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Can economics prevent animal poaching?

UQ people
Published 4 Sep, 2020  ·  3 minute read

A knowledge of behavioural economics can have application in far-reaching situations.

Using economic theory to aid conservation efforts may seem counterintuitive on face value. After all, isn’t free commerce diametrically opposed to the idea of conserving nature?

That’s one of the notions UQ’s Dr David Smerdon is eager to dispel.

“The last few decades have seen a behavioural revolution in economics,” says Dr Smerdon.

“By merging classical models with behavioural and psychological theories, modern economics can be used to tackle wicked problems as diverse as social injustice, climate change, and even the poaching of endangered animals.

“Behavioural economics has risen to the fore in the past 20 years with a couple of Nobel Prizes being awarded to those championing the field.

“Traditional economic analysis was based more on computer modelling and stringent concepts, whereas now we consider psychology – morphing together psychological factors with economic principles.”

A case in point is reconsidering how conservationists deter poachers from killing or trafficking animals, and stop them from profiteering from the illegal trade of commodities that place flora and fauna in danger. Dr Smerdon raises the case of elephant poachers and the struggle by authorities to meaningfully counter the abhorrent practice.

“Some governments currently deal with poachers by seizing the ivory and burning it, basically as a statement that the behaviour is unacceptable and to ensure the ivory isn’t traded,” he says.

“However, not only does this fail to deter the poachers and traders, it can actually end up encouraging them. Once the market knows there is less ivory available for trade, dealers can raise their price when talking to potential buyers. This makes poaching more attractive, because the higher profit margins encourage more people to partake in the trade.

“The thing is, that just increasing the punishments may be difficult or prohibitively expensive to enforce or simply not be credible enough to deter people willing to be involved in the ivory trade, so the government needs to think of other alternatives.

“What if the government stored the seized ivory instead of burning it and threatened to sell it at a later date to crash the market? Not only would the sale of state-held ivory cause the prices to plummet, you could also use the revenue for conservation efforts.”

Aside from the ivory trade, many other contentious and topical industries could benefit from applying behavioural economics, whether that be in trading bodily organs and illegal substances, or even legislation around prostitution.

Thinking outside the box to tackle problems that have persisted through time is definitely an element that is strongly encouraged.

Graduate Catherine Nguyen, who is now working for the Australian Bureau of Statistics, acknowledges that solutions to problems are not always what seem right on first inspection. By addressing the financial motivations for behaviour, rather than purely moral motivations, you can completely transform situations.

“Even if you’re wanting to fight for the world on climate change – encouraging populations to act more sustainably is about influencing behaviour and attitudes by understanding incentives,” says Ms Nguyen.

“Whether it’s using hard data or more personalised behavioural statistics, if you change the incentives for the choices people need to make, their behaviour will shift too.”

Change your thinking for the better with a Bachelor of Economics at UQ.

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