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One of the main problem ecologists and economists seem to get so frustrated with wildlife problems is where they begin.

In ecology, you tend to generate some pretty neat ecological models and everything that people do, ends up in a little box. This box is called disturbances. You generate some policy advice to the government, who for the most part, won’t implement these policies.

In economics, you start with goods that occupy well-defined markets, with secure property rights, with people already knowing why something is valuable. Now, in the course of modeling environmental problems you loosen these assumptions a bit. But there’s often no getting around the fact that a well-defined market is a convenient starting point.

What this all tends to miss, is the whole social, political and economic structures decisions about wildlife get made in. There is a very simple idea that there’s really only two players. There’s the government, a kind of virtuous generator of optimal policies to fix problems, and a bunch of private agents, all after a quick buck.

Once you actually start dealing with actual policy generation, then you realise that’s lot of different players. First, a lot of people who work for governments are pretty indifferent to wildlife management and not all averse to getting a quick buck (or not putting in any effort). Scientists can often agree that a policy is needed, but getting agreement on what that policy is, can be tough. The Federal Government in Australia was getting two contested policy options from scientists on crocodiles. And the options were mutually exclusive. You can’t reopen international trade and maintain a trade ban at the same time.

Governmental conservation organisations are still largely dominated by mammal and bird people. And that means a lot more funding ends up being channeled to charismatic species rather than those most in need. Tigers get money, but gharials don’t.

Then there’s the environmental NGOs. These are big players in conservation. They put a lot of money into conservation reserves and programmes in developing countries. They even acquire and manage reserves. These have become big, multinational, fund-raising organisations. With that size comes influence. NGO’s are able to influence the direction of conservation policies in many parts of the world.

What is so fascinating about this, is that there is so little research on the role of these NGOs. I think it is an important issue. We do need to know why big NGO’s are mad keen to save minke whales from whaling, but opt not to try to save the Chinese baiji. We need to know why a top predator like the tiger gets money thrown at it frantically, while another top predator- the gharial- languishes.

Then you also have local communities and other wildlife users. They’re another interested party to conservation policy. And we do know that regulations that end up shifting the cost of conservation measures on to them, tend not to be very successful. One of the problems with tigers is it doesn’t matter how many laws we pass to protect tigers. If local people get all the costs and risks of living next to 1/4 ton carnivores, then this is a setup that will only lead to less carnivores.

So my perspective is that this wildlife economics differs from say conservation or economics in terms of the direction. Rather than taking a small number of elegant, deductively correct and simplified models as the base, we look at the messy interaction that is actually happening. We end up by looking at the evidence, rather than trying to get the evidence to fit a narrow range of theories.