Ecological Economics tours South Africa: The 2014-2015 Study Tour

For the first time ever, Ecological Economics has taken its study tour to South Africa!

In conjunction with African Insights, we spent 8 days exploring the intersection of conservation finances, ecological economics, community-based management, and wildlife conservation (inclusive of a very interesting debate contrasting sustainable use with a European/North American preservationist approach). For the first time in a long time, we also did all this while camping in tents (see photos above)!

For the first half of the study tour, most of our activities and discussions focused on South African models of community-based management, the impact and legacy of Apartheid for community conservation, and the importance of the paradigm of sustainable use to those models of community conservation.

As a part of this portion of the study tour, we spent some time exploring the idea of creating a legal market for rhino horn.  As you can see from the choice of topic for the students’ post, this particular issue struck a chord with the group, and so we’ve followed up on it a little more here too.

The idea of legalising the trade in rhino horn is a contested idea that has become particularly important domestically within South Africa as well as internationally over the last couple of years (e.g. see articles from, Scientific American, the Guardian,, Le Monde diplomatique, The Guardian, and Kruger Park as just a few examples illustrating this point).

The idea of creating a market for rhino horn implies a wide range of important questions for the Ecological Economist, not the least of which are as follows: What would be the distributional impacts engendered by such a market wherein the entry costs are bound to be nontrivial? How can this be balanced against the rapidly escalating threat (of extinction) generated by poaching? These questions are especially relevant considering the existing distribution of wealth, and on-going land reform/redistribution in South Africa. 

Although not the only potential approach to addressing the illegal trade in rhino horn, the prospect of using a regulated market solution to empower communities and conserve rhinos is certainly an intriguing one to explore, especially given that it does appear to be clear that the existing preservationist approaches are not currently succeeding in controlling the poaching (see the students’ post to links on articles discussing the current, rapid escalation of rhino horn poaching). It will certainly be interesting to see whether or not (and how) South Africa implements a rhino horn market in the future (not to mention what the consequences actually are if it does).

Another related theme we covered was the pursuit of sustainable use practices (inclusive of subsistence hunting, commercial hunting, harvesting, grazing, etc.), in contrast to models of conservation where people and communities are excluded from ecosystems more completely.  This approach appears to be, in many ways, in line with what environmental historians (amongst others) have long argued: firstly that humans are apart of, not apart from, nature, and secondly that the concept of “pristine” wilderness is more a reflection of the social context that envelops a particular patch of nature than it is a reflection of a particular ecological truth.

It is true that the local communities do not live, for example, in Somkhanda Game Reserve. However, they pursued the designation of the land as being conservation land voluntarily and in recognition not that the land represented pristine wilderness, and not because a narrative of land being untouched by humans was important, but rather that the land represented an opportunity to provide reliable financial benefits to local people.  The management of the reserve also recognizes that efforts are being made to restore the area to a particular state not because that state represents ultimate (climax) pristine wilderness (with wilderness being the primarily end goal), but because that particular ecological state constitutes a particular ecosystem of which humans are fond and that humans want to ensure continues to exist.

It was fascinating to discuss the economics of concepts like conservation and sustainability in the context of particular places that made no pretence (at least in the present) at either philosophically excluding humans from nature or claiming pristine wilderness.  Issues of financial solvency in relation to conservation efforts were prevalent in our discussions within this theme, as were issues of qualifications, tourism, distribution, justice, trust, and cohesion (with respect to the particular models of community management observed).

Overall, the time spent in South Africa was thought provoking and enlightening.  The team at African Insights did a great job arranging, accommodating, and facilitating our exploration of these topics. We look forward to looking at these issues in more depth in the future. Thanks for reading, and be sure to check out both the photos from the trip (above) the student blog that follows!

Student Blog: The Ecological Economics Study Tour in South Africa – Student Reflections

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