A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officer carries confiscated ivory to a crusher to be pulverized.
Associated Press/Photo by Brennan Linsley
A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officer carries confiscated ivory to a crusher to be pulverized.

Saving elephants: The tusks at hand


The goal of plowing under some crops—a dubious New Deal innovation—was to raise the price of farm commodities, which would help farmers. But destroying food when people are hungry does not glorify God. There had to be a better way.

At least that craziness made some economic sense: Reduce the supply of something in demand and prices go up. Some farmers agree to do the same thing now when agricultural prices plummet. For example, Florida farmers in 2010 plowed under strawberries when market prices dropped so low it wasn’t profitable to pick them.

Compare that sad rationality to the Obama administration’s recent decision to destroy a 6-ton stockpile of seized elephant ivory, even though ivory prices now are high rather than low. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service practiced the politics of destruction last Thursday, with the agency noting this: “Destroying this ivory tells criminals who engage in poaching and trafficking that the United States will take all available measures to disrupt and prosecute those who prey on, and profit from, the deaths of these magnificent animals.” 

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The agency used an industrial rock crusher to destroy tusks, statues, and jewelry. That ivory came at the price of thousands of dead elephants. Increased demand and high prices for ivory, despite (or because of) an international ban on ivory sales, probably leads to the killing of 30,000 elephants each year. That should stop, yet economist Tyler Cowan points out the problem with the ivory-crushing approach: “Our government is pursuing symbolic value but at the same time implementing the wrong incentives.”

If you want to explore the economics of this, Cowan quotes an American Economics Review article, “Elephants,” by Michael Kremer and Charles Morcom:

“Many open-access resources, such as elephants, are used to produce storable goods. Anticipated future scarcity of these resources will increase current prices and poaching. This implies that, for given initial conditions, there may be rational expectations equilibria leading to both extinction and survival. The cheapest way for governments to eliminate extinction equilibria may be to commit to tough anti-poaching measures if the population falls below a threshold. For governments without credibility, the cheapest way to eliminate extinction equilibria may be to accumulate a sufficient stockpile of the storable good and threaten to sell it should the population fall.”

Wouldn’t it be better for elephants (and our national debt) to have sold that ivory, thus increasing supply, which means lower prices, which means less incentive to kill more elephants? We need tough anti-poaching measures and reduced economic incentive to break the law. Gestures that make us feel good don’t save elephants.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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