Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

A Pri¢e for Wildlife

Credit: Michael Johnson, US Fish and Wildlife Service

The value of hunting and meat production from wildlife continues to be an incentive for habitat conservation for wildlife elsewhere in the world.

By George Wilson

Can market-based incentives and private ownership of wildlife remedy shortfalls in government funding for conservation?

Half of the world's mammal extinctions in the past 200 years have occurred in Australia. Lists are getting longer, and threats from predators and habitat loss are getting worse.

Species such as brush-tailed rock wallabies are retreating along the eastern seaboard. The status of bridle nail-tailed wallabies, which were presumed extinct then rediscovered in the 1970s, remains perilous. Two isolated captive breeding colonies in which they are locally overabundant are their current salvation, but more are needed.

Bettongs have been most seriously hit, with massive reductions in their range in Australia. Predator-free breeding colonies enable them to continue, but these need to be replicated across the country.

The distribution of kiwi has contracted similarly in New Zealand. Some species are resilient in a limited number of predator-free environments.

Koalas are now listed as vulnerable in Queensland and New South Wales, and are absent from many areas such as the ACT, yet in parts of Victoria they are so overabundant that they’re damaging their habitat and starving.

The northern hairy-nosed wombat declined to 35 animals in an isolated colony, making it the most endangered largish mammal in the world. Although its numbers are now increasing, only one additional colony has been established. Many more should be propagated across its range.

The numbat has retreated across southern Australia to two isolated pockets in Western Australia. Breeding colonies in predator-free environments exist in four locations, but many more are needed.

Federal and state government programs in Australia and New Zealand already collaborate with research institutions and philanthropic organisations to address some of the causes of these problems. In recent years, non-profit organisations such as Bush Heritage Australia and the Australian Wildlife Conservancy have made major contributions to the reserve network, species conservation and support for Indigenous communities, but they do not have the funding or capacity to deal with the problems at the scale that is necessary.

However, most species losses have been on private lands, so relying on the reserve network alone won't fix the issue. Changes need to be made to government policy to give private landholders control over the management and ownership of vulnerable wildlife on their lands. These landholders can help protect vulnerable wildlife by assisting recolonisation from locally overabundant sources and giving them a home on private land.

Altruism and philanthropy are currently the only drivers that motivate landholders to engage in wildlife conservation. As a result, only 1% of the conservation estate is on private land. Thus the private sector needs to be given incentives to increase this proportion. Bringing more land into the reserve network is essential to increasing the habitat available not only for threatened species but wildlife more generally.

Australian policies on wildlife conservation have been based on the notion of wildlife protection within pristine parks and non-use of nationalised wildlife on land outside the parks. The policy is consistent with the London Convention of 1933, which establishes the ownership of wildlife by governments, with exemptions varying between jurisdictions regarding common animals defined as pets, as pests, as well as a form of pseudo-ownership by zoos.

The London Convention applied to much of colonial Africa, but another approach emerged after a wildlife conference at Arusha in 1961. A resolution was passed that emphasised the importance of planned utilisation of wildlife as a renewable natural resource to enable wildlife to compete with agriculture.

The southern Africans adopted these ideas and added the principles of proprietorship, subsidiarity and price. Where fences were constructed to establish proprietorship, governments began transferring wildlife ownership and decision-making to the private sector. Landholders managing large charismatic wildlife were able to benefit financially from tourism, hunting and meat production. Innovation, competition and more wildlife resulted.

The net result has been that the contribution of private lands to conservation expanded to 17% of the area of South Africa, while the National and Provincial Park network remains at 6%, a figure that includes the vast Kruger National Park.

There have been some problems with the changes, particularly in recent years. The unethical practice of breeding semi-tame lions to be shot at close quarters – so-called canned hunting – has damaged the image of hunters globally and the earning capacity of South African trophy hunting in particular. Similarly, the breeding of unusual colour variants of species such as “ivory springbok” to satisfy trophy collectors is criticised strongly by many wildlife ecologists and conservationists.

