Economics and Endangered Species

By: Caren Buskmiller ’17

Recently, a boy fell into a gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo, and Harambe, a silverback gorilla, was shot to keep him safe. This spurred questions throughout the nation about our treatment of endangered species.[1] As Charles Wheelan, the author of Naked Economics, explains, “[w]e care about the fate of the Bengal tiger because we can.”[2] Or in this case, the fate of the silverback gorilla.

The main question surrounding Harambe’s death is how to keep endangered species safe, especially in developing countries. In Myanmar, where hunters like Than Lwin hunt illegally to survive, conservation simply isn’t profitable. If Lwin can earn $42 for every Burmese python or marbled cat he gets, and the minimum wage is $3,[3] what other options does he have?

One solution Wheelan proposes to the conservation problem is to privatize endangered species, since communal property makes more “conservation problems than it solves.”2

In order for privatizing to work, conservation compensation must be incorporated so locals avoid a bigger opportunity cost for telling authorities about endangered species on their land. In addition, the compensation discourages the “shoot, shovel, and shut up” response, in which inhabitants avoid telling authorities about endangered species or kill the species so that authorities don’t restrict its use.[4] After discovering the endangered species in a land, the authorities can either a) leave the species with the landowner or b) relocate the species to another civilian.

What benefit does privatizing have? According to Wheelan, an individual may not “ha[ve] a single environmental bone” in their body,2 but you can be assured that they won’t let their money-making endeavour die off quickly. This can help keep endangered species safe and make local business owners in developing countries some money on the side.

There are many problems with this approach, including the fact that agriculture is an important sector in developing countries’ economies. Often, ecotourism can make a greater demand for food, pushing families to clear the land for farming. In addition, the legal association between clearing a land and owning it in several countries can often create a culture gap between the upper class and government and its poorer sectors,4 resulting in legislation that doesn’t quite fit the situation.

Although privatizing an endangered species requires government spending and a change in custom for locals in developing countries, the compensation route is effective. For example, in 2001 China implemented the Natural Forest Conservation Program, which compensates any losses that occur from changing forest management tactics. In other words, instead of using a “fences and fines” model, in which reserves are fenced in and hunters are fined if they do hunt endangered species, the program encourages openness and cooperation with civilians. How has it done? According to Mao-Ning Tuanmu, a Michigan state researcher, panda habitats improved from 2001 to 2007.[5]

There are still questions concerning privatizing endangered species, including how to do so effectively in developing countries and, looking more broadly, how to promote the right idea about our relationship with nature. As both developing and first world countries look for effective solutions for the problem of endangered species conservation, the modern relationship between humans and nature will be defined and we will learn how best to balance environmental and economic concerns.

Photograph: Hunting Endangered Animals in the Jungles of Myanmar, June 15, 2016,

[1] “Young Boy Falls into Gorilla Enclosure at Cincinnati Zoo,” WKYT, May 28, 2016, accessed June 15, 2016,

[2] Charles Wheelan, Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008).

[3] Katie Arnold, “Hunting Endangered Animals in the Jungles of Myanmar,” Al Jazeera, June 9, 2016, accessed June 15, 2016,

[4] George Frisvold, “The Economics of Endangered Species,” Resources for the Future, October 25, 2010, accessed June 15, 2016,

[5] Jason G. Goldman, “Paying Instead of Punishing People Helps Preserve Pandas,” Conservation, February 10, 2016, accessed June 15, 2016,



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