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This continues the post on Tuesday on crocodile conservation

Last post I discussed why many conservation models of harvest were overly pessimistic. Conservation through sustainable use, could and did work. This post moves onto the poaching issue.

"…a future Hermes Bag?"

In the immediate post-war period, crocodiles in the North of Australia were heavily hunted. Harvest levels were in excess of financial considerations, because crocodiles were also regarded as a pest. That meant people still went out and shot them, even if their hunting costs exceeded the return on leather. The population of crocs shrank to about 5% of their pre-harvest levels.

In response to this, West Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland began to ban harvests to protect crocodile numbers. This wasn’t coordinated, so poaching occurred in some states that had banned hunts, and the skins smuggled into other states that had not.

The fear that a resumption in the skin-trade would lead to increased poaching again seemed realistic. The argument is easy to understand. Suppose we have a wildlife product, and there are two ways to obtain it. You could have someone poach it at presumably low cost (small boat, rifle, sharp knife) or you could ranch or farm it. Ranching and farming involves big expenses- pens to house the animals, food for the crocs, staff to manage the population.

On this basis, it seemed clear that poaching would remain more attractive than ranching crocodiles. One operation is very low cost, one operation has much higher costs.

The fallacy in the argument is one that is often employed. The fallacy is that wildlife products are homogenous. I have a suspicion this follows from many wildlife harvest models being based on fisheries models. Fish tends to be reduced to a standard price per unit weight. Terrestrial wildlife however, can vary greatly in quality. Hermes and other luxury producers don’t want poached leather. It’s low grade and has many flaws. Crocs living in the wildlife get their skin scratched and scarred. This destroys the value of their skin. Crocs on farms and ranches, are much higher quality. This gets around the cost issue.

In fact, wildlife products are often characterised by wide price-dispersion. Goliath butterflies in Papua New Guinea can vary in price from 1 kina to 30 kina. It’s all based on the quality of the specimen.

Poaching of crocodiles (for commercial gain) has been pretty much extinguished in Australia. The legal market has drowned the illegal market in a flood of high quality, high volume, uniform skins.