Since the collective outrage over the death of the famous Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe, the debate over conservation has once again come to the forefront.
The debate around animal rights, species protection and poaching is usually Africa-centric, and rarely focuses on the protection of Cambodian wildlife. Cambodia is home to 319 protected species, including endangered megafauna such as the Asian elephant, the tiger and the sun bear. These species are decreasing in population in Cambodia, and efforts have been increased to protect the species from extinction. However, basic economics provides a clear and simple solution to wildlife conservation: Eat them!
The iconic sun bear is one of Cambodia’s most prominent species of megafauna. Although they are not yet at immediate risk of extinction, the reduction in the population by 30 percent in the past 30 years is a concerning trend that shows no signs of slowing down. Sun bears are a protected species in Cambodia, and there are heavy sanctions for any person who kills, injures or interferes with the animals in the wild. While NGOs and animal rights activists are calling for heavier penalties and better enforcement of wildlife protection laws, the grim reality is that passing a law does not guarantee that it will be obeyed or enforced.
There are many reasons why the sun bear population in Cambodia is threatened. First, the destruction of large areas of forest—the natural habitat of the bears—has a significant impact on the survival of the species.
Secondly, local villagers kill a number of sun bears every year, either out of fear for their own safety or for food. Nobody can blame a poor Cambodian for trying to protect themselves from a wild animal, or for trying to provide food for their family, but those who live near sun bears certainly do not have the same reverence for sun bears or their status as a protected species as those living far away from them.
Finally, one of the main reasons that sun bears are being killed is poaching. There is a large demand from Chinese communities for sun bear products, such as bile from gallbladders, and paws. Basic economics dictates that if there is a demand and limited supply, the price will increase. For most Cambodians, killing a sun bear and selling it will yield significantly more than most professions, and in many cases justifies the risk of breaking the law. Like any black market, the high demand, high prices and illegality create a dangerous and corrupt business environment.
The wildlife trade is the third most profitable illegal industry in the world, which demonstrates that no matter how high the penalties are, or how efficient the policing of wildlife poachers becomes, illegal hunting of sun bears will continue.
Prohibition does not stop people from engaging in certain activities, it just increases the stakes.
The best way to protect wildlife at risk of extinction is by legalizing the killing and farming of the species. Contrary to the logic espoused by animal rights activists, the best way to protect a species from extinction is to commercialize it, rather than force the trade underground. None of the animals that are widely consumed for meat are in danger of extinction because farmers have an incentive to protect the species from extinction in order to continue doing business.
Furthermore, when poachers are hunting sun bears, they kill indiscriminately, without consideration for the long-term sustainability of the species in the area. In contrast, a farmer with livestock does not sell all of his cows at once. He knows when to kill them and which ones to kill each time, and he will protect his property against theft. When animals are private property, rather than common resources, the individual has an incentive to protect the animals and increase the number of animals because they have value.
Removing blanket bans on killing wildlife has already proven successful in Zimbabwe, where the legalization of hunting resulted in increased elephant populations.
Farmers and local villagers realize that tourists will pay a significant amount of money to hunt for large game, and so will try to breed as many animals as possible, and protect those living on their property in order to sell the rights for tourists to either watch or kill the animals. The elephant population in Zimbabwe increased so significantly following the change in policy that controlled culls were undertaken by local officials and private contractors. The owners, rather than the state, had proven to be more effective in protecting the species from extinction.
Were the same policy of legalization implemented in Cambodia, there would certainly be an increase in farming and protecting sun bears, not because farmers want to protect the species, per se, but because there is a profit incentive to sustainably farming the bears.
The idea of farming wildlife for the purpose of eating them is certainly unpalatable to many animal rights activists, but it provides an incentive for individuals to protect their property, work to increase the number of sun bears in Cambodia and prevent the species from approaching extinction.
The issue of wildlife conservation hinges on whether the protection of the individual sun bear is more important than the protection of the species. Unfortunately, where there is a market for a product, no law, police force or fine will stop people from fulfilling the demand, and the only way to ensure the protection of the entire species is a change in policy and mindset.
Gabrielle Ward is the research director at the Professional Research Institute for Management and Economics in Phnom Penh.