After a while trying to port standard economic models into conservation, I began to give up. I know that some people still try and maybe get some useful insights. But by and large it seemed like a fairly unproductive line of research.

There seems to be a peculiar combination of factors that define wildlife management. None of these are necessarily unique to wildlife economics, but the combination makes for some major obstacles.

First up, there’s just no meaningful data. For most wildlife, we know very little about their actual populations, distributions and how they change. This makes it hard to just transfer models over from forestry or fisheries. Effectively, we get surprised an awful lot. We thought India had 4000 tigers in early 2007. Six months later, that was down to 1400. Tigers are actually a species people put a lot of effort into trying to monitor. Most species have almost no resources allocated to monitoring. I recall one study DoC did on Kapiti Island to look at the impacts of pest eradication on invertebrate populations. The study simply divided the animals into ‘big’ and ‘small’ creepy-crawlies and was abandoned long before anything could be learned.

We’re still finding new species of vertebrates in rainforests, often of conservation concern. What makes things even messier, is that wild populations swing about a lot more than farmed. There aren’t the human managers trying to smooth things out. Birth and mortality rates are going to jump about.

Effectively any management model that tries to use a few of speculative data points is likely to be very unhelpful. What is of critical importance is our sheer ignorance of useful information about wildlife and the inevitable risk we will be surprised*.

In NZ we have been badly surprised by a couple of bird species. We used to think that the little spotted kiwi was doing okay with a robust, extant population on the West Coast. When we finally realised that population was gone, that left us with only 500 little spotted kiwis in all of NZ. Similarly the loss of the weka on the East Coast came as a surprise and meant the species was suddenly a lot more endangered. Sometimes we get good surprises- like the rediscovery of the takahe and taiko (both NZ birds that were thought to be extinct).

So ideally we need management approaches to wildlife that can cope with surprises. That may mean a more permissive approach to captive breeding. It almost certainly means don’t get locked into doing the same strategy. This is what is killing the tiger. For 30 years, we’ve been hoping the same strategy is suddenly going to start working. It also happened with the California Condor. Lock-in an in situ programme and watch the species decline, spurning all efforts to try out new ideas. Captive breeding of the condor was proposed back in the 1950s, but it took 30 years for it to be attempted.

In effect many models of wildlife management are actually quite demanding of data. This evades the big problem. The data isn’t there. We’re going to get surprised. How useful a model actually is comes down to its ability to incorporate surprises.


* Some canny economists may recognise the influence of G S Shackle here