The intersection of commerce and conservation

If we want to conserve wildlife, maybe we need to eat it.” This is a surprising and provocative statement to my ears, but perfectly logical to Francis Vorhies, a Conservation Economist of more than three decades.

Having worked in multiple countries, from private enterprises to NGOs and international agencies including the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Francis has extensive experience in the field and knows a lot about the economics of caring for our planet.

Today, he shares his perspectives on conservation economics and how to get involved in this fascinating sector.

Originally from Chicago, USA, Francis’s perspectives stem from his student days at the University of Colorado where one of his professors, the British economist Kenneth Boulding, was a founder of ecological economics. As he recalls: “Professor Boulding talked about the factors of production very differently. He spoke about energy, know-how, and materials rather than land, labour, and capital.

With an urge to work in other parts of the world, Francis took a job at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. During this time, the country was in the last years of the apartheid system where the government ran everything “quite dysfunctionally.”

But the conservation sector was unexpectedly different, and this sparked his interest in how wildlife and conservation could be managed by private enterprise. As he describes, “I’d always assumed that national parks had to be managed by the government. But in South Africa, lots of conservation is provided by private individuals on a for-profit basis. And that got me really interested. I thought, if there’s a large demand for conservation, why does it have to be provided by the state and not a private enterprise?”

A common understanding

A significant challenge Francis believes holds back conservation is a clear understanding of what exactly conservation is all about. As he explains: “A lot of people think conservation focuses on protecting animals, habitat, and species. But if you look at the definitions that were developed over the last 40 years, they’re very different.”

He tells me that in 1980, the IUCN released the “World Conservation Strategy” which defined conservation as managing the biosphere for sustainable human benefit. Then in 1991 the sequel, “Caring for the Earth”, defined conservation as actions that make wildlife use sustainable.

However, the following year, conservation was separated from sustainable use with the launch of the “Convention on Biological Diversity”. This Convention set out three biodiversity objectives including conserving biodiversity and sustainably using the components of biodiversity. With this change in definition, conservation lost its more direct link to sustainable use as previously set out by IUCN.

Getting value from nature

Francis reasons that if, for example, people with land, don’t get value out of a species, then they will want to find alternative uses for their land. And instead, they will use their land to produce goods and services that benefit their families, communities, and people in general such as crops, livestock, housing, etc. And therefore, the whole rationale of sustainable use is to link people with wild species in a way in which we use them respectfully, inclusively, and sustainably, and in so doing conserve their habitats and associated ecosystems.

He shares this example. “There’s a goat farmer in the Rift Valley. An impala comes walking onto his farm and starts eating his grass. Now, the impala is a wild animal, and in Kenya, you’re not allowed to consume the wild impala, only the goat. The goat, he can milk, sell, eat and use the leather. He can’t do anything with the impala and so he will remove it. On his land, he has an economy with the goat and none with the impala.”

As he further explains: “There is no economy around wild animals. So if the impala is a lion, he’s going to eat your goat, so you get rid of him. If it’s an elephant, he is going to trash your whole farm, so you get rid of him. So what you see is a massive decline in wildlife in Kenya since they banned the consumptive use of wild animals in the seventies.”

In other words, he believes that if we put the wild back into our food system, then we will put the wild back into the landscape. “That’s why the economist in me says, if we want to save animals, we need to eat them. It’s sort of realizing that the human benefit is necessary to conserve nature,” he adds.

Credit: Monika via Pixabay.

Legal frameworks

Francis argues that the current system needs to change with transparent and legal frameworks to support sustainable wildlife trade. “Right now, when it’s underground and trade is illegal, then you’ve got problems with health and safety, not just for the animal, but for the consumer as well. So why not make the industry legal and use certification standards to assure sustainability?”

The intersection of commerce and conservation

Francis’s extensive career has seen him working on various CBD COPs (the most high-level international meetings at which biodiversity is discussed) since the second one in 1995, supporting policy on economic incentives including financing mechanisms.

He once set up a consultancy firm to provide ecological and economic guidance to clients including national parks and mining companies. He has worked on multi-billion-dollar energy projects and worked in the NGO sector. He joined the African Wildlife Foundation in Nairobi, as the first economist at an NGO in Africa, ‘as far as he knows’. And as he modestly mentions, “I ended up getting hired at IUCN headquarters and moved up there in 1995 as their first economist.”

When I ask him what a typical month looks like these days, the list is substantial. In brief, it includes running the African Wildlife Economy Institute at Stellenbosch University, working on various reports from non-tariff barriers for inter-African trade in wild meat, a report for the European Investment Bank,  a substantial review of the diverse ways in which funding can be raised for conservation, reviewing a nickel mine’s processes to check if they have a robust biodiversity management plan and traveling of course.

Career Switchers

While Francis’s career has always been in conservation, I ask him if a more ‘typical economist’ could switch to the conservation sector. He wholeheartedly agrees. “Skillsets like economics, you could apply to a topic like conservation easier than people like biologists trying to figure out the economics or legal aspects of conservation, because they aren’t trained in the discipline.”

But he warns it can be difficult. “I think people can and should move across, but it’s hard to do because the conservation sector can feel like a closed shop. It has this presumption that if you’re not a scientist then you don’t naturally belong in conservation,” he adds.

The economics of our planet

And after all these years, does he still enjoy what he does? “Yeah, it’s fun,” he smiles. “I mean, it’s really easy to be an economist and talk about banks and what have you, but to look at the economics of our living planet, that’s a lot of fun.”  

“And it does make you think outside the box,” he says. “Conservation is not just about putting up a fence and stopping poachers. It’s about trying to turn the poachers into harvesters, taking the fence down, and living in a connected way with the planet.”  

If you’ve been inspired by Francis’s story and want to switch your career towards making a difference for nature, read our Top Conservation Careers Advice for Career Switchers.

If you’re interested in becoming a conservation economist, check out our role profile, Conservation Economist: Putting a value on nature.


Author Profile | Marie Conroy

Marie is a communications professional from Ireland. She is a keen traveller, loves sailing and exploring the natural world, taking lots of wildlife photos along the way. Her dream is to enable conservation projects by combining her skills in communications and passion for writing, with her lifelong love for nature.

Interviews, Economist