Conceptual Lessons

The Comparative Advantage of Wildlife

Nature conservation in southern Africa is conveniently divided into that within ecological reserves and that on land outside, supporting conventional productive enterprises like farming. The institutions evolving outside parks and reserves are generally adequate to be socio-politically acceptable and to allow wildlife to achieve its comparative advantage over other forms of land use. This advantage is based on environmentally benign hunting and tourism services and is often considerable in dry savannas. These savannas cover three-quarters of Africa south of the Sahara where crop and livestock production, on a broad scale and without irrigation, are economically and ecologically hazardous and faltering (Child and Child, 1986).

Put bluntly, conventional agriculture is not sustainable in vast areas of these savannas under present or foreseeable international production and marketing conditions. The situation is compounded by the deteriorating global terms of trade for ubiquitous agricultural commodities like red meat or cereals. By contrast, the value of the spectacular African macrofauna, with its inherent global comparative advantage, is increasing as demand for wildlife-based activities escalates, allowing wildlife to out-compete other uses of the land. Unfortunately, there are still many examples where this potential continues to be subverted artificially by inappropriate institutions driven by outdated thinking in regard to both rural development and nature conservation.

With their high dependence on elastic service industries through tourism and recreational hunting, which add economic tiers to an animal production system, wildlife enterprises can be both sustainable and profitable. Profits from the finite ecological energy can be harvested from natural systems without stressing them and can be increased by growing either the volume or quality of the services. It does not require over grazing or greater extraction of energy from the natural ecosystems. Tourism and hunting markets also favour a diversity of healthy animals in well-maintained and varied habitats, with the result that wildlife ventures are environmentally friendly, socio-politically acceptable to most societies and favour nature conservation.

Institutions and Devolution of Authority

Southern Africa, having broken with much conservation propaganda and dogma, is reforming institutions and forging new paradigms for managing wildlife outside ecological reserves. Generally, the new institutions show promise, although overregulation, driven by outdated centralized protectionism or a bureaucratic aversion to relinquishing ineffective power over landholders, still lingers and leads to unnecessarily high transaction costs. The paradigm that is emerging is providing an enabling environment for enhancing both conservation and human welfare, not only in Africa but in grassland habitats from tundra and dry desert, through steppe to savanna. Future progress will probably lie in defining the issues affecting nature conservation more precisely and devising more effective institutions to guide sustainable wild resource use.

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