Why Turkeys Are an Endangered Species
The truth is, turkeys are not an endangered species. If they were endangered and fell under Appendix 1 of the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), their trade would be forbidden and grocery stores could not sell them. Around 17% of the world turkey production is exported (see also the data from the USDA). Why aren’t turkeys disappearing since more than 800 million of them are eaten every year in the world? To ask this question is to start understanding the misrepresentation in CITES.
The Economist used to understand the problem. The March 6, 2018 issue explained (“Trade Bans and Conservation: Call of the Wild”):
The obvious economic explanation is that the over-exploitation of animals and plants is an example of the “tragedy of the commons”. If no one owns the wildlife or the land on which it lives, the behaviour that is individually rational—poaching, clearing land and so forth—may be collective folly. Trade ban or no trade ban, without enforceable property rights, the underlying tragedy remains.
As recently as 2016, the magazine gave a glimpse at the private solutions of production and trade. Breeding rhinos was legal in South Africa but trading the ivory of their horns was not. The magazine reported:
John Hume, who owns 1,410 rhinos—more than any other private owner in the world—has five tonnes of horn stockpiled that he is not allowed to sell. He wants to be able to make money from his valuable property, and deter poachers, by cutting and selling their horns (which grow back, like hair and nails). “I breed and protect rhinos. That’s what I do. And I think that’s what we need to do to save them,” he says.
In the Economist‘s issue of August 10, 2019 (“How to Curb the Trade in Endangered Species”), however, private solutions are mostly invisible. The magazine argues for more repression of illegal trade to preserve animals like elephants, African grey parrots, etc.
CITES protects 669 species and 33 subspecies of animals from extinction, including 155 species and 8 subspecies of birds.
Why aren’t non-protected turkeys not threatened with extinction? We can estimate that more than 400,000,000 of them are alive at any time in the world. The reason they continue to be produced is that private producers can own them and sell them. Otherwise, turkeys would go the route of elephants and parrots, which only non-profit organizations have an incentive to own—but a weak incentive since they can’t make profits. If they were “protected,” turkeys would need protection against poachers in government parks. Private property and trade, two related freedoms, ensure that turkeys as a species are not threatened, because some consumers demand them and there is money to be made in satisfying that demand.
Another example: on the one hand, you can buy unprotected ducks at Whole Foods; on the other hand, the four subspecies of ducks protected by CITES always threaten to disappear.
Except for possible cases of animals wanted by literally no one, animals are not protected because they are endangered, they are endangered because they protected, that is, because they cannot be privately owned, produced, and traded in response to consumer demand.
In this area as in others, collective and political solutions are inefficient. Individual and corporate solutions based on private property and freedom of exchange need to be considered, even if lots of busybodies would lose their government jobs. Busybodies alas are not an endangered species.