Some Australian environmentalists are proposing that endangered animals be leased to private landowners and enterprises as a way to raise money for conservation efforts. ©LilyRose97, flickr

Allowing wildlife—a public resource—to be transferred into the hands of private operations isn’t a new idea. Many U.S. states allow the practice to generate income in economically stressed areas.

Now, however, some Australian conservationists are proposing the same concept, only not just for prey animals, prized for supplying hunting opportunities. This time, the plan is to privatize conservation itself. The strategy being put forward is that the government should start leasing koalas—and all native animals at risk of extinction—to private citizens.

In a paper published in the journal Conservation Letters in October 2016, lead author Dr. George R. Wilson, an adjunct professor at the Fenner School of Environment and Society at Australian National University in Canberra, suggests an experiment in which certain populations of endangered species would be moved from public areas where they’re threatened and relocated to privately held lands with suitable habitats, such as business-owned game reserves, golf courses or a stewardship group’s property. Those landholders would be allowed to use those animals—as long as they protect them—in ecotourism endeavors.

Australia has a unique and beautiful ecology. Unfortunately, it has experienced far too many animal extinctions. ©Lenny K Photography, flickr

When applied to endangered animals, could this concept help save them from extinction? Or, is it dangerous one for the health of wildlife species?

Private sector saviors

The Australian government lists 55 birds, fish, frogs, mammals and other animals as having gone extinct in the nation, with another 446 species designated as critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable or conservation dependent. The country is home to almost half of the mammalian extinctions of the modern era—the worst extinction record for any nation in the world.

In his paper, Dr. Wilson argues that rather than being the sole managers of wildlife, the government should switch to regulating leasehold arrangements and any animal-welfare issues. Government wildlife breeders would then be able to provide and rent animals to private entrepreneurs, investors, landholders and philanthropists, who could breed them, establish new colonies and sell their surplus animals to backers of new colonies, thus making a profit from their efforts to increase the animals’ numbers. The koala, he says, is one animal that could be made available for assisted recolonization, by being rented out to places such as golf courses that have suitable trees and that would provide protection from dogs. Other animals that are candidates for such a program include Eastern barred bandicoots, bettongs, bilbies, brush-tailed rock-wallabies, Eastern quolls, numbats and Tasmanian devils.

In Australia, koala-related tourism generates at least $1.1 billion per year. ©Wayne Butterworth, flickr

The idea has legs. Ecotourism is a big business in Australia: according to the country’s Department of the Environment and Energy, nature-based tourism attracts 3.3 million foreign visitors and contributes $23 billion to the Australian economy annually. Koala-related tourism alone accounts for at least $1.1 billion per year.

So, by allowing private landowners to make money from wildlife tourism, or by selling or leasing individual animals to private citizens to start or grow their own group of endangered species, there would be an economic as well as an ecologic incentive to increase the numbers of endangered individuals.

Perils of wildlife privatization

There are similar enterprises in the United States. For example, according to Animal Rentals, a licensed, USDA-certified business located in Chicago, Illinois, “Our hundred-plus years of experience in connecting people and animals has taught us that people want to help animals they care about, and they care more about animals that they meet, touch and personally interact with than animals they only get to see in pictures, videos or behind bars at a zoo. Animal Rentals’ main mission is to educate people about our world’s animals and help them care enough about those animals to protect and save them. Making our human friends and our exotic animal friends happy by bringing them together is a truly outstanding benefit of that mission.”

Tourists will pay money to get close to wildlife, such as Tasmanian devils, now found in the wild only in the state of Tasmania. ©Gopal Vijayaraghavan, flickr

There are those, however, who are distrustful that private operations would be better wildlife managers than the government. Some such enterprises—such as traveling zoos or school-program presenters—must, by virtue of their businesses, subject animals to the stress of transport, alien environments and crowds of strangers. Mishandling by novices and irregular feeding and watering are also dangers of taking wildlife out on the road or keeping wild animals by private concerns. There’s a lot of potential for animals to suffer when used to make profits. There are dangers for humans, too; primates, tigers and other animals that have been used as props in photo shoots have mauled children and adults, and countless people have been sickened—or have died—after contracting diseases from wild animals in private hands.

Back in Australia, however, Dr. Wilson states that building partnerships with private sector institutions is going to be essential. In spite of some discomfort with the idea of leasing endangered species, he believes the plan is still worth a try. The status quo isn’t working, and new models are needed to reverse the nation’s dismal extinction trend. Less costly, cost-neutral or even profitable arrangements with private organizations are going to be necessary to encourage individuals and businesses to invest in the conservation of wildlife.

Do you agree with Dr. Wilson? Should conservation itself be privatized in certain instances to help raise money for conservation efforts?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,