Living Costs

The $300,000 Madison River bobcat, by Neal Herbert, via Yellowstone National Park.

After writing last week’s post about small cats, I remembered a Washington Post article from last year about bobcats. Specifically, one particular bobcat that brings in over $308,000 USD for Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding area every year. The bobcat in question goes about its life on the banks of the Madison River while tourists, photographers, and wildlife enthusiasts pay entrance and accommodation fees, buy equipment and supplies, and hire guides or sign up for tours. Bobcats aren’t endangered, but they’re highly elusive and getting to see one is a big deal. However, bobcat hunting and trapping (for fur) is legal in much of the US. Bobcat pelts can sell for as much as $1,000 apiece if they’re of the highest quality, but more often are in the hundreds range – a far cry from the $300,000+ of the Madison River bobcat.

"Out of the Dust" by  R.J. Walter .

"Out of the Dust" by R.J. Walter.

Killing an animal for profit – say, an African elephant for its tusks – may seem like a lucrative option. Elephant ivory can be worth over $2,000 per kilo, and poachers average $21,000 per elephant. However, that money benefits only one or a few, and is a one-time thing. To keep earning income in this way, the poacher must keep killing elephants (leading to elephant population declines like we’ve seen over the last several decades). It’s not sustainable. A single living African elephant, on the other hand, is worth around $23,000 per year through ecotourism. That’s not much more than the price of the dead elephant’s ivory, and it’s spread throughout local businesses. But that’s in one year. African elephants can live more than 70 years, which means that over the course of its lifetime, a single elephant can contribute more than $1.6 million to the local economy – just by going about its daily life. A few years ago, researchers from the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust calculated that recently seized illegal shipments of ivory from 1,940 elephants was worth a total of $37 million. But according to the study, had those 1,940 elephants not been poached, they would have brought in an estimated $44.5 million in ecotourism, plus there would be more elephants in the future for sustainable income. In addition to all this, now that ivory is banned in China (formerly where most of the world’s ivory was sold), ivory prices have dropped down to around $500 per kilo, making the gulf between the cost of dead elephants and living elephants even greater.

Manta rays may be huge and bizarre-looking, but they're harmless to humans and popular with divers. Image by Bartek.cieslak.

These scenarios are some of many where a dead animal may be worth some money, but a live animal can bring in a disproportionately higher amount. Many iconic land mammals – including lions, tigers, bears, wolves, gorillas, and on and on – are somewhat valuable dead, and extremely valuable alive. This is also seen over and over again with all sorts of marine species like sea turtles, whales, tropical reef fish, and (unexpectedly) giant sea bass. Perhaps the best-known examples of marine species that are worth more alive than dead are sharks and manta rays. As we’ve discussed previously, sharks have been seriously screwed over by pop culture and their populations have plummeted. But through recreational diving and other forms of marine ecotourism, live sharks are worth about 200 times more than dead sharks. In Florida alone, shark diving generated $221 million and supported over 3,700 jobs in 2016. And Indonesia recently switched from being a major source of fished manta rays to establishing the world’s largest manta ray sanctuary upon realizing that a living ray is a staggering 2,000 times more valuable than a dead one. Manta rays are hunted for their gill plates for Traditional Chinese Medicine (another “medicine” that doesn’t actually do anything helpful and might be toxic), so a dead one runs from $40-500. But these gentle giants’ popularity with divers means that people will pay a lot of money for manta ray ecotourism – to the point where a single live manta ray can be worth $1 million.

Seems to me that conserving these animals is pretty well worth it.