In other parts of the world, the value of hunting and meat production from wildlife continues to be an incentive for habitat conservation for wildlife. In Scotland the value of game species such as red deer and grouse enables private lands to withstand economic pressures to convert them to pine forests and sheep grazing. In North America, deer and duck habitat is protected on a vast scale by hunters who invest hundreds of millions of dollars per year to sustain their sport. Also in North America there are some 500,000 bison on private property as meat producers. In contrast there are less than 20,000 found in national parks and state reserves.

Can these experiences be a model for the conservation of smaller, less charismatic species in Australia and New Zealand that have no value as game animals? Would more landholders participate and the area in private conservation increase area above 1% if they had proprietorship and the opportunity to profit?

A proposal published in Conservation Letters ( has called for trials to test this question and enable non-consumptive trade of live animals for assisted recolonisation. The proposal is that landholders should be able to take up wildlife property rights and use market economics and investments to support their conservation activities. They might possibly even make a profit by on-selling the progeny to other like-minded participants while increasing overall numbers and expanding species distributions off-reserves. Fences that establish protection from introduced predators also enable proprietorship.

The steps in the proposed process include identifying locally overabundant populations as sources of supply; enabling entrepreneurial private landholders to create the demand; and bringing the two together through an internet-based market platform. Careful planning would include mechanisms for controlling predators, habitat management and safe procedures for assisted recolonisation itself.

The government’s role would be as the regulator. Leases would be provided to landholders to hold wildlife and to permit movement after consideration of genetic issues. Governments would also set animal welfare codes of practice and monitor the scale of the trade. Later on, biobanking and innovative financing systems modelled on the European Wildlife Bank and NatureVest from The Nature Conservancy could be incorporated into the trial.

The proposal would focus on charismatic vulnerable species, and stimulate altruistic and proprietorial investment. For example, landholders offering rural retreats do not currently have native animal options. They invest in ponies, racehorses, alpacas and heritage breeds of cattle, for instance, but not threatened Australian species. The proposal is that they be given the option to make a profit or at least subsidise their costs by breeding threatened species.

Koalas from Victoria, burrowing bettongs from the Arid Recovery conservation reserve in South Australia, eastern bettongs from the ACT, brush-tailed rock-wallabies from various zoos and breeding enclosures, and bridle nail-tailed wallabies from the Scotia wildlife sanctuary in the Murray–Darling Basin are potential wildlife sources subject to further consideration and approval. There are a number of others.

Some potential criticisms and risks associated with the project are that it is commodifying nature, and is expanding the economic paradigm that caused the decline and demise of wildlife in the first place. Related to this concern is the belief that deriving financial benefit from Australian wildlife is unethical. These sentiments are felt most strongly with animals that are cute and cuddly. They lead to strong emotions and political pressure that often clouds rational ecological and economic decisions.

However, time is running out for vulnerable species on lands transformed by agriculture, other human activity and rampant feral animals. Relying on the intrinsic value of wildlife is not working to reverse extinction trends. The scale of need is far larger than current investments.

With a few exceptions, vulnerable native mammals and birds in Australia and New Zealand remain nationalised assets external to the economy, and hence their continued existence is usually left to the government to manage and fund. Consequently, they remain a priceless yet commercially valueless asset managed by small bands of dedicated staff that are largely funded (inadequately) by governments.

New models are needed to address the problem. Micro­economic reform, economic liberalism and enhanced competition have led to improvements in telecommunications, transport, banking and biomedical science. Following the end of government ownership there have been major advances in efficiency and innovation in those sectors of the national economy. Such reforms have not yet been applied to the management of wildlife, which is still dominated by governments.

If a trial is successful, a new industry could be established that taps into a resource that is not being used efficiently. The lack of strong commercial incentives is unlikely to lead to the same levels of conservation of wildlife and habitats off-reserves that has occurred in southern Africa, but proprietorship coupled with altruism could to lead to improvements above the current 1% and larger numbers of animals spread more widely. It would build on the economic value that wildlife already has in some Australian jurisdictions in limited circumstances, such as in zoos and as pets. It would drive economic expansion and encourage innovation.

Ultimately, all that is required is to deregulate correctly and let the market establish itself. Governments would cease to be the sole proprietor of native wildlife, as is appropriate in a mixed economy.

George Wilson is Honorary Professor at The Australian National University’s Fenner School of Environment and Society, and the principal of Australian Wildlife Services.