish countryside, we see sheep grazing. But they don't belong there. They are there only through a lot of intervention on the part of human beings. And it used to be a lot wilder, and a lot greener in a lot of ways because the sheep eat a lot of grass. So, I'm just curious if you have any thoughts on--and obviously the American Prairie Reserve is an example of this, trying to recreate something similar to what Lewis and Clark saw. It's a beautiful idea; I love the idea. But I don't know if it's really practical or if it will work. But I do like the idea of it.

Catherine Semcer: Right. Well, I think when we think about things like rewilding--and I'm certainly not an expert on the subject, particularly as it relates to the United Kingdom--but if we look at the mega-trends that are occurring and the fact that across the West--and I don't just mean the American West, but the Western world--populations are becoming more and more urban. And our rural areas are becoming depopulated. I don't see that reversing any time soon. And that leaves us with a question of what do we do with these lands? What is the best and highest use, as it were? And so I think that the rewilding proponents are a valuable part of the conversation about trying to decide what comes next. But I would proceed with caution. Because, the reality is that it is no longer 1867. Things have changed dramatically on the landscape since that time, and trying to recapture some mythic past is probably not necessarily something that is going to lead to anything other than disappointment. So, I think we need to be pragmatic. And I think we also need to be sensitive to the people who still live in these places, and make sure that they are bought into whatever conservation programs are being implemented. Because, at the end of the day, they are the ones who will decide whether these programs succeed or fail, because they are the ones who are going to have to live with them day to day.

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