There’s actually not really any sub-discipline in biology or economics recognised as ‘wildlife economics’. Over time, I’ve tried being an environmental economist, or a bioeconomist, or an ecological economist. But none of these really had an overlap with the sorts of problems I was thinking about. So in the end, I decided that I was a wildlife economist, even if nobody knows what it means.

One of the reasons- is that a lot of the economics literature on market failure- or the conservation literature on optimal extinction- really only agree on one thing. This claim is that under certain conditions, a free market won’t conserve wildlife.

Now while that may get some heads nodding sagely, the reality is that most wildlife management doesn’t occur in any markets. There’s a few game animals, and a few wildlife farms. But for 99.99999%* of the species on this planet, there is no market-based management.

When your chief insight does not cover more than some tiny fraction of a percent of the wildlife we try to manage, you’re not claiming much more than nothing. That’s not a good basis for thinking about wildlife problems.

Most wildlife is either in some legal sense ‘unowned’, or it is ‘owned’ by the state (and managed by government authorities) or it is ‘owned’ by communities (and managed by them- like the titi harvests in NZ). By and large, we’d have to say that we’re not doing all that well. Biodiversity is being lost at a fairly significant rate.

In this sense, market failure is a very uninteresting problem with wildlife, while government failure is a lot more interesting. Paradoxically we say very little about government failure in conservation, and often conservationists fight hard to prevent market mechanisms being employed.

So when I talk about wildlife economics, I’m basically striving to describe the real and actual problems attached to wildlife management. I’m going to be arguing, that starting from very abstract and simplified models that don’t describe the problem at hand, we haven’t produced the guidance we actually need.

So to start with, wildlife economics is about the menu of problems we actually face when trying to conserve biodiversity.


* Most complex species are actually arthropods- insects, spiders etc and lower plants. That’s before we start thinking about the micro-organisms. I don’t actually know what percentage of species depend on markets for their management, but with say 6-10m insect species alone, it’s not going to be a big percentage.