Rarity, willingness to pay and conservation
Département de Biologie, Université de Sherbrooke, Sherbrooke, QC, Canada
Marco Festa-Bianchet, Département de Biologie, Université de Sherbrooke, Sherbrooke, QC, Canada, J1K 2R1
In standard economic theory, the price of goods, whether
low-fat hamburgers or trophy sheep, is expected to rise
when demand increases or supply diminishes. Standard eco-
nomic theory also assumes that consumers act rationally,
but that is another story. All else being equal, rare things
tend to be dearer than common things and in some cases,
rarity increases value. Conservation biology usually sees
rarity as a problem. Rare species, especially at small popu-
lation size, tend to have higher risk of extinction than
common species. When species become rare because of
human actions, community ecology may be altered and eco-
system services may diminish. For example, if a sport-
hunted species becomes rare, fewer individuals can be
sustainably harvested. If some people have a certain willing-
ness to pay to harvest that species, and prices are set by
markets, the lower supply should lead to an increase in
price. Within this framework, Palazy et al. (2012) seek to
understand whether rarity may lead to an anthropogenic
Allee effect (Courchamp et al., 2006) in the special case of
trophy-hunted species. They ﬁnd that once other variables
are controlled for, rarity does tend to increase the cost of
trophy hunts, although the effect is rather weak. That result
raises two questions: (1) Is this a problem? and (2) What
motivates people to hunt endangered species?
The relationship between rarity and willingness to pay
for a trophy hunt is not necessarily a problem for conser-
vation. First, let us agree on what we are talking about.
This is not a case of rich people wanting to kill pandas,
Arabian oryx or Sumatran rhinos. It is a case of people
willing to spend more to legally kill a markhor than an ibex,
a grizzly than a black bear or a sable antelope than a wilde-
beest. As long as quotas are ecologically and evolutionarily
sustainable, trophy hunting can be a part of a conservation
strategy for some endangered species, if some of the funds
generated are actually used to protect the species or its
habitat (Leader-Williams, Smith & Walpole, 2001). Herein
lies a problem: many hunts are trumpeted as ‘Conservation
Hunting’ (Freeman & Wenzel, 2006), but few are. Most
trophy hunts of ungulates are sustainable and produce rev-
enues for the guiding industry, but their impact on conser-
vation (if any) is not necessarily positive. One notable
exception is the markhor hunting program in the Torghar
area of Pakistan, a species which, interestingly, is largely
responsible for the positive effect of rarity on price in the
paper by Palazy et al. When the rarity–price relationship
leads to poaching or corruption in the issue of hunting
permits, then we clearly have a real problem, but that is
neither the subject of this discussion nor an issue on which
Palazy et al. provide information. I suggest that a much
more deleterious effect of rarity on conservation may be
found in luxury goods derived from wildlife, such as certain
foods (tuna, shark ﬁns and turtle eggs come to mind) or
status symbols (shatoosh, ivory and horned beetles are
If quotas are reduced to account for rarity, and price is
determined by supply and demand, rarity should lead to
higher trophy fees. The best way to maximize proﬁt would
be an auction, with permits sold to those with the highest
willingness to pay. Auctions of trophy hunts can be spec-
tacularly successful (Festa-Bianchet, 2003), but are rare.
Trophy fees may have a weak relationship with demand
because governments have a monopoly and may set fees
artiﬁcially low. Most proﬁts go to guiding companies, whose
willingness to reinvest in conservation would be an interest-
ing area of research. Palazy et al. (2012) suggest that high
trophy fees are evidence of high demand. As fees increase,
however, fewer trophy hunters can afford them. Many
hunters can spare $7000–10 000 to hunt an Asiatic ibex, but
very few would even consider spending $30 000–50 000 to
hunt an argali. High fees may be also driven by lower
supply. The data used in this paper are weakly related to the
actual cost to the hunter, because government-imposed
trophy fees are typically a fraction of what hunters pay. For
example in Canada, nonresident permits for trophy sheep
are typically a few hundred dollars, but guiding fees are in
the tens of thousands. In much of Europe, fees vary accord-
ing to the size of the horns or antlers of the animal taken.
Cultural, political and administrative differences between
countries make it very difﬁcult to compare the costs of
trophy hunts for different species. The method used by
Palazy et al. is an acceptable ﬁrst approximation, but a more
detailed economic analysis of the amounts that trophy
Animal Conservation. Print ISSN 1367-9430
12 Animal Conservation 15 (2012) 12–13 © 2012 The Author. Animal Conservation © 2012 The Zoological Society of London
hunters spend according to rarity and other factors is
Perhaps the most important question for conservation is
the motivation of trophy hunters. We may seek to discour-
age this activity if it was detrimental to conservation, simi-
larly to efforts to reduce overexploitation of several marine
species, or species used in luxury markets, by publicizing the
conservation consequences of overharvest and the availabil-
ity of alternative products. In the battle for public opinion
to affect consumer choices, trophy hunting is a powerful
tool: most people hate it, much more than they may dislike
other forms of hunting. A picture of an overweight middle-
aged white guy sitting on a bloody dead bear will attract a
lot more attention, emotion and donations than yet another
report on ﬁsh overharvest or on habitat destruction. On the
other hand, to include trophy hunting as part of a conser-
vation strategy (Leader-Williams et al., 2001), we may want
to know why anyone would willingly part with a small
fortune to kill a goat. Marketing may have a stronger effect
than rarity on the cost of a hunt. Many conservationists are
aware that hunting within pristine habitat, seeing wildlife
and contributing to conservation can be powerful motiva-
tors for many hunters. Others may want to exploit the
picture of the bloodied bear, as effectively done by animal
rights groups. So far, commercial interests, rather than con-
servationists, have most effectively used marketing to
extract money from hunters. Emphasis on the competitive,
‘mine is bigger than yours’ aspect of trophy hunting has
spawned the offer of ‘products’ such as artiﬁcially fed
animals with large ‘trophies’, hybrid oddities marketed as
novelty items and canned ‘hunts’ of semi-captive animals
(Knox, 2011). Search ‘Texas dall’ on Google to see some
successful marketing. Negative consequences for conserva-
tion include the introduction of exotics, genetic pollution,
disease transmission and predator extirpation. These prac-
tices also reinforce the negative perception of hunters by
much of the public, and make it harder to use trophy
hunting as a conservation tool. It is difﬁcult and controver-
sial to support killing animals to promote conservation
(Lindsey et al., 2006). The paper by Palazy et al. underlines
the need to clarify what ‘conservation hunting’ really means.
It cannot simply mean ‘sustainable’; it must involve meas-
urable and transparent beneﬁts to conservation.
I thank Wendy King and Rich Harris for comments. My
research on wildlife evolutionary ecology and conservation
is supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering
Research Council of Canada.
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M. Festa-Bianchet Rarity, willingness to pay and conservation
Animal Conservation 15 (2012) 12–13 © 2012 The Author. Animal Conservation © 2012 The Zoological Society of London 13