Unintended Consequences meet Tragedy of the Commons

by on November 13, 2007 at 7:20 am in Economics, Science | Permalink

A decade ago, the saiga antelope seemed so secure that conservationists
fighting to save the rhino from poaching suggested using saiga horn in
traditional Chinese medicines as a substitute for rhino horn.

Research commissioned by WWF at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in the
late 1980s found it to be as effective as rhino horn in fighting fevers, and in
1991 WWF began a campaign in Hong Kong to publicise it as an alternative. The
following year, the UN Environment Programme appointed WWF ecologist Esmond
Bradley Martin as its "special envoy" to persuade pharmacists across Asia to
adopt saiga horn (New Scientist print edition, 9 March 1991 and 3 October

And the result?

In 1993, over a million saiga antelopes roamed the steppes of Russia and
Kazakhstan. Today, fewer than 30,000 remain, most of them females. So many males
have been shot for their horns, which are exported to China to be used in
traditional fever cures, that the antelope may not be able to recover

The tragedy here is that diversion would have been a good idea had the WWF understood some economics – for diversion to work you must divert to a privately owned resource. 

Hat tip to MetaFilter.

1 Emil November 13, 2007 at 7:44 am

how come nobody is raising Saiga antelopes in farms, then ?

I heard they have tiger farms in China, also to be slaughtered for traditional medicines, and more tigers in those farms than there are in the wild …


2 Alan Coffey November 13, 2007 at 7:56 am

“how come nobody is raising Saiga antelopes in farms, then ? ”

Why bother when all you have to do is go shoot em? Thus, the point about a private source.

3 TimW November 13, 2007 at 10:47 am

I would very much like to see WWF called to account for its wasting of money. Generally I thought the organisation was merely ineffective. This is direct evidence of its negative influence.

If there was a prize for stupid NGOs – would WWF be in the running? Which others I wonder?


4 David Zetland November 13, 2007 at 11:08 am

If Chinese toy makers got into the medicine business, lots of tigers, rhinos and antelopes would be safe. Why is there NOT a bigger counterfeit/black market in these medicines? That’s an interesting, institutional question….

5 ptk November 13, 2007 at 2:27 pm

as gary becker taught at uofc – there are no such things as unintended consequences…only long run and short run consequences.

it pains very heavily to see economists use such a term, especially as it gets used around political issues. it seems to indicate that no level of intellectual riguour could have foreseen such an occurrence when rather the cause is temporal preferences or, in the case of politics, demagoguery.

6 John Kunze November 13, 2007 at 3:52 pm

Lawyer’s vocal cords are good substitutes for saiga horns.

7 doctorpat November 13, 2007 at 8:49 pm

The point about “unintended consequences” is that they should not be obvious.

Encourage mass shooting of an antelope -> antelope becomes endangered.

Any 5 year old could have predicted that.

Introduce stricter laws for credit to poor people -> poor people have less access to credit.

Drive all the [Zimbabwe] farmers off their land -> less food is grown.

This isn’t difficult stuff, if this is “unintended” then the person is retarded. More likely it is perfectly intended, but the short term politics means you do it anyway.

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